A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Liamps

Hampi

India photos

Hampi was by far the most inconveniently located destination I travelled to in India. Yet rerouting my itinerary to incorporate this remote backpacker haven delivered one of the absolute highlights of my trip (rivalling the Spiti Valley). And to think originally I had no intentions of visiting! Hampi is famed for its vast collection of ancient Hindu monuments strewn across a beguiling landscape of boulders, scrub and paddy fields. The traffic and pollution free environs of the area exude peacefulness and rural tranquility; qualities sorely absent throughout India. Utterly exhausted by Indian cities, I was lured into stretching an intended two day stop into a five day stay in Hampi; a refreshing “holiday from a holiday”.

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Before arriving at my paradisiacal destination, predictably I had to suffer through a series of frustrating and classic India experiences. Immediately after disembarking my train in Hospete, I was swarmed by taxi drivers eager to secure my business for a 100 rupees ($2) ride to Hampi. Most of them backed off when I insisted I was taking the 15 rupees bus to Hampi (mainly because I can't stand taxi drivers, not because I'm a stinge!). However, one turdcake stalked me for 10 minutes in his taxi as I walked to the bus stand, begging I hop in for continuously reducing rates. He eventually concluded I was a lost cause and drove up to an Irish guy 50 metres ahead, proceeding to harass him with equal earnest. When the two of us arrived at the bus stand, a teenage boy (usually the most annoying demographic of hasslers) pestered us for the duration of our 30 minute wait. With immense satisfaction, I outlasted the nagging and boarded the Hampi bound bus!

Onboard I met Australian Cody and American Gabriel, who were on break from volunteering at an organisation supporting the Sufi (Muslim) community in Delhi. Cody expressed moderate antipathy towards his homeland (with agreeable justifications), partly explaining his 3.5 years absence with no imminent plans of returning. Meanwhile, Gabriel, an affable native of Florida and insufferable patriot, overtly admonished the supposedly unsurpassed virtues of his homeland. Obviously though, Gabriel was exhibiting rather superb self-deprecating humour, because no one with a modicum of intelligence could believe in the greatness of a country ravished with guns, without universal healthcare, and that elects a xenophobic, misogynistic and imbecilic clown to be their leader. Oh... I suppose Australia dabbled with the latter in 2013... but I digress!

Like most other backpackers, the three of us planned to stay on the other side of the river from Hampi village. Since there are no bridges nearby, we were required to cross by boat. The extortionate boatman demanded we pay more than twice the regular rate for the 30 second journey, because he deemed it to be "early morning" (9:15AM – perhaps indicative as to why the economic development of India is a long way behind China's). Along with Israeli Orr, we chose to wait until 10:00AM when the regular price of 20 rupees kicked in, saving us 30 rupees. We bided our time by spending 30 rupees on breakfast and chai masala, and watching a holy elephant named Laxmi bath in the river.

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Considering the ordeal with the boatman, staying on the opposite side of the river from the famed temples of Hampi seemed somewhat illogical. But my doubts immediately evaporated when we ascended the river banks and arrived in Virupapur Gadde. The one-road village features a long row of humble guesthouses and restaurants, which overlook the river on one side and emerald green paddy fields shaded by palm trees on the other. The village’s tropical setting is contrasted sharply by enormous mounds of ochre boulders that rise bizarrely from the otherwise flat landscape. We chose to stay just outside Virupapur Gadde at the Goan Corner, a beautiful precinct of thatched huts and spacious outdoor communal areas with surprisingly good food for a hostel (it even had a wood-fired pizza oven and tandoori oven (unusual in South India)). The charismatic owner opened the hostel 17 years ago after migrating from Goa, where she had divorced her first husband (very controversial still in India). Goan Corner is now easily Hampi’s most popular backpacker hangout, despite no website, no presence on Hostelworld or Booking.com and no listing in Lonely Planet. The owner cheekily announced she trades purely on word-of-mouth, which clearly works; I was recommended Goan Corner by several people throughout India.

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Unfortunately, Goan Corner and every other guesthouse and restaurant in Virupapur Gadde will be obliterated by the corrupt state government within the next year. The government has announced that the land within a five kilometre radius of the main cluster of temples is now forms an “archaeological zone”. Consequently, the guesthouses and restaurants of Virupapur Gadde, mostly operated by low-income families, will be demolished as they occupy illegal structures. The government’s intention is supposedly to protect the World Heritage listed edifices; but such a noble gesture would be completely out of character for Indian bureaucracy. The government’s disdain for backpacker tourism, which they consider “cheap” and “dirty”, and lust for the financial windfall of luxury tourism more likely explains their actions. Many locals believe that several years after the demolitions occur, suddenly five-star hotels and exclusive shops will pop up where Virupapur Gadde once existed, filling the Minister of Planning’s coffers while rendering the villagers homeless and their businesses crushed. Bloody India.

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After checking in at Goan Corner, Cody, Gabriel and I opted to explore the surrounding area on foot. What was supposed to be a short and pleasant amble to a lake soon became an arduous and seemingly endless expedition under the blazing South Indian sun, thanks to the deception of unofficial signs and Google Maps. While Cody and Gabriel engaged in a riveting conversation about the merits of accountancy, I absorbed the thoroughly unIndian-like serenity of the countryside. We passed herds of goats and water buffalo grazing in the paddy fields, some of which were vividly green while others were parched or completely burnt. We walked through tiny villages where the children ran out to the road, asked for photographs and begged for pens and chocolate (because apparently that’s what white people always carry with them, even in 35 degrees heat!). We briefly stopped at an isolated restaurant and chatted with a dreadlocked Brit. For the past 20 years, he had returned to Hampi annually for six months, utterly captivated by the boulder landscape. For weeks at a time, he would tramp through the wilderness on his own and scale boulders; he contended the only thing necessary to survive is a reliable water source. True hippy, such a rare breed. We eventually arrived at the lake, which was actually just a reservoir, and were confronted with unlikely warning signs about the presence of crocodiles (bullshit). By this stage though, we were more concerned with reaching a recommended guesthouse for lunch. Although virtually in the middle of no where, we encountered a couple of Indian men chillin’ randomly beside some boulders. Obviously they just happened to have a boat we could hire to get to our intended target. Politely declining, we continued on our way, expecting to arrive by foot any minute. An hour later, we finally arrived at the guesthouse and, unimpressed, walked straight past to the next one. After a very late lunch, we were faced with the same, exhausting journey back since very few vehicles passed us throughout the day. Yet just at our moment of need, a Swiss hippy (authentic- two in a day!) pulled up and gave us a ride back to Goan Corner.

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The following day, I returned to the south side of the river to explore Hampi’s iconic monuments. Hampi was formerly the capital of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire, which dominated South India in the 14th-16th centuries. The city supported a population of more 500,000 at its peak, making it the second largest in the world after Beijing. The city was sacked by a confederation of Muslim Sultanates in 1565, terminating the glory years of the empire and leaving the city in ruins. The surviving fragments of this medieval metropolis are now populated by monkeys and scattered throughout a vast, naturalistic area of boulder mounds, dry scrub and paddy fields. The constituent attractions are located several kilometres apart, which made for a very long day of crisscrossing Hampi in stifling weather. I first visited the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi’s bazaar area, which is easily the most accessible and distinguishing building. The temple complex features three entrance towers (the highest of which is over 50 metres) that lead to a series of courtyards and an inner sanctuary brimming with sculpture of Hindu mythology. I then walked east along the river for 45 minutes, stopping occasionally to admire small temples on its banks and the quirky, half-spherical boats made from reeds that plied its waters. I eventually arrived at Vittala Temple, Hampi’s most famous attraction. The Vijayanagara’s mastery of Hindu sculpture is exhibited in the highly ornate halls within the temple complex, which are decorated with depictions of gods, warriors and animals. The focal point of Vittala Temple is the magnificent stone chariot in the courtyard of the complex, which is dedicated to Garuda (a humanoid bird that serves as Lord Vishnu’s mount). I visited several other structures throughout the day with an unsolicited companion, including the former royal elephant stables and palatial enclosures. I have to admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by Hampi’s monuments and glad I condensed exploring them into one day. I guess I was expecting Angkor Wat-scale grandeur, but it fell markedly short.

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The next day I ventured aimlessly into the remarkable boulder-strewn landscape with Australian Erin and British Dave. With two Melbournians present, conversation was obviously dominated by food for the duration of the day, to the chagrin of Dave (not that you could expect a Brit to engage passionately in a culinary conversation). Since there were no tracks, we simply ambled across, over and around the boulder mounds, hoping to conquer a summit. We weren’t entirely successful in such endeavours, because thick, thorny bushes usually blocked our paths just before reaching the mounds’ zeniths. We hoped to spot the elusive leopards or other intriguing creatures that inhabit the area (the landscape reminded me very much of Spitzkoppe in Namibia actually, where I spotted an African wildcat), but instead only encountered tourists with mattresses on their back. Hampi is reputedly the best place in the world for bouldering, a sport I had never heard of, and thus attracts aficionados from all of the world who come to scale its innumerable boulders. The mattresses are obviously intended to provide a safe landing if they fall (in the right place).

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We attempted to discover a crossing of the river to circumvent the widely loathed boatman. We found the remains of an ancient bridge, with just the pillars used to support the upper deck surviving. Nevertheless, for the next half hour we crossed the reed-filled river by hopping from one crashed pillar to the next. Upon reaching solid, dry ground, we thought the mission was accomplished. But just like George W Bush, our assessment was premature. We climbed up a slight rise in the landscape and noticed one final, fast-flowing channel, with a width of ten metres and no fallen pillars. We cautiously began crossing the river, but sheepishly opted not to risk our precious electronics and turned back dejected!

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Since Goan Corner was inundated by American tourists (an uncommon occurrence on the backpacker circuit) on the fourth Thursday of November, celebrating their cherished Thanksgiving holiday was an obligatory experience. Australian Cody thoughtfully arranged for the hostel to prepare a shared banquet that all guests, regardless of nationality, could participate in. Apparently adhering to a Thanksgiving tradition, New Yorker Marieke traced hand-turkeys for every attendee. We were required to decorate the turkeys, write down what we’re thankful for and then share our thoughts with the group. Predictably, the 30 plus Americans and Europeans took the activity very seriously and described heartfelt messages of gratitude (with the exception of Gabriel, who brashly venerated the capitalism, freedom and liberty of his country), while the handful of Australians simply took the piss out of it.

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A mass exodus from Goan Corner occurred on my last day in Hampi as we all travelled in different directions within the state of Karnataka. I boarded an overnight bus for Gokarna, a small town by the Arabian Sea which is touted as a quieter alternative to Goa further north. I was dropped off at 4:30AM in the poorly-lit, ghost-like town because I refused to pay an extra 100 rupees ($2) to be driven 6 kilometres further to the beachside guesthouses. I was the only person not to cave-in to the bus company’s disgusting extortion (it was already an expensive ticket and they only announced the extra surcharge once we had boarded), which I’m rather proud of. However, for 15 minutes of walking aimlessly in the darkness, I was concerned made an unwise and unsafe decision. However, I soon discovered a bustling tea house near the bus stand (which is not where I was dropped off!) and retreated there for the next few hours. My experiences that morning were basically the most enthralling aspect of my time in Gokarna. The beach I stayed at (Om Beach) was pleasant enough; clean (rare for Asia) with unassuming guesthouses set amid tropical gardens and free of the neon-lit, overdevelopment that usually define South Asian beaches. But the atmosphere was rather dull (mainly couples and big Israeli groups) and the water unremarkable (appropriate for neither surfing nor snorkelling). The beach is festooned with signs warning against swimming because of treacherous currents and they feature explicit photographs of people that drowned in the water. Two people died at a neighbouring beach during my stay. Yet from my Australian perspective, the water was very tame. I think the high fatality rate must be because most Indian tourists have never seen the sea and don’t know how to swim properly in the sea.

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While I wasn’t particularly enthralled by its constituent attraction, the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire’s capital, Hampi was nevertheless one of my favourite destinations in India. A combination of an excellent hostel, great company, intriguing landscape and perhaps above all, the reprieve from Indian traffic, hassling and pollution, made for a lovely five days in this soon-to-vanish paradise.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 16:58 Archived in India Comments (0)

Bangalore and Mysore

India photos

The moment I spotted a beef sandwich outside the arrival hall of Bangalore International Airport, I knew I was going to enjoy my three weeks in South India. While I wasn’t craving beef exactly, the sandwich represented my unequivocal departure (escape) from the backwardness of North India. No more would I be subjected to the region’s stifling restrictions and intransigence based on obsolete cultural attitudes (and in this case selective compassion); I was now in a society of relatively modern, laid-back and liberal values. [Admittedly, the slaughter and consumption of cattle for pleasure isn’t exactly the most progressive or humane practice, but its certainly more civilised than leaving such idiotic creatures to wander around crowded city streets in search of plastic rubbish and dung for sustenance]. Indeed, I soon discovered that South India is extraordinarily different to North India, as contrasting as the Mediterranean countries are to Scandinavia.

South India constitutes the five states at the tip of the Subcontinent’s “V” where Dravidian cultures and languages dominate. The state boundaries are loosely defined by the geographic coverages of each of the four major Dravidian languages: Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada, which are relatively similar to each other (like French, Italian and Spanish). Crucially, absolutely no correlations exist between the Dravidian languages of South India and the Indo-Aryan languages (which includes Hindi, Punjabi and Bengali) of North India. To appreciate this insane dichotomy, imagine living in a city where English is the common tongue, but the national language is different. Not a related or familiar language, like German, but something utterly alien and indecipherable, like Chinese. That’s the reality of India, where native speakers of the minority Dravidian languages usually cannot understand the language of the federal government. The term “minority” though is grossly misleading, since each Dravidian language boasts 50-80 million speakers! The linguistic diversity of India is incomprehensible and totally incomparable to any other country.

I’m flabbergasted to declare this in relation to India, but I consider Bangalore to be a “liveable city” even for a pampered Western gentleman such as myself. While I’m not suggesting any intentions of a permanent relocation, if I was forced into choosing a new home in India, Bangalore would definitely be my target. Bangalore reminded me somewhat of Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur: oases of modernity in Asia where Oriental exoticisms and tropical conditions fuse magnificently with the comforts of Westernisation. Bangalore is a megapolis of more than 10 million people, yet the overwhelming crowds, hassling, rubbish and lawless driving endemic in North Indian cities are thankfully absent. Pedestrians are afforded the luxury of footpaths, while motorists even slow down to allow people to cross the road safely! The streets are pleasantly shaded by trees with glorious canopies, and green spaces with manicured lawns and gardens breath life into the dense neighbourhoods. Bangalore is a hive of Western consumeristic activity where credit cards are widely accepted (a god-send during the cash crisis) and iconic elite brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani provide familiar and strangely reassuring aesthetics to the streetscapes (despite not being stores I would typically frequent!).

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Bangalore is a magnet for India’s brightest and most ambitious talent, drawn to the so-called “Silicon Valley of India” to engage in the country’s booming tech industry. Consequently, the city rivals Bombay as India’s most progressive and cosmopolitan centre and its enthralling culinary scene and nightlife reflect this reality. While in Rajasthan, I was advised by two Bangaloreans that the only worthwhile touristic pursuits in the city are eating and drinking. The former is obviously my favourite pastime, while the later was rarely attended to in North India (unintentional). I caught up with Bhagya on my first night in Bangalore and ventured to one of the city’s celebrated microbreweries, along with several of her lovely and very generous friends. I was amazed to find myself in a chic industrial pub serving quality German beers on tap, as if I had just stepped into a Melbourne, London or New York establishment. Toit brewpub was absolutely packed with Indians drinking pints of weiss beer and pale ale, which was most unusual after the standard scene in North India of locals swigging whisky outside a grungy “English Beer and Wine Shop” (I never deduced the reason for the name). I visited more gastropubs the next day, enjoying the break from bland Kingfisher lager and sampling trendy dishes (rustic classics with modern twists, like panko-crumbed fish and chips with sirarcha infused aioli) for the novelty of it in India.

Something I love about contemporary Asian cities like Bangalore are the hidden pockets of traditional culture surviving within jungles of concrete and modern commercialism. Bangalore’s Krishna Rajendra Market certainly fits this bill. The market thrives with locals shopping for tropical fruits, vegetables, Indian cookware and, most notably, flowers. The basement level of the market complex is completely devoted to the wholesale trade of flowers and banana leaves. The unsuspecting tourist is blinded by the resultantly vivid cacophony of colours emanating from this glorious space existing in the shadows of a gritty metropolis. Many vendors feature piles and piles of a single variety of flower strewn on their raised, tile storefronts. Customers buy the flowers literally by the shovel load. The flowers are used for devotional purposes at (usually Hindu) temples and elsewhere. Several aisles sell exclusively flower garlands, which are assembled every day by remarkably skilful and hard-working men (I never spotted a woman undertaking this task, which would be construed as “feminine” in the West). Exploring this basement maze of flower shops was incredibly enjoyable, apparently for both the vendors and I. Most people were genuinely beaming at my presence and were eager to chat and have their photographs taken. One elderly gentleman even gave me one of his roses. It was a completely useless present that obviously ended up in the bin very quickly; but it’s always the thought that counts!

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I travelled to the nearby city of Mysore, yet another amiable South Indian destination. While Bangalore represents the modern, aspirational face of India, Mysore is regarded as the cultural capital of their shared state of Karnataka. Mysore was ruled by the Hindu Wodeyar dynasty for more than six centuries and developed into the region’s foremost city. The dynasty's eventual alliance with the British Empire transformed its urban layout and architectural composition. The colonial legacy is easily identifiable in the city’s atypical Indian character: wide boulevards, footpaths (!), roundabouts with ornamental rotundas and statues, Victorian-era buildings, and above all, a profound sense of space. Consequently, Mysore has the vibe of a provincial town rather than a city of more than a million people; perhaps somewhat like Adelaide. The city’s solitary attraction of notoriety is Mysore Palace, a Word Heritage listed edifice which fuses South Indian, Mughal and Victorian-era architectural styles (an example of Orientalism). The enormous building was constructed at the turn of the century and externally looks somewhat like a European palace, aside from its open-air nature (catering to the tropical climate) and Oriental decorative motifs. Inside though, the building features a series of whimsically designed halls and rooms, with gold and teal dominating as the colours of choice. On Sunday evening for 45 minutes every week, Mysore Palace is magnificently illuminated by 97,000 light bulbs. It was at this rare spectacle that I bumped into British Hattie and Susanna, who I met in Udaipur. This would commence an almost daily occurrence in South India of encountering people I met earlier in my trip.

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In a country of more than a billion people, one must expect tremendous variation between regional cuisines. While this is indeed true for India, generally every culinary offering in the country falls into two umbrella categories: North Indian and South Indian. In North India, dairy products like ghee, butter, cream and butter milk are employed liberally in the preparation of thick gravy curries and heavy accompanying breads. In South India though, coconut oil is preferred for food preparation and rice, rather than bread, is the foremost staple. South Indian curries are lighter, runnier and probably healthier than their Northern counterparts; I certainly thought they were easier to stomach multiple times a day long-term. Andhra cuisine is particularly popular throughout South India; the food hailing from the region’s least tourist state but culinary epicentre. Andhra restaurants typically specialise in banana leaf thalis (hence the demand for banana leaves at the market) and biriyani. The all-you-can-eat thalis ($2-3) feature mounds of rice piled onto banana leaves and served with 3-4 simple vegetable curries, sambar (lentil-based broth), raita (yoghurt dip), rasam (a broth made from tamarind juice and spices), pickled lime, papadums and cardamom-infused rice pudding. A selection of chilli condiments are always available on the table, including fried chillies, chilli paste and a spicy peanut crumb, which added much needed spice (I found food in India was surprisingly not that spicy). Patrons can then order meat or fish “side dishes” to the meal, as South Indians are thankfully more liberal about eating animal flesh than their Northern counterparts. Biriyani is long-grained rice cooked in meat broth and served with meat and vegetables. A “vegetarian” Biriyani is an oxymoron, so never order one because it will taste shit.

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Bangalore and Mysore totally reinvigorated my enthusiasm for travelling in India, which made me somewhat disappointed in the realisation I had less than three weeks to explore the Deep South. However, I think if I visited Bangalore at the start of my trip, I would have been underwhelmed and eager to move on to the “real India”. But for those who have spent an extended period in India, Bangalore is fascinating to visit to see the modern face of the country; as much a part of “real India” as any other city.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 20:16 Archived in India Comments (0)

Varanasi

India photos

Fear not readership! The barrages of negativity plaguing recent blog entries about India, which prompted some Globo Trip aficionados to blasphemously question my ongoing passion for travel, have concluded! My last four weeks in the country were overwhelmingly positive, almost entirely absent of the travails characterising early stages of the trip. Perhaps I became desensitised to India’s problems, or simply amused by its ridiculousness, though escaping to the country’s deep south was most likely the primary impetus for my improved mood. First however I travelled to Varanasi, inconveniently located in the north-east but an absolute must-visit for any self-respecting itinerary in India. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, the holiest city in Hinduism and India’s crematory capital. Varanasi is essentially an experiential destination, a place to observe the continuing customs of India’s rich culture rather than gawk at historical monuments; which is probably why I preferred Varanasi to Agra and any Rajasthani city.

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Varanasi has a notorious reputation on the backpacker circuit as a love-it-or-hate-it destination, admired for its fascinating cultural and religious heritage while simultaneously scorned for its abhorrent pollution, suffocating traffic and intolerable hassling. While each of these characterisations are partially true of Varanasi, I thought the city’s undesirable qualities were rather tame by Indian standards. I was perhaps fortunate to arrive in the immediate aftermath of a major annual festival, which had instigated a massive cleanup of the city. Consequently, I had a rather pleasant time in Varanasi, soaking up its distinctly unique charm and ambiance in the absence of rampant filth. I also stayed at one of my favourite hostels of the trip (Stops Hostel), a factor which always had a major impact on my enjoyment of an Indian destination (more so than in other countries).

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Varanasi has formed haphazardly for several kilometres along the Ganges, India’s mightiest river and the focal point of Varanasi life. On the western bank of the Ganges is the old city, while directly opposite on the eastern bank is a totally undeveloped floodplain of pastures and grazing water buffalo. This bizarre contrast is best appreciated from Varanasi’s iconic ghats, which are embankments of stone steps aligning the Ganges where locals socialise, perform rituals and wash clothes. The urban layout of the old city is rather similar to the Gold Coast: a long, thin stretch of densely compacted buildings sandwiched between a waterfront and a primary road of literally standstill traffic. The key difference though is the old city’s almost unnavigable maze of infinitesimally narrow and atmospheric alleys, which hide pocket-sized cult-favourites like Blue Lassi (pomegranate pistachio anyone?) and numerous establishments owned by Western expats (I recognised an American woman I saw on television 10 years ago!). Unfortunately, the architectural composition of the old city is rather disappointing; a ramshackle mismatch of dilapidated buildings from recent centuries, which belies the momentous historical and cultural significance of Varanasi.

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The identity of Varanasi is explicitly intwined with the River Ganges, the lifeblood of North India. The Ganges begins its 2,525 kilometre journey in the Indian Himalaya and subsequently crosses the northern Gangetic Plain. It finally empties into the Bay of Bengal with the third largest discharge of any river in the world. The Ganges and its associated river system are critically important for the agriculture that sustains hundreds of millions of people. Unsurprisingly, the Ganges is considered sacred by Hindus and worshipped as the goddess Ganga. Throughout the river’s length, Hindus bath in its waters as they believe the Ganges will purify them of sin (reminds me of the Christian cop-out of Penance). In Varanasi every evening, elaborate prayer ceremonies occur on the ghats where performers garbed in orange and gold twirl fire to rather irritating music. Devotees light candles and place them on the water of the Ganges to float peacefully away in the evening darkness. Despite its auspicious status, the Ganges is one of the most polluted and degraded rivers in the world; demonstrative of the hypocrisy of Indian culture.

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Varanasi is internationally famous for the cremations that are conducted openly at Marnikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. Hindus believe that if their ashes are scattered into the Ganges at Varanasi within 24 hours of dying, salvation from the perpetual cycles of reincarnation will be achieved instantly. Consequently, numerous hospices align the Ganges accommodating those with terminal illnesses (like palliative care). For those who die away from Varanasi, relatives must transport the body to the city within 24 hours of dying, or cremate the body elsewhere and scatter the ashes in the Ganges at a later point in time (although the chances of salvation are reduced). “Untouchables” (people who are lower than the lowest caste in India’s social structure) are responsible for the dirty work of performing the cremations. They carry bodies embalmed in cloth through the narrow alleys of the old city (quite a galling sight!) to the Ganges, where they are placed on pyres. The “chief mourner” (usually the eldest son) dressed in white circumambulates the body five times to represent the five elements, sprinkles Ganges water over the body and then sets the pyre alight. Around 360 kilograms of wood is required to burn a body, which is prohibitively expensive for poorer families. It takes more than three hours for a body to burn, although the hip and rib bones do not completely decompose. The Untouchable gather the remnant bones and ashes and scatter them in the Ganges. Since cremations are conducted continuously 24/7, these ghats are rather filthy and attract hordes of scavanger goats, cows and dogs.

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One delightful surprise I had in Varanasi was the realisation I could fly directly to South India and skip the taxing journey to the megalopolis of Calcutta. Booking said flight probably heightened my mood in Varanasi in the knowledge I would be leaving stressful North India imminently for an entirely new region. Despite my complaints, travelling in North India was a wild rollercoaster ride thoroughly worth boarding. After all, I can now say I have seen the Himalayas, the Ganges, the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple, Pakistan, a temple devoted to rats and a cow pissing in the middle of a Hindu ceremony.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 22:48 Archived in India Comments (0)

Agra and Gwalior

India photos

I have to be honest, India is undoubtedly the most exhausting and difficult country I have ever travelled to. I’ve never felt such a burning desire to escape a country I was visiting, nor developed such antipathy for its society. Its really quite an extraordinary state of mind to be in, considering every second day in India delivers a remarkable experience. The needlessly relentless honking, the complete absence of footpaths, the total disregard for pedestrian safety, the stenches of urine, the animal cruelty (aside from the bizarre veneration of cows), the piles of rubbish and shit (mainly from the cows), the haggling for tips and donations by priests and monks, the outrageous injustices of the caste system, the bureaucracy of buying train tickets and the unnavigable stations, the incessant staring, the hands that go suspiciously astray, the generally unhelpful locals (not all) and the constant calls of “hello my friend!” from random hawkers; they all add up to an overwhelming sense of frustration. But two things in particular irritate me about India: the treatment of tourists and the stupid money crisis gripping the entire country and ruining many people’s holidays!

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Since foreigners take significant risk in travelling to India and plough huge amounts of money into the economy, I don’t think its too much to ask for the government to provide easy-to-find, objective tourist information offices at key transport junctions. When such offices do exist, they are usually hidden on station platforms or down side streets, while fake tourist offices designed purely to trick and rip-off tourists are permitted to operate nearby. The lack of English signage in touristic areas (like major train stations!) is extremely insensitive to our vulnerability and incomprehensible in a country where English is actually widely understood by the general populace. At train stations, ticket officers expect us to somehow discern the bewilderingly complex boards written in Hindi to determine the name, number and time of the train we desire. While they may offer some assistance, we’re still required to fill out a form while they recite the details to us; a needlessly convoluted layer of bureaucracy symptomatic of Indian society. I’ve found Indians in general (I must strongly emphasis “in general”) to be rather unhelpful and gruff, often brushing off my pleas for assistance dismissively as if I have outrageously interrupted their demanding work endeavours of sitting and staring into the abyss. India has the potential to become a tourism powerhouse, yet the intransigence of governmental services and the (general) unfriendliness of the locals means the country is clearly out-performed by its Southeast Asian competitors.

The ninth of November 2016 will forever be remembered as the day Western civilisation trashed its principles of liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy with Donald Trump’s despicable “win” (despite millions more people voting for Hillary). For those of us in India that day, it will also be remembered vividly as the start of a ludicrous cash crisis. Overnight, the Indian government announced that all 500 rupees ($10) and 1,000 rupees ($20) notes were no longer useable, invalidating 85% of currency in circulation instantly. India has severe problems with fake currency and collecting taxation in a cash-dominated society, which this dramatic course of action was intended to address. Personally though, I did not give a shit about these issues and was instead aggrieved by the immense inconvenience the decree caused. The government announced that banks would close for two days while ATMs were stocked with new 500 rupees and 2,000 rupees notes. But this is a country where the literal translation of its national name is incompetency. Predictably, the smattering of ATMs that did open over the next few days only dispensed old 100 rupees notes, which quickly dried up by mobs of desperate locals and tourists. Queues lasting for one hour were considered fortuitously short… to withdraw just 2,000 rupees ($40). I was incensed that foreigners could only withdraw the same amount as locals, even though our cost-of-living is so much higher. We don’t own houses in India, kitchens to prepare food in, local knowledge of fare prices in the markets or private vehicles; we must pay for accommodation, restaurant food and transport daily and almost always in cash. Like most other backpackers, for about a week I was forced to roughly halve my daily calorie intake, walk for several kilometres with heavy luggage on chaotic Indian roads (rather than pay a dollar for a tuk-tuk) and forego visiting places in the simple absence of cash. Insultingly, we were still charged foreign entrance fees to major attractions, sometimes TWENTY times what locals paid and up to half our daily ATM allowance!

After about eight days, the tremendously inconvenient 2,000 rupees notes starting trickling into circulation, which relieved the queues somewhat. The cash crisis is ongoing and approaching one month as I write this entry, though unofficial word on the street is that it will take seven months to completely resolve. The government was grossly unprepared for their plan, having failed to print and distribute sufficient currency. Astonishingly though, the Indian public have overwhelmingly supported the policy and Prime Minister Nahendra Modi, who seems to enjoy blind adulation from his people. In advanced countries like Australia, Germany, Great Britain and the US, such tremendous incompetency would surely precipitate the downfall of a government.

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While not the absolute worst place to endure the cash crisis, Agra was still a terrible city to travel to in the absence of money. The sole purpose of visiting this industrial hub was to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, which have the two most expensive entrance tickets of all historical attractions throughout India. Depressingly, I sacrificed almost all my precious cash on entrance tickets and skipped meals as I focused specifically on the reason for my visit. It was probably helpful I had food poisoning on my first night in Agra, because the experience certainly dampened my subsequent appetite. While I disagreed with the usual characterisation of Agra as a wretched city of rampant poverty, squalor and pollution, it was certainly a rather boring and ugly destination in the absence of heritage buildings and colourful bazaars.

Agra Fort is virtually the only component of the functional old city still in existence, though its certainly a fabulous compound of structures. The Fort was constructed by the Mughals, a clan originating from Afghanistan, and became the capital of an empire that dominated the entire Subcontinent. The Mughals were the first dynasty to achieve hegemonic rule over India in nearly 2,000 years, largely because of its policy for religious tolerance. Since Agra Fort was an imperial and Islamic capital, its architecture is quite different to Rajasthani forts, which were the seats of mere Hindu kings. The symmetry of its opulent palatial buildings and beautifully manicured Persian gardens are characteristic of the Fort, as is its immense red sandstone walls.

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The Taj Mahal thoroughly deserves its status as the most famous singular building on the face of the Earth – yet I was rather nonplussed. I think lifelong overexposure to images of the Taj Mahal (combined with a foul mood!) muted my ability to be amazed by the wonder. While the Taj is staggeringly beautiful in its perfect proportions, immensity and exquisite details, the building’s appearance was of course exactly as I expected. And viewing the Taj with countless hordes of other tourists obviously stifled the intended romanticism of Shahjahan’s masterpiece. The Mughal emperor constructed the white marble mausoleum in honour of his favourite wife, after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. The Taj Mahal is therefore perhaps the ultimate expression of love, which from my perspective is a fairly boring justification for its construction (certainly in comparison with the Great Wall’s purpose of protecting China from marauding Mongols and the Coliseum satisfying the blood-thirsty Roman need for gladiatorial battles). I visited the Taj in the late afternoon and was rewarded with brilliant blue skies and a pleasant sunset. Coinciding my trip to Agra with the full moon, I also purchased an additional ticket for a special night viewing of the Taj under moonlight. While the scene was somewhat underwhelming, it was still pleasant to view the Taj with only 20 other people in the compound.

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The difficulty of obtaining tickets on the incredibly popular Agra to Varanasi train route compelled me to travel to Gwalior first in order to reach Hinduism’s holiest city. I arrived in the late morning, permitting ample time to visit the city’s World Heritage listed fort (yet another) before my evening departure. After feasting on tandoori chicken, naan and lassi at a hotel that joyfully accepted credit card, ending an 18 hour fast, I walked the length of Gwalior to reach the fort. Shaped similar to a spear, Gwalior Fort occupies a narrow ridge that spans several kilometres and its fortification walls provide spectacular views over the colourful neighbourhoods. It was here that hordes of locals requested photographs with this tall, strange looking white specimen. Throughout India, foreigners are made to feel like celebrities as locals desperately try to take selfies with them. Admirably, I usually grant their wishes; though it depends on my patience. The people seemed to be especially inquisitive in Gwalior, so I assume the city is unfrequented by tourists. Gwalior Fort’s most distinguishing structure is a palatial complex oddly festooned with yellow and blue tiles depicting ducks in water on the facades. At this point, I was most certainly unable to afford the lofty foreigner entrance ticket, so I was left to admire the ducks as locals walked passed and inside the building. I also observed two remarkably beautiful stone Hindu temples from their perimeters and may have angrily ranted to some of the security guards about the unfairness of the situation.

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I should clarify that this negatively toned entry was predominately written while I was still travelling in North India; at the height of the cash crisis, in the aftermath of an episode of food-poisoning and while I was simply exhausted from incessant traffic, hassling and pollution. I’m now travelling in South India, which I’m exonerating from all aforementioned criticisms because its an unutterably different region to the North. But there’s still Varanasi to discuss before we venture southward...

That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 13:49 Archived in India Comments (0)

Jaipur and Pushkar

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I concluded my Rajasthani tour in probably the state’s two most touristic destinations: Jaipur and Pushkar. Jaipur is one corner of the overhyped “Golden Triangle”, a triumvirate of charmless, dusty and congested cities that harbour some of India’s most iconic buildings. While considered to be the gateway of Rajasthan, Jaipur is often derisively scorned by backpackers as wholly underwhelming and entirely skippable. Alas, I visited Jaipur purely because I was biding time for the Pushkar Camel Fair... and to attend the city’s famed Lassiwala. Pushkar, a small town even by Australian standards, was brimming with tourists attending the Camel Fair. My imaginations of a festival of exotic splendour were sadly misplaced, as rampant animal cruelty was instead the defining attribute. Fortunately though, the company of British Hermione in Jaipur and British Lotti in Pushkar facilitated an enjoyable final week in the Land of Kings.

Hermione pretentiously opted to skip the backpacker scene and stay in a luxurious hotel in Jaipur, replete with its own silver and silk shops. Rather than meet in a more convenient location (like my hostel), I was routinely summoned to her aristocratic abode before venturing into the mayhem of Jaipur. Nevertheless, this bubble of Western comfort was a pleasant refuge from Jaipur’s hellish streets choking from interminable traffic and stenches of urine (characteristic of all Indian cities but particularly noticeable in Jaipur). Jaipur is a sprawling mass of concrete urbanity within the merciless aridity of the North Indian plains. The centre is also frustratingly expansive, with the hotel cluster and transport hubs located several kilometres from the “Pink City” (historic zone). Utterly incomparable with the charm of other grand Rajasthani centres, the Pink City is simply a grid of sterile, monotonous buildings painted in a colour more similar to ochre than pink. While the crowds of tourists and touts creates a lively atmosphere, the presence of heavy, flowing traffic (enabled by the grid layout) prevents the area from feeling like a typically enchanting bazaar district. Nevertheless, Jaipur is probably the best shopping destination for purchasing traditional Indian textiles and handicrafts; shame that’s not my thing.

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Jaipur’s constituent attraction is actually located in a separate village 11 kilometres to the north. Predating Jaipur by centuries, Amer Fort was the original centre of regional power and remains one of Rajasthan’s most visually arresting sights long after its strategic importance faded. Defended by several robust fortification walls, Amer sprawls imposingly across a steep slope and evokes the golden-brownish hues of the surrounding landscape. The interior architecture is a fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal (Islamic) influences, the latter of which is particularly evident in the symmetrical Persian gardens.

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The entrance ticket of 500 rupees adheres to the Indian government’s policy of ripping foreigners off, so Hermione intended to forego entering the fort. However, I decided to try purchasing two student tickets at the more reasonable cost of 100 rupees each with just my student card. My first attempt was unsuccessful, as the turd-cake behind the counter gesticulated angrily that I specifically needed two cards for the privilege of paying 5 times the local price rather than 25 times. Incensed by his rudeness, I chose to spite him and join the queue for his adjacent colleague. After indicating I needed two cards, the man accepted my excuse that Hermione and her (nonexistent) card were not nearby and sold me two tickets. It was tremendously gratifying to finally reverse the roles and rip India off for a change!

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Jaipur was established in the early 18th century by the Raja of Amer, Jai Singh II, to accommodate the population growth and increasing water scarcity of his existing capital. The relative modernity of Jaipur and the scientific approach Jai Singh adopted for the design thus explains why the Pink City has a noticeably unIndian formation: planned, rigid and with a dearth of intriguing, organic architecture. To honour the visit of Edward VII (as Crown Prince) in 1876, the entire city was painted pink; the colour denoting hospitality in Hindu culture. Buildings in the historic zone have maintained the pink colour (compelled by law), no doubt to achieve a semblance of pleasantness in the city. The Hawa Mahal is easily the most beautiful structure in the Pink City, a multi-level building formerly used by the women of the court to safely view the street life of Jaipur. The Hawa Mahal features terraces on each level and a unique honeycomb façade. Neighbouring Jantar Mantar is a World Heritage precinct of megalithic instruments that were used to take astronomical measurements (using now debunked methods). The precinct’s purpose reflects the importance of cosmology to Hinduism and the value Jai Singh placed in scientific endeavour. Unfortunately, comprehending how each instrument actually functioned required listening to an audio-guide with overly complicated narration scattered with lame jokes; severely challenging my attention span.

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Pushkar is considered to be one of the seven holy cities of India and certainly the epicentre of Hinduism in the state of Rajasthan. Despite its auspicious status, the town is astonishingly small with only 15,000 inhabitants. Its neighbourhoods are clustered around Pushkar Lake, the focal point for religious activity in the town. The lake is completely surrounded by “ghats”, which are concrete steps that lead down to the water’s edge of holy lakes or rivers. Photography is prohibited around Pushkar Lake, which is strictly enforced during the day (although I managed to sneak a couple – I decided not to bother respecting such rules since Indians were shamelessly photographing me all the time) but strangely ignored from dusk onwards when puja (prayers) occur on the ghats. The puja ceremonies basically featured chubby men dressed in bright orange garb chanting the same nasal tune for an hour and waving a large candleholder above the water. The highlight of the first puja I watched was the totally random and sudden appearance of a cow galloping toward the group of priests. The cow stopped very close to the group and, right at the climax of the ceremony, begin pissing on the ghats. Classic. That cow really has superb timing on stage.

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The layout of Pushkar is defined by one primary thoroughfare tracing the circumference of the lake. The thoroughfare is somewhat pedestrianised (although occasional murderous motorcyclists do blaze through the crowds) and lined with innumerable textiles and handicraft stores. The hassling is surprisingly and thankfully restrained, giving Pushkar a much more enjoyable vibe than Jaipur. Pushkar is dotted with dozens of Hindu temples, which in North India are rather disappointing architecturally. The temple compounds usually feature small, omni-coloured sanctuaries housing orange-painted and tinfoil-decorated depictions of the deity the temples are dedicated to. My dormitory in Pushkar was an open-air rooftop garden, completely exposed to the evening coldness and noises from the festival. Yet somehow I slept remarkably well in the circumstances.

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The opportunity to witness mystics, snake-charmers, horse dancing and particularly a sea of 50,000 camels compelled me to attend the Pushkar Camel Fair in early November, which was the only set date I committed to on my trip to India. Unfortunately though, the Fair was also the greatest disappointment of my trip to India. There just wasn’t much to see or do. Once you’ve seen one grassless paddock crammed with camels, you’ve seen them all. And once you’ve seen hundreds of camels treated viciously by their owners, its quite difficult to return in the knowledge there is nothing you can do to change their habits. Lotti admirably questioned the need for their cruelty, and also the sexist nature of some of the Fair’s events, but it always fell on deaf ears. We saw countless camels standing on just three legs, because one of their front legs were tied up to prevent them from moving. We saw camels with their two front legs tied together and whipped mercilessly by their owners as they trained the camels to walk on their two front knees. We saw horses forced by their owners to perform graceless “dances” in stunned terror of the crowds mobbing them. And repeatedly we saw camels with decrepit scars from the abuse they endured. I think many Western tourists were shocked and ashamed at what we witnessed. The locals attempt to hide the gruesome reality of their treatment by festooning their animals in colourful Rajasthani garb, and I suppose that must be sufficient to placate the Indian tourists. Meanwhile, Pushkar is a strictly vegetarian city. What a bunch of hypocrites.

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Indians have a knack for intensifying the unhealthiness of dishes already detrimental to human well-being. For example, adding thick dollops of butter to the top of creamy lassis, scrambling paneer in more butter than the cheese itself and soaking buttery roti in even more butter are probably not recommended by conventional nutritionists. The Indian obsession for snacking on fried goods also exemplifies their disregard for nutritional eating. On virtually every corner throughout North India, men deep-fry samosas and pakoras over piping-hot cauldrons of oil. Pakoras are basically just slices of vegetables or a chickpea flour mixture coated in a masala batter and fried until crispy. In Rajasthan, kachoris are also available. Kachoris are basically disc-shaped pies filled with a rich onion mixture and fried not once, not twice, but three times to maximise the crunch of the batter.

Jaipur poorly reflects the majesty of Rajasthan and its status as one of India’s premium tourist destinations is utterly undeserved. While Amer Fort is impressive, I personally don’t believe it matches the stunning location of Jaisalmer Fort, domineering presence of Mehrangarh Fort or interior opulence of Agra Fort. While the Camel Fair didn’t exactly meet expectations (although I did see a cobra charmed!), Pushkar is still a lovely small town with fascinating religious customs.

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That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 15:09 Archived in India Comments (0)

Udaipur

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Never mock the value of a holiday from a holiday, especially while travelling in a country such as India. As everyone knows, backpacking is obviously one of the most physically, mentally and emotionally draining lifestyles in existence, so a dose of ‘R n R’ is a necessary antidote to traveller’s fatigue. Reflecting this principle, I broke my typically demanding sightseeing routine and spent four days chilling out in Udaipur, a veritable oasis of calm and tranquility within a land of chaos and pollution. The White City is dreamily free of the dust, dilapidation and destitution endemic in other North Indian cities, while the hassling, traffic and honking are relatively tame. While touristy, Udaipur was certainly my favourite of Rajasthan’s colourful royal capitals.

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I stayed at Bunkyard Hostel in Udaipur, which was my favourite accommodation in North India. The hostel featured lovely open balconies on each of its five levels overlooking Udaipur’s iconic Pichola Lake. The terraced rooftop was my favourite hangout, as it boasted surely the most spectacular view in the city. I met a fantastic bunch of people at Bunkyard, including British Hermione who I later travelled with in Kerala. Before you ask, her last name is not Granger (I’d like to congratulate myself for not trifling her with this inane question).

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The serenity of Udaipur’s lakes and the beauty of its waterfront villas and palaces are reminiscent more so of the Mediterranean than North India. Clustered around the lakes are winding streets of whitewashed buildings with almost Venetian-style facades bordering the water. Udaipur’s City Palace is one of India’s largest and contradictory to other Rajasthani forts for emphasising opulence rather than defence. Along with other palaces converted into uber expensive hotels, it directly fronts Pichola Lake and dominates Udaipur’s skyline. The city is refreshingly green, heavily vegetated and surrounded by hills, a distinctly unRajasthani appearance. Udaipur doesn’t boast a staggering ensemble of tourist attractions, its just a pleasant city to amble around.

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I intentionally coincided my visit to Udaipur with the biggest event on the Hindu calendar, Diwali. The Festival of Lights is the Indian equivalent of New Year’s Eve, celebrated for five days around the darkest night of the new moon between mid-October and mid-November. Diwali signifies the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. In the led up to Diwali, Indians begin festooning their homes and businesses with candles, flowers and tinsel. Firecrackers become increasingly more prevalent, culminating in a near constant barrage of explosions on Diwali itself. After sunset on Diwali, Udaipur glowed ethereally from hundreds of thousands of tiny candles alighting entranceways, benches and walls throughout the city. I spent the evening on the rooftop of Bunkyard watching the spectacle unfold. We lit lanterns and released them into the air, nearly burning down the neighbouring restaurant in the process. Unfortunately there was no planned firework displays, just thousands of fireworks individually bursting from different parts of the city all night. The day after Diwali, strange configurations of people made from cow dung decorated with flowers marked the entrance to every building.

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For a taste of Rajasthani culture, I attended a traditional dance and puppetry show in a beautiful, candle-lit outdoor theatre. The show was composed of several performances that demonstrated routines originating from different regions of Rajasthan. The opening sequence featured women in multicoloured saris and dresses pirouetting at incredible speeds while urns of fire balanced on their heads. We watched a bizarre performance depicting benevolent and malevolent gods battling for supremacy, which constituted excessively garbed men prancing around on stage, arrogantly staring into the sky and engaging in a very soft form of combat. A puppetry master revealed his extraordinary skills by performing curtainless, permitting us to see how his subtle hand movements instigate the incredible acrobatics of the puppet. The highlight of the show was saved for last, when a middle-aged women performed a solo dance act while balancing terracotta pots on her head. She started with one pot, which increased to three, then six and eventually a dozen. While appearing to be disconcertingly nervous throughout, she successfully accomplished her dance routine each time a new batch of pots were added to the tower on her head, which was up to one-and-half times her height by the conclusion.

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In Udaipur, I enrolled into an activity I had inexplicably never participated in before: a cooking class! Together with British Hermione, German Emi, Israeli Mickey and an American couple gobsmacked by the concept of travelling for more than three weeks, we were taught how to prepare a dozen North Indian dishes by a Rajasthani widow named Shanshi. She started the cooking classes five years ago without any English and has since become fluent in the language purely through interacting with foreign tourists. She taught us how to make chai masala, pakora, naan, parantha, chapati, several curries and pulao during the five hour class. Perhaps the most intriguing insight was that virtually all North Indian curries use exactly the same base. Onions, garlic and ginger are fried until golden, when seven spices (chilli powder, cumin seeds, turmeric, aniseed, ground coriander, salt and garam masala) and chopped tomatoes are added. The mixture can then be stored for up to a week before being used for various curries. The constituent ingredients of the curries (like lentils, cauliflower and potato, spinach and paneer, potato and peas) are cooked in the base, possibly with the addition of other spices, fresh chilli, cream or nuts. Shanshi provided us with booklets of her easy-to-follow recipes, which are thankfully free of the excessive quantities of sugar, ghee and butter synonymous with North Indian cuisine.

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While lacking outstanding natural, architectural, religious or culinary wonders, Udaipur was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip to India. The city’s relaxed and cosmopolitan vibe was a welcome relief in the typically frenetic and traditional state of Rajasthan.

That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 21:34 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Blue Cities of Rajasthan

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One of Rajasthan’s most evocative allures is to see the “Blue City”… though few people know there are two cities that covet this label. Of the two, Jodhpur is the internationally famed destination, renowned for its staggering fortress as much as the blueness of its old city. Located at the geographical heart of Rajasthan, Jodhpur is invariably included on itineraries through North India and consequently the traffic-choked city is rather touristic. Few people though venture to the comparative hamlet of Bundi, a serene escape from the big cities of India. I travelled to both Jodhpur and Bundi, though visited Udaipur in between (next entry).

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After five days of relative peace in Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert, I was rudely brought back to the reality of Indian cities upon arrival at Jodhpur. I was approached on the train platform by supposedly benevolent locals, who claimed the old city was in the exact opposite direction to its actual location. However, these conniving tuk-tuk drivers were no match for a man with such an impeccable sense of direction… or at least 21st century technology in the form of Google Maps. The streets of Jodhpur were heaving with traffic, occasionally preventing any movement whatsoever for vehicles and pedestrians alike in the compact old city. Maniacal motorcyclists blared their horns so loudly and unnecessarily that I could literally feel my ear drums being damaged. I hopped between murderous motorists, enormous cattle, vicious dogs, beggars, excrement of various descriptions and endless piles of garbage to reach my guesthouse. I was beginning to question the worth of visiting this gritty, overcrowded city. But my doubts immediately evaporated when I ascended to the rooftop terrace of my guesthouse and viewed the colossal Mehrangarh Fort.

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Mehrangarh Fort rises magnificently above the Blue City of Jodhpur in a similarly dramatic and imposing fashion to Edinburgh Castle, though on a larger scale. The fortress walls are literally carved from the rock of the hill it occupies, creating a virtually impenetrable barrier for invading armies. Indeed, the maharajas of Marwar can proudly boast their stronghold was never conquered until the proliferation of foreign tour groups. Within the robust defences of the fortress is a sumptuous palace festooned with delicate Rajasthani carvings on the facades and elaborately decorated Indo-European rooms inside. Like most historical attractions in India, unfortunately visiting the fortress is prohibitively expensive for many backpackers. The entrance ticket is roughly the equivalent of Western prices and grossly disproportionate to other costs in India (and the infinitesimal local fee). This extortionate behaviour is demonstrative of the contempt India systematically has for “cheap” tourism (in comparison to competitors like Thailand and Vietnam). The government can charge whatever they fancy for the Taj Mahal because of its international fame. But I would bet that anyone reading this entry who has not travelled to Rajasthan has never heard of Mehrangarh Fort, despite its World Heritage status. Consequently, many backpackers struggle to justify paying these ludicrous fees repeatedly since India is littered with fortresses.

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The central bazaar area of Jodhpur, while colourful from the merchandise and women’s clothing, is certainly not recognisable as “the Blue City”. Perhaps only one in five of the old, crumbling townhouses are actually painted blue, leaving many tourists disappointed. But if you venture further into the narrow residential areas that surrounded the vertical slopes of Mehrangarh Fort, the streetscape gradually becomes more vibrantly blue. Indeed, in the oldest neighbourhood tragically unfrequented by tourists, almost every dwelling is painted different shades of blue. The houses are like miniature compounds, with only charismatic wooden doors and small windows breaking the monolithic blue stone walls.

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While ambling aimlessly through such areas, one local attempted to usher me back to the touristic zone by suggesting I follow an alley leading to a traditional spice market. Aware that he was trying to stooge me, I still decided to walk in that direction in curiosity. Five minutes later, I noticed that he had been stalking me and was making phone calls. When I arrived at a busy junction, I was approached by a man who claimed to be the cook at my guesthouse (I had foolishly mentioned the name to the first chap)! Amazed at the audacity of their lies, I sarcastically complimented his preparation of a delicious lunch (it actually was rather good). He quickly redirected conversation to the enthralling spice market around the corner that I simply had to visit right at that moment (5:30pm on a Sunday night). I then noticed the original turd-cake was failing miserably to watch our conversation discreetly from a corner shop. I thanked the fake cook for his advice and said I may visit the following day, but in irritation he warned me the market would be very busy then (as if visiting an empty market was a preferable alternative). I giddily exclaimed that would be perfect and scurried off, though loitered at a distance to catch the fake cook gesticulating with the original turd-cake about my departure. I walked past the fake cook again the next day and he denied ever claiming to work in my guesthouse while trying to lure me into his souvenir shop.

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My journey to Bundi was certainly a hellish bus trip. Two bus trips actually, because contrary to the advice I received at the bus station the day before travelling, there were no direct buses to Bundi due to Diwali celebrations. Instead, the same duffus I had spoken to suggested I take a bus to a town I had never heard of and then transfer to a bus bound for Bundi. My initial expectation of a five hour journey ballooned out to eleven hours overall. Nevertheless, the first bus was uneventful and the transfer relatively smooth thanks to an English speaking benefactor at the terminal. It was the second bus that was particularly unpleasant. I was squished with my 18kg rucksack and 6kg day-bag into one place in the very back corner, completely deprived of leg-room (or an escape). As the bus became overcrowded, a group of about ten men, both seated and standing, began staring at me, chatting in Hindi and laughing about me. Something I loathe about Indian culture is their propensity to stare endlessly but never to return a smile. After the usual mundane question of “where are you from?”, they disconcertingly inquired about whether we use dollars and what the exchange rate is. One of the men, fascinated by the appearance of a tall, white man on this rural, government bus, managed to slip in beside me and proceeded to creep me out for the next 90 minutes. With no command of the English language, all his communication was through pointing and poking. First, he noticed a fresh scar on my knee and poked it with his filthy fingers, forcing me to wrap my jacket around my legs. He made a bizarre comparison between my stubble and leg hair, attempted to hand-fed me a lolly I had given him, seemed to stroke my leg not accidentally and insisted I take a selfie on my phone with him. It was the first time in more than two years of backpacking I felt genuinely uncomfortable on public transport, though I was eternally grateful not to be a single woman in that situation. The strange man’s departure was an enormous relief and I was ecstatic when we finally arrived in Bundi, albeit after dark.

I really, really liked Bundi, the hidden jewel of Rajasthan. The city’s fame pales in comparison to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer, but Bundi is arguably more beautiful than the lot of them. Despite a relatively small population of 100,000, Bundi boasts a surprisingly expansive old city which is excellently preserved and radiantly blue and golden. The “Blue City” moniker is certainly more apt for Bundi than its rival Jodhpur. Countless Hindu temples with honeycombed rooftops dot the winding alleys of the old city, while grand Mughal gateways align the fortified walls and main thoroughfare. Situated on a thickly vegetated slope directly north of the old city is Bundi Palace, an enchanting structure that has been left to crumble, decay and be conquered by bats and monkeys. The slope on the opposite side of the valley affords magnificent views of the old city and palace. The most pleasant aspect of Bundi is that extraordinary Rajasthani architectural heritage can be enjoyed the incessant traffic and honking of other cities. I stayed in a centuries-old haveli (traditional Rajasthani upper class abode) beside an ornamental lake bordered by frangipani, lawns and crumbling ruins. Astonishingly, for just $6 I had a double room featuring period furniture and decoration and with three stainless glass windows overlooking the lake.

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The people of Bundi were especially friendly… or perhaps just a little bit too friendly. Every shop owner and tuk-tuk driver seemed to want to have a genuine chat – beyond the usual sales pitch. But since walking around Bundi required passing through one major thoroughfare, I found myself passing the same people several times a day. Their ceaseless efforts to engage in small talk became rather tedious and irritating, especially when I needed to attended a lavatory. While ambling around the colourful backstreets of Bundi, children would spot me and gleefully pounce at the opportunity to have their photograph taken. Their mothers would often request I send them copies, though unfortunately when they always wrote down a postal rather than e-mail address, so they shouldn’t get their hopes up!

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Indira Gandhi’s progressive governments of the 1960s and 1970s attempted to liberate the masses by officially abolishing the caste system. Yet to my surprise, the caste system stills defines India’s social structure, especially in conservative and rural areas (like Rajasthan). Hindu society is generally divided into four castes: Brahmin (priestly caste), Kshatriya (warrior and administrative caste), Vaishya (merchant caste) and Shudra (labour caste). Below the castes are the “Untouchables”, who work menial jobs like cleaning India’s incomprehensibly wretched drains, live on the fringes and must avoid all physical contact with members of the higher castes. Outside of the cosmopolitan mega-cities, marital unions between people of different castes are totally unacceptable; and honour killings can be a disgraceful response to such occurrences. Castes are not completely analogous to classes, because they are defined not by socio-economic factors but by religion. Nevertheless, the caste system is simply another manifestation of an elite minority ingeniously subjugating a marginalised majority. The Brahmins have successfully coerced the Hindu populace into believing in reincarnation, and that the form someone reincarnates into is determined by the fulfilment of their moral duties (defined by their caste). Hinduism is thus a mechanism to avert the rebelliousness of the lower castes and preserve the status quo advantageously for the Brahmins. I suppose its not too dissimilar to Christian clergymen hypocritically babbling on about sin and the commandments while indulging in a gluttonous and, for some of them, contemptible lifestyle.

The Brahmins are easily the wealthiest, healthiest and most educated in Indian society. Their houses are easily discernible in traditional areas because they’re typically painted blue. When I walked around the “Blue Cities” of Jodhpur and Bundi, children would often run out of their large, beautiful residences begging me for rupees, pens or chocolate – in plain view of their disinterested parents. I found this particularly galling, because much poorer parents in other countries I have travelled to usually have the dignity to scold their children for hassling tourists. Evidently, traditional Brahmins shamelessly believe they are entitled to privilege. An example of the privileges Brahmins enjoy is their dominance of professional cricket in India. I’ve often wondered why a country of 1.2 billion people totally obsessed with cricket cannot produce an utterly unbeatable team. The caste-system is the simple explanation. Only the Brahmins can afford coaching, only Brahmins occupy important administrative positions and therefore only Brahmins and members of the highest castes are selected for the national team. Indeed, almost every star Indian cricketer in history is a Brahmin. Interestingly, Brahmins traditionally don’t do physical occupations, which may explain why Indian cricket teams are notoriously mediocre at fast bowling, fielding and running between the wicket; the athletic components of cricket.

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If you can learn the English translation of twelve Hindi words, you can basically decode any North Indian menu. Aloo = potato, baigan = eggplant, chana = chickpeas, dal = lentils, gobhi = cauliflower, kofta = balls of food, korma = nut-based sauce, malai = creamy, masala = spicy sauce, mattar = peas, palak = spinach and paneer = cottage cheese. Virtually every vegetarian curry in North India (meat is hard to come by outside of Sikh and Muslim neighbourhoods) is simply a combination of two of the aforementioned words. Needless to say, after a while they begin to taste rather similar. My favourite curries are palak paneer, chana masala, aloo gobhi and malai kofta. Palak paneer features cubes of cottage cheese cooked in a tantalisingly rich gravy of pureed spinach, tomato, spices and ghee. Chana masala is a wet curry of chickpeas served in a spicy gravy. Aloo gobhi is a dry curry consisting of chunks of potatoes and cauliflower shallow fried in spices. Malai kofta, which I found to be very hit and miss, is usually balls of mash potato and cottage cheese served in a creamy tomato gravy. However, one of the best curries I ate in North India was a humble, delicately spiced dry pumpkin curry in Bundi. Unfortunately, Indians typically destroy their curry concoctions by adding putrid coriander leaves; it was always tremendously upsetting when I neglected to request “no coriander” and the meal arrived smothered in the poisonous leaves.

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Rajasthan’s Blue Cities of Jodhpur and Bundi were both intriguing cities to visit. However, Jodhpur is only a “must-see” destination because of Megrangarh Fort; Bundi has a much more pleasant and colourful old city vibe.

That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 22:45 Archived in India Comments (1)

Thar Desert

Rajasthan, which literally means “the land of kings”, is often cited by Indians as the place where the “real India” continues to thrive. I assume Indians are referring romantically to things like the continuation of regal Rajput traditions, the prevalent use of camels, the elaborate turbans the men fashion and the famed Rajasthani handcrafted textiles, rather than less pleasant aspects of the state like the high levels of poverty and illiteracy and the resilient strength of the archaic caste system. So ignoring these inconvenient truths, Rajasthan is celebrated as India’s most touristic regions, with evocatively labelled attractions such as the Pink City, Blue City and City of the Lakes. Rajasthan reminded me somewhat of Morocco, with its colour-coded cities, enthralling bazaars and edge-of-the desert atmosphere. The culturally defining Thar Desert sprawls across the north and west of Rajasthan and into Pakistan. I spent the first week of my loop around Rajasthan in the Thar Desert, visiting the cities of Bikaner and Jaisalmer.

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Rajasthan is the homeland of the Rajputs, warrior clans that were renowned for their unparalleled bravery and honour. The Rajputs established more than a dozen principalities in the region and constructed magnificent fortresses as their capitals. The Rajputs continuously fought between each other for pride and independence. Tradition demanded that when defeat in battle was inevitable, a ritual mass suicide was required. The warriors would ride out to battle in saffron garb and face certain death, while the women and children would burn in the flames of a funeral pyre. Due to the disunity of the Rajputs, the principalities were eventually absorbed into the Mughal and then British colonial empires. However, the militancy of their unique culture enabled them to preserve some autonomous powers. After Independence, the Government of India was forced to pay allowances to the Maharajas for their allegiance to the newly formed country, though this and their titles were officially abolished by Indira Ghandi in the 1970s. The maharajas still retain property, wealth and influence in their home cities.

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Bikaner is basically a microcosm of all that is inherently wrong with Indian society (I could ramble on for days on this subject). Despite a relatively moderate population of 700,000, Bikaner is swarming with horrendous traffic, particularly moronic Indians on motorcycles – my pet hate. Like elsewhere in Asia, Indian motorcyclists drive recklessly fast and give no indication what direction they are travelling in (other than at you!). But the most galling aspect about Indian motorcyclists is their penchant to honk ALL THE TIME, usually needlessly and often without taking their hands off the horn. I seriously think my ear drums are damaged just from dodging traffic on the roads (remember, no footpaths in India!) of Indian cities. Bikaner doesn’t boast the burgeoning tourism sectors of other Rajasthani cities, yet the locals have certainly mastered the art of hassling. One guy managed to find me thrice in the same day in different parts of the city, determined to book my train ticket. I stayed at Vinayak Guesthouse, where the owner tried to coerce me into changing my travel plans to Jaisalmer to join his camel safari, wanted me to upgrade rooms because he was clearly irritated by the price I paid online and pressed me to write a positive review on Tripadvisor in gratitude for the bargain. Instead, I’m writing this in annoyance at being encouraged to leave in the morning with all my luggage when I had a late evening train to catch. The locals demonstrate total disregard for their environment with rubbish and shit (mainly from cows) strewn everywhere. Bikaner does have some redeeming qualities, like the grandiose red sandstone Junagarh fort, home of the former Rajas of Bikaner, and the mysterious winding streets in the old town with colourful houses and some intricately detailed facades. Overall though, Bikaner is a dusty, gritty and unpleasant city, absent of the magic and charm of other Rajasthani centres.

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I travelled to Bikaner specifically to visit a very unusual attraction in the nearby village of Deshnok: Karni Mata, or the Temple of Rats. The temple is indeed swarming with thousands of rats, with the residents of Deshnok believing that the holy rodents are the reincarnated forms of their ancestors. Despite general open-mindedness to foreign cultures, clearly we all have limits; the Temple of Rats was undoubtedly the most repulsive, barbaric, insane and disgusting thing I had ever witnessed – until the shameful election of Donald Trump. The temple appears to be relatively harmless from the outside, with kitsch pink walls separating a clean public space from the horrors lurking inside. Visitors are required to dispense of their shoes before entering the temple, though thankfully tourists can wear a (flimsy) feet cover. Indians believe that if a rat runs across your feet or perhaps even takes a nibble, its especially good fortune, though I obviously had no intentions of allowing that to happen. Passing through the entrance gate immediately commences an unforgettable nightmare. Every nook and cranny is literally filled with rats, which scurry quickly and unpredictably in all directions. Indians amble around the temple grounds oblivious to the squalor, sometimes feeding the rats and sitting beside clusters of them nonchalantly. Like other Western tourists though, I was mortified by the sights and smells. The occupants of the temple are particularly decrepit rodents, partially hairless and rather gaunt, which is surprising considering their auspicious statuses and diets. With each step I needed to summon the courage to proceed further into the compound, petrified of the rats but fascinated by this ridiculous “religious” site. I discovered that the rats never scurried into the sunlight, fortunately providing me with a refuge when things became too overwhelming. That was certainly the case when I delved into the inner sanctuary, which had such a high concentration of rats that I couldn’t last more than a minute or two at a time. However, one thing was completely inescapable: the uniquely putrid stench emanating from the combined excrement of the rats and flocks of pigeons that also inhabit the temple. Probably the most horrific scene I witnessed in the 40 minutes I could tolerate in the temple was dozens of rats drinking simultaneously from a large bowl of milk.

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Jaisalmer was an appropriate antidote to my previous five days in chaotic Indian cities. I wouldn’t say “perfect”, because the murderous motorcyclists were still prevalent, but at only 90,000 people Jaisalmer is a comparative hamlet in this humungous country. A hamlet defined by a stupendous fortress literally rising from the interminable flatness of the desert (analogous perhaps to Uluru) and resembling a life-size sand castle. The 850 year old Jaisalmer Fort is preserved well cosmetically, though its foundations are severely threatened by the unregulated use of water for touristic purposes. The fortress features an imposing stone wall of 99 fairy-tale like watchtowers and an opulent palace, the former abode of Jaisalmer’s maharajas. Hidden within the winding streets of the fort are souvenir shops attempting to rip you off and Jain temples with priests attempting to rip you off. I haven’t had the time or botherance to learn anything about Jainism, other than 1% of India’s population subscribe to the religion, they control a disproportionately large amount of wealth while rejecting the caste system, and cosmology is rather central to their beliefs. Jain temples are distinguished for their incredibly detailed designs, with all internal and external surfaces covered in intricate carved sculpture or painting. The temples are thus somewhat overwhelming artistically, yet still refined unlike gaudy Hindu temples. The atmosphere is kind of spoiled by the stalking behaviour of the priests, who guide visitors to donation boxes and give unsolicited descriptions of the temples – playing for tips (and not receiving any from me!). The sandstone buildings of the old town that surround the fort radiate a beautiful yellowish colour, giving Jaisalmer the apt moniker of the Golden City.

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I joined a Norwegian couple for a three day camel safari into the Thar Desert, led by the self-proclaimed “Real Camel Man” (replete with a purple turban and grey Rajasthani moustache) and his nephew. The Real Camel Man offered an obscenely cheap price for his services, as he cut out the middleman (all accommodation and travel agents in Jaisalmer gleefully arrange camel safaris) to the chagrin of my guesthouse. Despite some apprehension about the quality considering the price, the safari was actually rather good, though the Real Camel Man did have an irritating preponderance to redirect conversation back to his financial plight. I have no doubt his intentions were to incite sympathy and perhaps earn some donations from these generous, golden-hearted Westerners, but of course he was barking up the wrong trees. Norwegians are notoriously frugal people despite their unfathomable wealth, while I'm desensitised to crying-poor stories coming from people living relatively comfortably for their context.

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The Thar Desert is regarded as the most “lived in” desert in the world, which is certainly understandable since we passed villages, herds of livestock and wind turbine farms with unexpected regularity. The desert is almost blanketed with dry shrubbery and even trees, with only splotches of rolling sand dunes interrupting the greenery. It therefore doesn’t quite provide the quintessential desert experience of utter nothingness, aridity and isolation, though it was still a welcome escape into nature from the crowds, noise and pollution of Indian cities. It was also exciting to be riding camels once more, easily the most impressive, fascinating and graceful creatures on the planet. Riding the camels was not as painful as my ordeal in Morocco, as my legs did not chaff or cramp in agony. I needed to hold on vigorously though when the camels stood up or sat down; they’re very sudden and jerky movements. We rode the camels for a couple hours at a time, rested in the heat of the day and slept on the sand dunes under the stars. Fortunately the Real Camel Man seemed to treat his camels with respect and care; they were only required to work for four hours a day lugging us around and were then released to graze in the desert. I was amazed how the Real Camel Man’s nephew was able to track down the animals each morning after they had wandered more than four kilometres away overnight.

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Indians typically eat a thali for lunch or dinner, which is a multi-dish meal consisting of 2-3 vegetarian curries, dhal, raita, pickled lemons, salad, roti, papadum, rice and sometimes a sweet. Each state of India features its own variations of the thali, usually with different vegetarian curries served. I sampled several traditional Rajasthani curries in humungous thalis including a curry of chickpea flour balls served in a rich gravy and a dry curry of vegetables similar to green beans and grown in the desert. The only notable street food I had in Bikaner or Jaisalmer was aloo tikki, which are patties of mashed potatoes mixed with chana masala (chickpea curry) and chilli sauce, fried on a hot plate and topped with crispy bits.

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Thus ended the first stanza of my Rajasthani tour!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 17:20 Archived in India Comments (0)

Punjab

The Punjab vies with Bengal as the most significant historical region of the Indian Subcontinent. Located on the north-western frontier of Indian civilisation, Punjab is a melting pot of Hindu, Sikh, Afghan, Persian, Mughal and British cultural influences. Its 150 million native speakers are now spread across two countries. I visited the cities of Chandigarh and Amritsar, the only destinations of touristic notoriety in the Indian Punjab. Just like Canberra and Brasilia, Chandigarh is a planned capital city created for political reasons and designed by one of the twentieth century’s most prominent architects. I briefly studied the work of the Swiss genius Le Corbusier at university, so I was quite eager to stop briefly in Chandigarh en route to the Himalayas. After two and half weeks in the Himalayas, I returned to Punjab by travelling to Amritsar, the homeland of the Sikhs and antithesis of Chandigarh. Amritsar reminded me of Cairo: a city I was eager to leave as soon as I arrived. Yet like Cairo, Amritsar provided not one, not two, but three WOW factor travel experiences and the more I reflect on it, the more I consider my time there as one of my highlights ever of travelling.

When independence from the British Empire was achieved in 1948, the Raj was divided along sectarian lines to create India and Pakistan (which included Bangladesh until 1971); stymying the desires of the father of Indian sovereignty, Mahatma Gandhi, for a unified nation. Punjab was split in half, with the predominately Hindu and Sikh eastern portion incorporated into India and the Muslim western portion joining Pakistan. Tragically, half a million people were killed in the chaotic aftermath of Partition as people abandoned their homes and attempted to flee to which ever newly created countries they belonged to religiously. While millions of Muslims still live in Indian Punjab, Pakistani Punjab is now almost totally devoid of Hindus and Sikhs. The two largest Punjabi cities, Amritsar and Lahore, are only fifty kilometres apart but are now located on opposite sides of an international border.

Without a doubt one of the weirdest spectacles I have ever witnessed is the elaborate ceremony that occurs at the Attari – Wagah Border. Every evening, India and Pakistan’s border guards attempt to prance more bombastically than their opposing numbers, a tradition dreamed up inexplicably during the seven decade existence of the border crossing. About thirty minutes prior to sunset, dozens of guards on both sides march to the border gates, fashioning whimsical millinery that make them resemble peacocks more so than military personnel. The gates are momentarily opened to allow for a single peacock from either nation to enter no-man’s land (5 metres length) and shake hands, which commences the ceremony. The peacocks then strut to and fro from the border gates in synchronised and overly gesticulated strides as they attempt to lift their feet higher than their heads. I suppose its preferable for these two nuclear-armed arch-enemies to compete in this nonsense rather than who can create the largest mushroom cloud. The ceremony concludes when the national flags are drawn down from their masts in no-man’s land, a procedure which they obviously over-complicate and dramatise. The event is a matter of national pride and the atmosphere is very similar to a cricket match. On either side of the border, grandstands accommodate thousands of patriots and tourists eager to attend this unique performance. Flags, souvenir T-shirts and face painting in the national colours abound in the crowds. Before the ceremony commenced, legions of Indian women gathered in the open space below the grandstands to dance to Bollywood music, while women on the Pakistani side sat restrained in their seats. On both sides of the border, announcers attempt to rev up their respective audiences by inciting chants analogous to “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! … Oi, Oi, Oi!” For what its worth, I think Pakistan won the day: the architecture and landscaping of their half of the “arena” was much more refined, their uniforms more stylish and, most importantly, their peacocks managed to lift their legs slightly higher than the Indians.

After Partition, Indian Punjab was further split into two states, Haryana and Punjab. Curiously, the two states share Chandigarh as their capital, yet the city belongs to neither (Chandigarh is instead considered a “Union Territory” administrated directly by the federal government). Chandigarh is completely incompatible with any pre-conceived notions about what constitutes an Indian city. The urban layout of Chandigarh is a vast grid, with each of its rectangular sectors designed to be self-containing. Most of the commercial activity occurs in Sectors 17 and 22, which are mostly pedestrianised and pleasant to amble through (for anyone who has travelled to the Subcontinent, the thought of an Indian city being “pleasant” to amble through is really quite shocking). The buildings in these sectors are vestiges of Le Corbusier’s 1950s vision for Chandigarh and his obsession with reinforced concrete. Le Corbusier was particularly renowned for celebrating and exposing the use of reinforced concrete in his buildings, rather than hiding it as the forgotten (although critical) structural material. His architecture is a more aesthetic version of Brutalism, a style that originated in Great Britain and graces Melbourne in the form of the commission flats. The buildings in these areas are so similar in design and evocative of horizontality that they appear to form singular, winding structures rather independent edifices. The buildings have gradually decayed over their lifespans as vegetation has taken root, giving them an intriguing tropical twist to counteract the sterility. Chandigarh’s most iconic structures are the government buildings; huge, monolithic and sculptural, they occupy a vast, lifeless space save only for the dozens of eagles soaring overhead. While aimlessly meandering through Sector 17, I encountered an “only in India” sight. Two rows of at least 50 desks were positioned on the side paths, with people writing legal documents using typewriters. My surprise at witnessing this antiquated practice was matched by their surprise at me photographing their work.

Dozens of villages were destroyed in the 1950s in order to construct Chandigarh. Scrap materials from these villages, ranging from concrete and smashed tiles to broken bangles and tyres, were used by a local transport official to create a secret garden on a vacated block of land. For two decades, Nek Chand worked on his masterpiece obsessively at night to avoid prying eyes. Eventually though, city officials recognised the worth of his endeavours and the Nek Chand Rock Garden has since become Chandigarh’s premium tourist attraction. It is actually a series of rock gardens, each of different dimensions and themes. They feature mosaic floors, cascading fountains and, most notably, thousands of sculptures ingeniously crafted from rubble.

Chandigarh’s modernity, logical layout, relative cleanliness and orderly traffic are juxtaposed by the dusty, congested and Old World vibes of Amritsar. The city is actually rather new, founded in 1577 with the establishment of Sikhism’s holiest site: the Golden Temple. Yet the tangle of impossibly narrow bazaars and lanes that fan out from the Golden Temple (virtually unnavigable without the aid of Google Maps), the fleets of cycle-rickshaws and the decaying edifices are suggestive of the city’s timelessness. The congestion in the old city is absolutely ridiculous, yet local motorcyclists insist on speeding through with reckless abandon. When traffic is brought to a standstill, pedestrians are also unable to move because side pavements are virtually non-existent in India. Consequently, exploring the old city is both exhausting and rather dangerous, but worth enduring for the ethereal Golden Temple.

Sikhism was founded in the sixteenth century in Punjab as a reaction against Hinduism’s caste-system and the encroaching military threat of Islam from the west. Sikhs are monotheistic, believe in universal equality and reject knowing the absolute truth. Punjab is the homeland of the Sikhs and Amritsar is their unofficial capital. Consequently, the city is awash with bright colours from the women’s magnificent saris and the men’s turbans.

The Golden Temple is the most extraordinary religious site I have ever been to; a vast complex constantly open and constantly crowded with tens of thousands of devotees (24/7). The Pool of Nectar is the primary focus of the site with the glittering Golden Temple, built with 750kg of the precious metal, at its centre. The Temple contains the Sikh holy book and priests and and musicians maintaining a continuous chant that permeates the entire site. Devotees and some very committed tourists queue for up to four hours to entire the inner sanctum (certainly not me – that was too long to forego a meal in India’s unofficial capital of food!). Visitors to the site circumambulate the Pool of Nectar, creating a continuous and reflected stream of colour. I spent hours just sitting on the white marble floors surrounding the Pool, watching the remarkable flow of humanity pass by. Many of the devotees bath in the holy waters, while at sunset they light candles on the Pool’s edges. The Sikhs are renowned for their hospitality and every Sikh temple features a Community Kitchen. At the Golden Temple, 200,000 people can be served each day for FREE in what is surely one of the world’s greatest logistical efforts. Batches of thousands of people carrying their silverware enter a large hall and are seated in long rows on the ground. Rapidly, dhal, vegetable curry, rice, chapati and sweets are slopped onto the plates and the diners dig in. After twenty minutes, everyone rushes out to allow for the next batch of people to enter. The silverware is then washed by volunteers in an industrial-sized facility: it has to be seen to be believed. Perhaps if the Catholic Church provided traditional, home-cooked meals to the congregation rather than cardboard and the privilege of watching greedy old priests swigging all the red wine, their halls would not be so embarrassingly empty.

Many of India’s most iconic dishes originate from the Punjab: tandoori meats, chicken tikka, butter chicken, naan, dal makhani, chana masala (chickpea curry), paneer butter masala, palak paneer (paneer and spinach curry), malai kofta, aloo gobhi (potato and cauliflower curry) and lassis are just some examples. A typical Punjabi thali consists of dal makhani (intoxicatingly rich stew made from black lentils and chickpeas and cooked with cream and butter), rajma (red kidney bean curry cooked with cream and butter), paneer butter masala (paneer cooked in a spicy tomato sauce with butter), a mixed vegetable curry (loaded with butter), chapati with butter, raita (yoghurt with diced vegetables) and rice. Perhaps you can notice a common ingredient?! Almost everything in Punjab is cooked in copious amounts of butter or ghee and consequently it rivals Hungarian as the unhealthiest cuisine I have encountered (despite its predominantly vegetarian composition). I joined a brilliant walking food tour from my hostel in Amritsar of the city’s famed hole-in-the-wall institutions, sampling sixteen dishes. We started with the city’s traditional breakfast of kulcha: a flat, crispy bread stuffed with cheese, vegetables and spices, smothered in butter (or as our guide liked to refer to it cryptically as “delicious”) and served with chana masala and tamarind chutney. Next stop, we gorged on jalebi (deep fried rings of batter soaked in sugar syrup) and gulab jamun (dense, milk-solid balls soaked in sugar syrup. We progressed to a corner shop whipping out paneer bhurji, which is paneer scrambled with an obscene amount of butter, tomato, onion and spices and served with bread and mint sauce. For lunch, we ate at Amritsar’s most famous restaurant, a century-old traditional curry house. We had dal fry (lentils swimming in ghee), palak paneer (paneer with a buttery, spicy pureed spinach gravy), flaky bread and kefir, a milk rice pudding flavoured with pistachos. But the overwhelming highlight of the tour were the lassis. Amritsar is famous throughout India for its lassis, which are unadultered by the sacrilegious (to Punjabis) addition of fruit. Lassis in Amristar are unbelievably rich and creamy made only from curd and either sugar or salt and topped with a scoop of soft cheese and a slice of butter. Once you have drunk Amritsari lassis (I was drinking up to three a day), you’re view of the world’s most delicious beverage changes forever. A proper WOW factor culinary experience.

I can’t be bothered writing a menial conclusion so…

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 20:04 Archived in India Comments (1)

Sham Valley, Ladakh

There’s nothing quite like walking into a snow storm on a mountain pass 3,900 metres above sea level with no shelter in sight, no companion – and wearing a pair of shorts. Perhaps I’m embellishing the actual danger I was exposed to slightly, though only to reflect my paranoia in that situation. Never before have I genuinely felt like my life was potentially in peril and its existence could hinge purely on a decision between two bad options! As I later relayed my story of diabolical circumstances to locals and other travellers, I was most disappointed not to receive dotting sympathy but rather gruff responses like, “he can’t handle the cold”, “chickened-out” and “excuses, excuses”. Indeed, I probably panicked in the moment and took the conservative – though not necessarily intelligent – judgment to turn back. But lets start from the beginning…

The primary reason why tourists travel to Ladakh is to trek in the Himalayas. I arrived in Ladakh in early October, purportedly an optimal time to trek at the end of tourist season and just before the winter weather strikes. For pure convenience, I intended to sign-up to a 5-day guided group trek through the Markha Valley, the most popular trek. However, the travel agent, who coincidentally is sitting at the restaurant table right beside me as I type this paragraph, was irritatingly lackadaisical about confirming the departure dates and route plans, so I decided to cancel my involvement in the group trek. And since many backpackers complete the treks independently, I thought why shouldn’t I do the same and save some money too?! At my lovely guesthouse in Leh, an affable German named Harald, a veritable encyclopaedia on trekking in Ladakh, strongly recommended the Sham Valley as an alternative option for independent trekking. He vouched for the authenticity of the homestay experiences in the Sham Valley, in comparison with the overly-touristic Markha Valley, and noted that no mountain passes in the Sham are above 4,000 metres (versus the highest pass in the Marka at 5,300 metres). Convinced of its relative ease, I committed to trekking in the Sham Valley; though I inadequately prepared for the resulting weather...

I departed Leh brimming with confidence that I could complete the 4 day trek in 2.5-3 days; as I would not be delayed by frustratingly repetitive and unnecessary breaks of slower companions. The weather in Ladakh had been gloriously warm in the preceding days with a blazing sun and uninterrupted blue skies, so I anticipated the same conditions would prevail throughout the trek. Ignoring the manipulative advice from taxi drivers, I caught the supposedly non-existent morning bus (the seating arrangement was obviously custom-made for the four-foot tall local populace) to Likir, the first village in the Sham Valley. I walked to Likir’s gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery), which was annoyingly a one hour detour in each direction from the village. The monastery is rather large and seemingly floats above the surrounding terraced landscape at the bottom of a valley. Unfortunately by this point I was becoming rather gompa-ed out, because Tibetan Buddhism has not really demonstrated a flair for architectural variety throughout the ages. I returned to Likir village for lunch, but was disappointed to find that all the home-stays and restaurants were closed. This did not bode terribly well for the villages I intended to stay at in the Sham Valley. I settled on purchasing a packet of cream biscuits from a tiny store for my sustenance for the day.

I commenced the trek through the Sham Valley from Likir toward the small village of Yangthang. German Harald had led me to believe the trails would be potentially difficult to find, but it was actually rather easy and intuitive. The trek was also physically easy, with only minor ascents and descents. The Sham Valley is essentially a series of interconnected valleys separated by passes ranging from 3,500 metres to 4,000 metres, rather than a neat, continuous divide between the mountains. I couldn’t label the Sham Valley as the archetypal Himalayan landscape; the mountains are completely stripped bare of vegetation, which expose their ochre red bedrock. The only traces of life are the clusters of trees surrounding the trickling streams and the omnipresent cows that are inexplicably sustained by the mountainous desert environment. In the mid-afternoon, I approached a farmstead where the local family eagerly welcomed me in, no doubt to acquire some business. They attempted to convince me to stay the night by suggesting Yangthang was at least two hours away, but I politely declined and paid for the chai they forced upon me. Hardly to my surprise, the remaining section to Yangthang only took one hour to traverse and I arrived just before the temperature plummeted with the Sun departing the sky at 5pm.

Yangthang is a pretty village of white painted, slate roofed stone buildings perched high above the confluence of two trickling streams (which presumably rage in spring). I stayed at Padma’s Homestay and was the only foreign visitor lodging in the household of 12. I was surprised to be given a separate bedroom with a comfortable mattress and powerpoints, though I wasn’t thrilled by the paper-thin plywoods walls (rooftop add-on) and consequent lack of insulation! While ambling around the village, I was pleased to encounter a Swiss couple; quashing my fear of being the only tourist attempting the trek. Before darkness cloaked the valley, I braved the plummeting temperatures to have a cold bucket shower and then hibernated in Padma’s dining/living area for the rest of the evening. The warmth of the kitchen welcomingly heated this richly furnished stone-walled room. A row of low tables with corresponding cushions were arranged along the length of the room, while a large cabinet at one end proudly displayed the family’s collection of huge Ladakhi pots, decorated tea thermoses and other accoutrements. Several members of Padma’s household spoke English and they were substantially more worldly than I anticipated. Most of them actually lived in Leh or Jammu for work or study; they simply return to the home village for the weekends. In the wintertime, Yangthang is inundated with snow and they claimed that the elusive snow leopard is often sighted nearby.

The Swiss couple informed me about a detour to Rizong Monastery, which I had no previous knowledge about but promptly decided to visit. In the early morning, I hiked down a valley leading from Yangthang to Rizong Monastery, scrambling up and down pathways traversing loose scree and hopping from stone to stone across the relatively dry river. The scenery was much more impressive than the previous day, with sheer cliffs of red ochre rock imposingly defining the narrow valley. I arrived at Rizong in the late morning. Aside from the magnificent setting and the monastery’s scale, I wasn’t overly impressed by Rizong; it was just another gompa. The unnecessary venture to Rizong left me significantly off course, requiring me to cross a mountain pass on a very steep and dusty trail. The weather remained stubbornly overcast and cool despite the recent tendency in Ladakh to clear and warm by midday. The 90 minute ascent to the pass was tremendously scenic with the exposed rock of the mountains appearing to fold over each other. When I finally reached the pass, I was dispirited to see the Sham Valley draped in thick, ominous black clouds. But I could also see my target village and figured it was about one houraway, factoring in the astonishingly steep trails I would need to descend and then briefly ascend. So I pressed on, hoping like hell it wouldn’t rain before I arrived in the village.

I wasn’t threatened by rain though, but rather a snowstorm. Suddenly a piercing wind blew a gust of ice into my face. Perplexed at first, I scanned the valley and realised there was a thick wall of snow hurtling in my direction! I was shocked and horrified by this most unexpected development, especially since I was wearing just shorts, a T-shirt and a light jacket. Advice from Lonely Planet flashed through my mind: its not recommendable to attempt mountain passes at 4,000 metres and above in Ladakh without a guide because the weather can change so rapidly. The temperature certainly changed rapidly, as I was now freezing from the pummelling wind and the snow saturating my flimsy clothing. On the verge of panicking, I had to make a quick but rational decision between two undesirable options. I could risk hiking through the storm for nearly an hour to the village, the closest form of shelter, or take the much longer route back to Rizong and hope the storm fails to cross the mountain pass. I chose the later option, because I was already familiar with that trail and I decided staying in the Sham Valley with wet and insufficient clothing would be futile anyway. So I scampered back to the pass while the wind and snow’s increased in fury, half expecting the fear of death would give me another gear to power through the exhaustion of the ascent (mythbusted). When I reached the pass, I began jogging down the trail and was relieved from the unbearable wind. The black clouds though had breached the pass and continued to dump snow on me. However, the snow seized once I was 100 metres down and 20 minutes later, the sun blazoned in a bright blue sky. Dejected from the ordeal, I was intent on abandoning the trek and returning to Rizong to take onward transportation to Leh. I like to think this was a wise decision, because black clouds hovered around the pass thirty minutes later.

The other guests and staff at my accommodation in Leh hardly expressed convincingly genuine sympathy for my hardship when I returned. Perhaps that’s why the guesthouse felt like my “home” in Ladakh. I would like to note that none of the others bothered trekking simultaneously or later, because of sheer laziness… or wisdom.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 01:19 Archived in India Comments (1)

Leh, Ladakh

Leh

Ladakh is venerated as the “Land of Monasteries”, a remote region of stunning Himalayan scenery, Tibetan Buddhist culture and uncharacteristic peacefulness and quietness for India. One disenchanted viewer of my Himalayan photographs summarised my travels in this region as “stereotypical backpacker experience “escaping the real world” scenery.” Perhaps she was just having a bad, or excruciatingly normal, day at the office while nobly “sustaining the metropolis of Melbourne with fresh, clean drinking water.” Sustaining water and eco-awareness are incidentally defining features of Ladakhi culture. The region is tremendously dry and infertile, with water sourced only from glacial melt and traditional crops limited to barley and vegetables. Unsurprisingly, few settlements of significant size exist in this isolated corner of India. Leh is the exception: the former royal capital of Ladakh and a relatively large city for the context at 30,000 residents. The preservation of water is especially noticeable in Leh, with an elaborate network of channels funnelling precious water through the properties and streets of the city. The visibility of the channels creates the false impression that the city is abundant in water, while certainly enhancing its immense tranquility. Like most other travellers, I based myself in Leh while exploring Ladakh for nine days.

After the previous day’s difficulties in travelling from Kaza to Keylong and aware of the touristic popularity of Ladakh, I feared the bus from Keylong to Leh would be full. Instead, on my epic 13 hour journey I was accompanied only by the bus driver and the ticket attendant; a very much unexpected and somewhat awkward situation. We departed Keylong at 5:00am, with the driver commencing the treacherous ascent to Baralacha La (4,950 metres) in pitch black darkness. The bus was poorly insulated, and the driver left his windows open anyway, exposing us to the sub-zero temperatures of the early morning, high altitude climate. I wrapped myself in my sleeping bag, which was eyed enviously by the ticket attendant (he later attempted to persuade me into leaving the sleeping bag instead of paying a $12 ticket – probably the most extreme rip-off ever proposed to me with seriousness)). The scenery throughout the journey was staggeringly impressive; utterly barren valleys and plains bordered by craggy mountains with snow-capped peak and Cappadocia-style eroded rock formations. Halfway through the day, we came to a stand still at a bridge that was being repaired. About half a dozen men were trying to secure sheets of metal down (the bridge’s deck), while in typical Indian fashion a hundred other men stood around pretending to be interested but were not actually doing anything. We finally departed and successfully crossed the bridge an hour later, which was apparently a short delay for the Leh – Manali Highway. Later in the day, we scaled the Taglang La, which at 5,328 metres was the highest point on Earth I had been to.

I arrived at Tsetan’s guesthouse just prior to dinner and felt like I had intruded on a funeral. Although Tsetan and his parents were very welcoming after my long journey (despite making it very clear I was receiving special treatment in being served dinner without prior ordering), the other guests in the communal dining room greeted me with scolds or disinterested glances. Aside from also newly arrived British Niall, who tried to stimulate discussion in the group by remarking on the pleasantness of the interior decor. I later discovered that the cold reception was not a personal rebuke, but rather characterised the awkward opening twenty minutes of our evening meals together. It became somewhat endearing. I shared a room with resident rebel Niall, who continuously broke household protocol by using the upstairs Western throne, flushing the toilet paper, always forgetting to order meals he rocked up for and smuggling alcohol into the dining room. Describing Niall as an interesting or troubled character would be putting it mildly. He’s certainly experienced an unusual life-story, which has perhaps contributed to his reverence for the religion/philosophy he adheres to and prattled on about constantly. After 10 days, I still could not figure out if Niall zealously believed in what he was preaching or whether it was an elaborate hoax he was pulling over me. I never wanted to express belief in either side, to avoid upsetting Niall of embarrassing me!

By Indian standards, Leh is a remarkably spacious and peaceful city, free of the insane traffic, stifling air pollution, harrowing poverty and constant hassling of other cities. Leh is surrounded on three sides by stark, craggy mountains that rise to above 6,000 metres. Leh Palace is the defining edifice of the city, a mud-brick structure similar to the Potola Palace in Lhasa that occupies a hillock directly above the centre of Leh. Half of the city is composed of traditional Ladakhi mud-bricked dwellings that are packed together and separated by winding streets. The other half of Leh is green and lush, with large, whitewashed households occupying properties with small plots of agriculture. The streets are full of cows and yaks with enormous horns, which stare ominiously at you as you walk past.

I visited the Nubra Valley in Ladakh’s north on a two day jeep trip from Leh with four Indian tourists. After just one hour into the tour though, two of my companions needed to disembark because of acute mountain sickness. They had failed to adequately acclimatise in Leh (3,520 metres) in preparation for our ascent of the world’s highest motorable pass, Khardung La at 5,359 metres. Once we were above 4,500 metres, the terrain was completely covered in snow, which caused havoc for the traffic. All the vehicles needed to chain their wheels, yet some were ill-equipped and continued to slip and cause blockages. We eventually reached Khardung La and squelched our way through thick snow for photographs under a big sign incorrectly announcing we were at 5,602 metres. We arrived in the Nubra Valley in the early evening, with the journey taking twice as long as intended due to the snow-induced delays. The Nubra Valley is framed by snowcapped mountains and features a expansive plain of streams, bush and, bizarrely, sand dunes. In the morning, we rode furry two-humped camels into the dunes.

On my final day in Ladakh, I felt compelled to visit two more gompas (Tibetan Buddhist monasteries) despite my ambivalence to these rather monotonous institutions. Hemis and Thikse are touted as two of the largest and most beautiful gompas in Ladakh and are easily accessible from Leh, so with a spare day I visited with Israeli Jude and British Niall. Jude was clearly enamoured by the architectural details at the gompas and the displayed artefacts in the museums, while Niall, despite his supposed spiritual fanaticism, unsurprisingly demonstrated contempt for cultural experiences by childishly powering through the monastery halls, sulking in the courtyards and bemoaning the absence of food and tea. Admittedly, the monasteries were rather impressive edifices; certainly the largest I visited in northern India. I'm always slightly confused by the preponderance for Buddhist temple interiors to be stock-piled with massive statues of the Buddha, opulent gold and silver ornamentations, intricately carved furniture, colourful flags and elaborate murals; is this not a philosophy that espouses immaterialism? The highlight of our gompathon was listening to an extraordinary musical performance in a temple at Thikse, with dozens of monks chanting and playing numerous Tibetan instruments, including horns several metres long.

While travelling in the Himalayas and visiting innumerable monasteries, my respect for Buddhist monks gradually deteriorated. Sure, they’re amicable people, but they’re not really contributing much to society by sitting around chanting and perhaps sweeping the courtyard floors occasionally. I noticed that manual labour conducted at the monasteries, such as carrying very heavy stones up steps for construction purposes, was often performed by poor local women. I think this is symptomatic of religions globally; they seem to be a mechanism for men to feast and sit around while heaping ever more work onto women. I also didn’t appreciate their penchant to loiter near me whenever I came within proximity of donation boxes. I had absolutely no intention of supplementing their hedonistic lifestyles in their palatial monastic complexes towering imperiously above the vernacular dwellings of the adoring locals. This rant has reminded me of departing Sri Lanka when a lady at the counter indicated I needed to move so a monk could queue jump. Needless to say, I was livid by this situation. I believe the burden of respecting local archaic customs can be dispensed of once inside an international airport. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely move out of the way for pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly – but an able-bodied young male? And to think he had the audacity to accept the invitation to saunter on past me!

Mutton momos. Vegetable momos, vegetable and cheese momos, cheese momos. Fried momos, steamed momos. Ladakhis certainly love their momos. Unfortunately The Emperor does not share this passion. Momos are basically shitty versions of Chinese dumplings. Which is essentially how Tibetan cuisine could be characterised in general. The best food I ate in Ladakh was definitely the lovingly home-cooked meals prepared at Tsetan’s Guesthouse. The mother and a 14 year old Nepali worker would spend the entire afternoon delicately preparing momos, the ribbon-like noodles for thukpa (noodle soup) and tigmo, a type of fermented and steamed bread rolled into scrolls.

Ladakh proved to be the perfect antidote to the freneticism and stress of travelling in other far more populous regions of India. I intended to stay longer in “Little Tibet”, but the weather started to deteriorate with falling temperatures and the imminent threat of snow. Before departing Ladakh though, I did attempt one trek, which will be discussed in the next entry...

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 22:43 Archived in India Comments (0)

Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys

After just five days in the utter mayhem and stifling heat of modern Indian cities, I escaped to the cool and sparsely populated mountains and valleys of the Indian Himalayas. It was spine-tinglingly exciting to be travelling into the world’s greatest mountain range, far exceeding any altitude I had previously been to and entering the abode of the Tibetan Buddhist community. Geologically, the Himalayas are an infant mountain range formed by the Indian subcontinental tectonic plate colliding with the Asian tectonic plate. The resulting peaks are of astonishing and unprecedented heights and continue to grow each year (all 110 of the world’s peaks that are at least 7,000 metres above sea level are located in the Himalayas or mountain ranges surrounding the Tibetan Plateau). The Himalayas and adjacent Tibetan Plateau, collectively referred to as “the roof of the world”, have historically formed a natural barrier between the two defining civilisations of Asia: China and India. The people that have traditionally inhabited this barrier zone spanning Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and the Indian states of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh share ethnic and cultural similarities, especially for their reverence of Tibetan Buddhism. The cynic within me stymied efforts to achieve spiritual enlightenment in this auspicious region, though I certainly met several kooky Western chaps who believed they were more successful (more on that in subsequent entries). I travelled through Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys and Ladakh, which are some of the most desolate and least populated regions on Earth (yet are counterintuitively part of India).

I journeyed up to the foothills of the Himalayas on the Kalka – Shimla “toy-train”, a World Heritage-listed railway recognised as a marvellous feet of engineering. Construction of the railway was instigated because Shimla served as the capital of the British Raj when the colonialists found New Delhi a trifle too hot (so for half the year). The route is traversed in quaint matchbox-sized carriages, although the quaintness of the experience was lost on me due to my annoyance at the difficulties in finding my seat (Indians seem to have a knack of over-complicating the simplest of matters). The historic area of Shimla stretches for two kilometres along a ridge with two, thankfully pedestrianised, boulevards lined with colonial buildings. The ridge affords magnificent views of Shimla’s pine-clad suburbs that cascade down the mountainside. Ultimately though, Shimla is mostly a ho-hum destination and swarming with Indian vacationers. It mainly served as a transit point for me as I organised a five day jeep tour through the isolated Kinnaur and Spiti Valleys.

Shortly after departing Shimla, I was very grateful not to be relying upon buses to explore the region. The roads were extremely rough, with gradually increasing precipitous falls. Every few kilometres we were reminded of the treachery of the route by signs claiming, “You are driving on the world’s most dangerous road” (although I think there are a few claimants to that distinction). French Canadian Mathieu joined me on the tour and we were led by Ladakhi Hassan and driven by Kashmiri Kamal. I particularly marvelled at the skill and caution of our driver in navigating the ostensibly two lane road, which was barely wide enough for a single buggy. The scenery on the first day became more dramatic with every passing hour, as the mountain peaks continuously rose and the chaos of Indian civilisation dissipated. The residents of the Kinnaur Valley look more Chinese than Indian and wear cylindrical hats with green, gold and purple bands. In the late afternoon, we arrived at the tiny village of Kalpa; evocative of the quintessential Himalayan setting. From my balcony, I had a perfect view of the snow-capped 6,050 metre mountain of Kinner Kailesh rising above Kalpa on the opposite side of the valley. The village consists of stone and wood buildings, colourfully painted and connected by winding stone pathways. Two modest Tibetan Buddhist temples occupy the centre of the village and the ethereal sounds of chanting monks and horns emanate from them. The slopes surrounding Kalpa are thickly covered in pine trees and also feature terraced apple orchards, bean fields and grazing goats.

The landscape became substantially more desolate as we continued further north-east into the Himalayas. The trees eventually disappeared completely, save only for irrigated apple orchards, as we increased in altitude and travelled further from the coast. Stripped bare of vegetation, the mountains in this region appear to be enormous and unstable piles of scree which threaten to collapse from epic landslides at any moment. The mountains are incised by the raging, milky waters of the Sutlej River flowing through the bottom of the Kinnaur Valley. Unsurprisingly, we passed through villages with much less regularity than in previous days. Due to the proximity of the Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys to the Tibetan border, military installations are instead the most visible form of civilisation (we required permits to travel in this region, no doubt to ensure we’re not Chinese spies, although I think my face gives that away) and therefore the roads were intermittently quite good. We stayed in the stunningly located village of Nako at an altitude of 3,600 metres, the highest point on Earth I had been to (which I repeatedly surpassed over the following week). The Kinnaur Valley’s width at Nako is expansive, which almost creates the impression that Nako is within a vast caldera rimmed by snow-capped peaks rather than a river valley. The village is essentially an oasis within the mountainous desert, with potato plantations and thick groves of willows shading an aqua lake designated as “sacred” by the Dalai Lama. Nako is a Tibetan Buddhist community composed of mud-brick dwellings and replete with a modern monastery. The incredibly atmospheric five-coloured flags and banners (red, green, yellow, blue and white) synonymous with Tibetan Buddhism flutter in the wind throughout Nako. I think these flags are my favourite religious decorative motif; simple but astoundingly beautiful in the Himalayan context and effective in conveying a spiritual “vibe”. They festoon bridges, temples and isolated stupas throughout the region.

Shortly after departing Nako, we entered the Spiti Valley, a region of foreboding mountains, stark lunar landscapes and utter dryness save only for the Spiti River. The extreme isolation of the valley (during winter, Spiti is permanently inaccessible from the western approach and can be completely inaccessible if snowfall and landslides block the other end) has helped preserve its distinctly Tibetan-influenced culture. The few inhabitants of Spiti reside in clusters of large, white-painted mud-brick houses, intermittently and surreally appearing on the lifeless slopes. It defies belief that many of these settlements have existed for centuries; how did people possibly live in such remote, empty and frigid (winter) environs without road access and electricity? We visited the small but broadly spaced town of Tabo, situated at the bottom of the valley (so only 3,000 metres in altitude) and hemmed in by scree mountains. The austerity of the buildings and dull atmosphere hide some of the finest examples of Tibetan art in the world. The Tabo Gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) was founded more than one thousand years ago and its dark interiors feature intricately detailed and colourful Buddhist murals, remarkably well preserved for its age. We also visited Dhankar Gompa, which is probably the most spectacularly located building I have ever seen. The 1,200 year old monastery is perched on an eroding pinnacle a thousand feet above the confluence of the Spiti and Pin Rivers. Unsurprisingly, the building is listed as one of the “100 Most Threatened Monuments” on Earth, so I even took the extraordinary step of donating money to a religious institution. The monastery buildings are partly hewn into the rock and feature small temples, winding stairwells and passageways and rooftop terraces with staggering views. The monastery is painted white with black and red trimmings on the outside and yellow and red on the inside. From the monastery, we hiked up to the aqua Dhankar Lake at 4,200 metres in altitude, which appears like a mirage amid the monotonous brownish-orange of the landscape.

Kaza is the only proper town in the entire Spiti Valley and was the termination point of my jeep tour, as I wanted to explore the area independently. Near Kaza, the Spiti River is more a vast floodplain with meandering streams than a conventional river, creating a juxtaposing landscape of interminable flatness bordered by Himalayan mountains (Shilla rises to 7,026 metres). I hired a taxi with a German guy to visit the high altitude villages close to Kaza. We stopped at Ki Gompa, an almost circular compound picturesquely situated on a hillock overlooking the Spiti River floodplain. It reminded me somewhat of the capital of Rohan, as depicted in Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers. We then ascended to Kibber at 4,200 metres, a village of large mud-brick houses on a plateau overlooking the valley. Just near the village is the skeleton of a bridge crossing a 300 metre gorge, which has remained unfinished for over a decade. Alternatively, the locals cross the gorge by an open, wire cable-car with no harnesses or safety equipment whatsoever. We next visited Langzha, a tiny village perched below a quintessentially pointy Himalayan peak (6,300 metres) with a massive modern Buddha scanning the valley. We continued to the village of Komic, which was noteworthy only for its claim at being the highest motorable village in the world at 4,513 metres. To complete the tour, we sent postcards from the highest post office in the world in Hikkim at 4,440 metres. The lack of replies from home suggest perhaps there were issues with the delivery.

The Kinnaur – Spiti Valleys hardly constitute a trip through culinary wonderland. The region’s extreme remoteness and minimal agricultural output have precluded it from developing a cuisine matching the glorious repertoire of kitchens in India’s central and southerly regions. Omelettes, stuffed paranthas (similar to roti, stuffed with spiced potatoes or onions) and uninspiring renditions of lassis were my conventional breakfasts. For lunch and dinner, I usually ate dhal or a lacklustre chicken curry, or one of the ubiquitous triumvirate of Tibetan dishes that have seeped across the border: momos (similar to Chinese dumplings, just blander), thukpa (noodle soup) and chow mein (essentially just Chinese fried noodles). The only thing of intrigue I tried was tea made from sea-buckthorn berries; vivid orange berries (touted as a super food) that grow natively in the mountainous deserts of the Spiti Valley.

My journey out of the Spiti Valley took a long and somewhat eventful full day. In order to catch the only west-bound bus from Kaza, I was instructed to arrive at the bus station half an hour before scheduled departure at 6:30am. I punctually adhered to this advice and found several groups of locals loitering around the bus in the pre-dawn dimness. I discovered the early formations of a queue awaiting an attendant at the ticket counter and placed myself fourth in line. When the attendant eventually came (late), he was mobbed by the locals and the queue immediately disappeared. While the locals displayed barbaric manners in their efforts to secure a seat, I determinedly maintained decorum - to my loss. The attendant unapologetically ignored me in the mayhem and shrugged his shoulders at my sudden plight in being unable to secure a ticket on the only bus heading outta town that day. I may have directed him a couple deserving F-bombs in my bemusement (there are certain advantages to being three times taller than most Indians). Fortunately though, there were a few other tourists stranded, so we hired a jeep at relatively considerable expense and were on our way. The route was predictably awe-inspiring, highlighted by crossing the 4,551 metre Kunzum La mountain pass. Greenery reappeared in the landscape and the scenery seemed somewhat more familiar and earthly. The other tourists were travelling south to Manali, so mid-afternoon I disembarked at a junction called Gramphu, hoping to catch a passing bus north towards Ladakh. With a surprising absence of, well, just about anything, I wasn’t terribly confident in my prospects. A “real hippy”(so very very rare) Puerto Rican guy already waiting at the junction did not share my cynicism though and began waving down any passing vehicle heading in my direction; military not exempted. Within ten minutes I was tucked into a tiny white car driven by a kindly, though seldom speaking, long haired local man. After three hours, broken conversation and hitching another ride for the last five kilometres, I arrived in Keylong just before dusk; ready for the famed road trip north to Ladakh the next day.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Posted by Liamps 19:29 Archived in India Comments (0)

Delhi

India photos

I intended to forego the tiresome burden of writing this blog and simply enjoy the bliss of a stress-free, work-free trip in India. But when I revealed this proposition to Grandma, her distraught facial expression compelled me to reevaluate my plans. So begrudgingly, I will again sacrifice countless hours to deliver accounts of my travel exploits; hoping to write in a more succinct manner than previously, but knowing such efforts will be futile.

In total contrast to my characteristic and slightly abnormal custom of excessively researching travel destinations, I flew to India just one week after booking my flight with virtually no plans other than to visit Delhi. However, I rectified this somewhat unsettling situation after fifteen hours straight of intense Lonely Planet study, formulating a loose itinerary that restricted my travels to North India. This was despite the distractions of the requisite outrageous behaviour by nearby passengers onboard both of my flights en route to Delhi. For nine hours to Kuala Lumpur, I suffered through the maniacal cackling of a mother-daughter combination sitting behind me that successfully redefined my idea of what constitutes a total bogan. As they gasped for breath in hysterics over comments of an embarrassingly unhumorous nature, they blew $15 a pop on scotch and coke and subsequently spilled their beverages everywhere – including on my elbow. Needless to say, they failed to respect onboard etiquette by repeatedly grabbing and pushing my seat each time they needed to relieve themselves of their drinks. As a squished 6’3” passenger, I still manage to slither in-and-out of my seat without manhandling any others, so I therefore don’t accept the need for stumpier people to disrupt my comfort! On my flight to Delhi, the petite lady in front of me seemed shocked at the aggressive kneeing unleashed into her seat when she reclined it back – I’m rather territorial about precious leg space and always well prepared for such battles!

India is characterised as a “subcontinent” not only because of continental drift theory, but also because of the country’s extreme cultural and environmental diversity. Indeed, describing India as a singular country is somewhat misleading, because each of its 28 states are remarkably distinct with their own languages, ethnicities, traditional clothing, cuisines and customs. India is therefore comparable to the entire continent of Europe, although its population is more than double the size. As the federal capital and fifth largest megalopolis on the planet, Delhi serves as the melting pot of this vast nation, with its myriad of regional identities and religions present in the city. Delhi was the logical starting point for my trip in India – not least because of the astonishingly cheap airfare I was able to book!

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Contrary to popular belief, New Delhi and Old Delhi are not independent cities, but rather staggeringly different neighbouring districts within one humungous megacity. Old Delhi is among the most densely crowded areas in the world, a labyrinth of bazaars stockpiled with every imaginable product (except bottled water!) and congested by flotillas of rickshaws, tuk-tuks and trucks. Conversely, New Delhi evokes space and order with wide boulevards, monumental government buildings, manicured lawns and sterile stores for Western brands. Delhi’s boundless suburbs sprawl in all directions surrounding these two central districts.

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Backpackers typically stay in the derelict hotels in the neighbourhood of Paharganj, which is notorious for scams, crime and the occasional tourist murder. However, contemporary hostels have recently popped up in the suburbs of South Delhi; considered to be the “posh” area of the megalopolis (though still a far-cry from our leafy Eastern suburbs). I stayed in a hostel around 30 minutes by metro (outstanding system) from the centre of the city, but enjoyed the relative peace of the area free from the incessant hassling and chaos rampant in Old Delhi. I discovered an expansive forested park near my hostel where local Indians and expats exercised; some strenuously, some not so much. I went for a run each morning through the park and became utterly saturated within seconds due to the 30+ degrees heat and 85-90% humidity.

Exiting the metro into the utter mayhem of Old Delhi was my first proper experience of India – and what an overwhelming experience it provided! Never before have I witnessed such extraordinary traffic; it becomes so incredibly jammed that the wheels of rickshaws and bicycles literally touch that of neighbouring vehicles. Crossing the road is actually rather safe because of the seemingly perpetual standstill. Old Delhi consists of winding streets lined with decaying though architecturally unremarkable buildings. Many of the streets and alleys specialise in particular types of merchandise (such as gift cards) and are overly crammed with products. Old Delhi is ground zero for some of the worst hassling on the planet and I was woefully out of form with dealing with them on day one. Fortunately though, I quickly returned to my impenetrable best the next day, employing my usual tactics of either playful sarcasm or totally ignoring them (I have an excellent face for poker, just not the game).

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Delhi was originally founded by Hindu rulers, but a succession of Muslim dynasties stretching for 600 years bestowed upon the city its most impressive architectural wonders. The Qutb Minar Complex, located in the far south of Delhi, is the archaeological ruins of the first Muslim settlement. The site is dominated by a slender 73 metre high Afghan-style tower, which was constructed to proclaim Islam’s victory in North India. The structure and its intricately carved sandstone bands are remarkably well preserved after more than eight centuries. The ruins of mosques, tombs and a madrasa (Islamic university) also dot the site, but the other astonishing feature of the Qutb Minar Complex is a humble iron pillar. The pillar is a metallurgical mystery, because it has not rusted after 1600 years. It has yet to be discovered how the pillar was cast with such purity using the contemporary technology (such technology was not developed in Europe until the nineteenth century).

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The Mughals established India’s greatest Islamic empire, conquering most of the Subcontinent and constructing some of its finest edifices. Humayun’s Tomb is a masterpiece of Mughal architecture, a perfectly proportioned and symmetrical imperial mausoleum. The structure is both monumental and serenely beautiful; a red sandstone prototype for the Taj Mahal. Clustered behind the vast ornamental gardens of Humayun’s Tomb are a tangle of crowded Muslim bazaars selling flowers, religious offerings and… kebabs. Hidden within the bazaar tunnels is a marble shrine dedicated to a Muslim Sufi saint. When I visited the compact shrine precinct at sunset, it was heaving with devotees garbed in pristine white Islamic clothing. My entrance was met with warm welcomes and questioning scolds; I certainly noticed I was the only non-believer there! Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor famed for commissioning the construction of the Taj Mahal, was also responsible for the foundations of Old Delhi. He ordered the construction of the Red Fort to serve as the new capital of the empire, with the bazaars and religious buildings of Old Delhi subsequently growing organically to the west of the Fort’s walls. While the imperious red sandstone walls were impressive, I found the interior buildings and gardens somewhat underwhelming.

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British presence in India commenced from 1600 with the East India Company establishing trading posts at ports along the Subcontinent’s coastline. Using private armies, the company grew to dominate almost the entire Subcontinent, before the British Parliament transferred the rule of India directly to the Crown in 1857. The British Raj’s capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 because of increasing rebelliousness in the Bengali metropolis. The British constructed their administrative centre south of the rambling and derelict Old Delhi, an overwhelmingly spacious area demonstrative of imperial might somewhat comparable to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Neoclassical government buildings crown a hill overlooking a monumental two kilometre avenue (the Rajpath) leading to India Gate, which commemorates the deceased Indian soldiers who fought in World War One. Fanning out from the Rajpath are well planned districts of wide tree-lined boulevards, colonial buildings, ornate gardens and expensive shops.

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I can proudly boast of departing Delhi after four days without acquiring its eponymous “belly”. It was certainly not for lack of eating. As the capital and multicultural melting pot of arguably the world’s most diverse country, Delhi is predictably a foodie’s paradise. Old Delhi is studded with famed centuries-old snack stalls and Mughlai kebab dens, which I hopped between on multiple delicious food safaris. Lassis from a hole-in-the-wall shop were easily my highlight – to think we’re only exposed to mango lassis (the world’s best drink) and salted lassis in Australia! I sampled almond and saffron lassi that was so mindbogglingly luxurious I was compelled to return an hour later for the rosewater lassi – equally extraordinary! While rice is often considered to be synonymous with Indian cuisine, bread is actually the dominate staple of the North Indian diet. The typical breakfast meal is parantha, which is essentially roti bread stuffed with potatoes, vegetables or paneer cheese. I visited a tiny alley in Old Delhi famed for deep-fried paranthas and sampled pea parantha, potato parantha and lemon parantha served with pumpkin curry, potato curry and banana chutney – superb. Dahi vada is a delicious snack food, consisting of fried chickpea-flour balls soaked in yoghurt and topped with sweet chutney. The culinary legacy of the Mughals in Delhi is the obsession with kebabs in the Muslim areas of the city. I feasted on seekh kebabs (spiced mutton kebabs similar to kofta), Mughlai chicken (a rich, fatty chicken curry) and naan bread at legendary Karim’s. Unlike the rest of Asia, India boasts a phenomenal repertoire of desserts and sweets. Probably the most indulgent of their sickly sweet treats are jalebis, which are deep fried flour batter shaped into pretzels and soaked in sugar syrup. Rabri faluda is a traditional ice-cream dish consisting of cold vermicelli noodles covered in a sweet milk mixture spiced with cardamon – a superb flavour addition to desserts.

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Delhi has a rather poor reputation on the traveller circuit, as most people attempt to leave the city quickly or avoid it altogether. But I buck the trend because I actually quite like Delhi. Staying in a relatively wealthy residential district probably contributed to my enjoyment of the city, because it allowed me to escape the hassling and crowds of Old Delhi. Or perhaps it was simply because I felt like a celebrity in Delhi, with legions of Indian tourists desiring a coveted photograph beside The Emperor with his much admired hat.

That’s all for now,

Liam

India photos

Posted by Liamps 19:39 Archived in India Comments (1)

Dubai

Dubai photos

The shiny, sterile and culturally depleted cities inexplicably rising from the interminable nothingness of the Arabian Peninsula characterise a region I have minimal enthusiasm about travelling through. The cities are touted as ultra-modern centres of globalisation, yet draconian misogynistic attitudes and racially-defined class systems continue to flourish. The ruling elite seemingly float through the masses of South Asian workers like demigods in their pristine white garments and bling. Their obscene wealth fails to inspire admiration from this Western observer, since it is entirely and lazily derived from oil and natural gas reserves. The United Arab Emirates is reorienting its economy toward tourism (to offset the depletion of its fossil fuel resources), but what do cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai offer to visitors other than gimmicks? I reluctantly decided to sacrifice two days to investigate this question with a visit to Dubai, while transiting between Stockholm and Colombo. To offset my hesitation, I focused on the likelihood I would have regular access to extraordinary renditions of the world’s most delicious food: hummus.

Dubai is a horrid mixture of outer suburban sprawl, Gold Coast-esque monstrosities, incessant commercialisation, rampaging highways and isolated neighbourhoods. Dubai is therefore the {insert antonym of prototype, whatever that may be} for twenty-first century urban planning; a car dependent metropolis lacking integration, communities and green spaces. However, the negatively connoted label of Dubai as “artificial” is slightly misleading, because essentially all human settlements are artificial creations. What differentiates Dubai from other cities worldwide is that the construction of multi-billion dollar mega-infrastructure projects are initiated to generate new demand, instead of catering for existing or projected demand. The Emir is attempting to mould Dubai into an utopian centre for international finance, trade and tourism and obtain the coveted status as a “global city”. But to me, Dubai is simply a manifestation of the innate failure of rampant, unregulated capitalism. Dubai is defined by gross inequality, evidenced by opulent five star hotels and corporate headquarters towering over dusty and wretched residences of low-wage workers. I refuse to believe the ubiquitously overweight Emirati men, driving flashy Mercedes-Benz vehicles, work a tenth as hard as the South Asian workers in Dubai. The city depends upon a modern-day form of slavery because labour unions, collective bargaining and strikes are illegal, human rights abuses pervasive and the pathway to citizenship nonexistent for migrant workers. The West regularly lectures potential foes such as China, Russia and Iran about human rights abuses, but exemptions are seemingly granted to key military and economic partners rich in black gold.

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While most of Dubai characterises the dystopian reality I have thus far described, there were two small enclaves I admittedly rather liked: Deira and Old Dubai on opposite sides of the Dubai Creek. The area is promoted as the historic centre of Dubai, but most of the buildings are actually modernist structures or replicas of traditional, mud-brick dwellings. The area resembles other cities in the Arab World, with maze-like street plans, atmospheric souqs, tiny shops jammed with exotic merchandise and the requisite hawkers. The domes and minarets of numerous mosques rise above the relatively low-level streetscapes, creating impressive vistas beside the aqua-coloured Dubai Creek. The only mode of transportation across Dubai Creek is by small, colourful wooden boats that depart the docks on either side every few minutes. Its pleasantly surprising that such a traditional and simplistic system has managed to survive in Dubai. Old Dubai features several pedestrianised precincts of mud-brick buildings with traditional vernacular architecture. While the precincts were entirely constructed for touristic purposes (boutique hotels, shops and dozens of small free-entrance museums – each specialising in different aspects of Dubai’s history and culture)), I actually rather liked the atmosphere as they felt reasonably authentic or at least refined and not gaudy. Old Dubai and Deira are absent of the ostentatiousness pervasive throughout the rest of the city and stimulated fond memories of other places in the Arab World; the area is essentially a very tame taste of the Middle East.

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Deira

While Deira and Old Dubai are relatively compact, newer areas of Dubai sprawl for several dozen kilometres south of the Creek and form neighbourhoods thoroughly unsuitable for pedestrianism. No wonder why the Emiratis are so unfit. Nevertheless, I attempted to walk between major attractions to avoid my pet hate (waiting for buses), but this only made me irritable as I severely underestimated distances, was scorched in the desert heat, listened to vehicles blaring past at 100km/hr and repeatedly encountered “no pedestrian access” signs to prolong my journeys. The road network of Dubai is basically just a crisscross of ugly highways; the concept of “Main Street” or “High Street” seems to have been ignored during Dubai’s sudden rise. The endless strip of skyscrapers are mostly distasteful aesthetically, except for the iconic Burj Khalifa. Okay, I suppose the Burj Khalifa is merely another one of Dubai’s collection of gimmicks, but as a civil engineering student I couldn’t fail to be impressed by the world’s tallest building. Fortunately, the remarkable height of the building is tangible because it appears to be twice the height of neighbouring towers. However, I decided to renege on paying $50 to have a panoramic view of Dubai’s ugliness from the observation deck, since its not even located on the top level. I did at least enjoy a phenomenal sound, light and water display in the evening from the world’s largest fountain below the world’s tallest building and adjacent the world’s largest shopping mall. I’m sure that sentence pleased the Emir’s tourism board.

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Burj Khalifa and fountain display

By far my biggest priority while visiting Dubai was to indulge in heavenly mountains of smooth, delectable hummus. Immediately after dumping my luggage at a hotel, I ambled rather briskly to a target eatery, an inexpensive Syrian restaurant. For breakfast, I enjoyed an intoxicatingly delicious serve of hummus with marinated lamb: oh how I missed hummus with an equal ratio of chickpeas to tahini, typical in the Middle East. I also had a bowl of fuul (stewed fava beans with copious amounts of olive oil and citrus juice), freshly-baked flat bread and fresh mango juice (particularly savoured after six months in cold, tropical fruit-depleted Europe). For lunch, I was ushered into a packed Pakistani dining hall and ate green lentil dhal, mutton and naan bread. I ventured to another Syrian restaurant for dinner and feasted on superb hummus with plates of flat bread, pickles, vegetables, mint and salad leaves: so simple and healthy yet so delicious and fulfilling. I also ate a dish of lamb kofta with tahini sauce baked in a clay-pot and covered with crispy bread: also a stupendous dish. I bought a massive container of hummus (despite requesting a small) and smashed it down just prior to passing through immigration at the airport. While Emirati cuisine does exist, the cuisines of South Asia and the Levant are much more accessible and popular in the city (so hummus convinced me not to bother with the local fare).

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Hummus with lamb, fuul and fresh mango juice

Been there, done that. I feel that way about very few countries I have travelled to, but I really have no aspirations of returning to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates or any country on the Arabian side of the Gulf. Far more interesting countries in the Middle East command exploration!

That’s all for now,

Liam

Dubai photos

Posted by Liamps 13:32 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (0)

Swedish Lapland

Sweden photos

The wild, desolate expanse of Sweden’s remote north beyond the Arctic Circle was my final destination in Scandinavia. After the completion of exams in Stockholm, I caught a seventeen hour train journey to Abisko in the northernmost corner of the country to commence a five day exploration of Swedish Lapland. Although I travelled during the darkness of night (which lasted virtually the entire seventeen hours), it was noticeable at each station that the snow gradually became thicker and the temperature lower; a foreboding sign of what was to be expected in Lapland. When I arrived in Abisko, I encountered a temperature twelve degrees lower than anything I had experienced previously and a landscape totally covered in snow; a proper WOW factor moment. I spent three days in Abisko enjoying the sublime natural beauty of its unblemished environment and two days in Kiruna, one of Europe’s northernmost and coldest towns.

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Abisko is located within the World Heritage listed Laponian Wilderness, a vast collection of protected areas considered one of Europe’s last great natural environments. Abisko is a tiny community situated on the outskirts of its namesake national park. The dramatic approach into Abisko circumvents a vast, partially frozen lake and enters a valley of snow covered mountains (not particularly high). Abisko is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights and the starting point of the famed King’s Trail, an epic 440 kilometre trail through the central spine of Sweden. Consequently, the community’s existence is almost entirely dependent on tourism. The village is composed of spacious timber red-and-white houses encircling a train station that looks somewhat like a gigantic barn. The constituent forms of transport during the long winters are snowmobiling and skiing, which compact the snow on the paths and make them easy to walk on. However, stepping off the paths results in submerging your knees below snow; which came as quite a shock the first time!

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I stayed at an excellent hostel in Abisko that was managed by a mixture of quirky locals and seasonal workers. The hostel consisted of several timber buildings scattered around a large property. The dormitories were located in a building that essentially functioned like a house, creating a communal and homely vibe. I shared a dormitory with English Mark, Danish Christian, German Sylvia and a bunch of unrelated Chinese tourists, who were all coincidentally studying in France. Abisko seemed to be a particularly popular (and slightly random) destination for Chinese tourists, who dominated the foreign presence in town. Snowsuits were provided by the hostel, which made exploring the Lapland wilderness comfortable and warm. By wearing the snowsuit over my existing layers, I was able wander outside easily for hours. In addition to the snowsuit, I also wore snow boots, thermal socks, thick woollen socks, long johns, skins, jeans (supposedly an unsuitable garment for the Arctic, but I had no issues!), a thermal top, a T-shirt, a skivvy, a woollen jumper, a light jacket, a thick jacket, a scarf, a beanie, cotton gloves and leather mittens simultaneously, depending on how cold it was..

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Dogsledding was not an activity I expected to excel at, but I proved to be an utter natural. I joined a group of fifteen for a two hour (became three hour) dogsledding tour of the landscape surrounding Abisko Hostel. Each person commanded their own sleigh, with four huskies assigned to the most talented (or just heaviest) members of the contingent. Before our departure from the mounting yard (?), our Czech leader bombarded us with a slew of instructions that I was certain I would either forget or fail to master. She explained how to break (by stepping on a metal bar that would grate the snow) and that when ascending slopes, we would need to aid the huskies by pushing off from the ground with one leg (with the other firmly rooted to the sleigh). We assisted the guides in assembling the sleighs, which was a rather intimidating ordeal as the huskies barked manically, attempted to bolt off and even attacked each other. We were to sleigh in single-file but were supposed to stay together as a group. Unfortunately I was positioned at number thirteen in order, which condemned me to long waits behind slow-pokes and duds. Indeed, there was an elderly American couple who both annoyingly and amusingly served that role.

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Once we commenced sleighing, I quickly found it very easy. The huskies simply followed the pack, so the only responsibility I had was to control their speed and stopping/starting. I also needed to ensure I moved correctly with the sleigh to avoid stacking, though this was quite natural. Controlling the huskies was hardest when the group stopped as they were eager to charge off. When we could move, the huskies would bolt away suddenly, which were the most difficult moments to stay on the sleigh. However, throughout most of the tour my four dogs were very lazy, preferring to dawdle and smell other dogs’ shit. Consequently, I was required to aid the huskies for roughly a third of the trip, which was incredibly exhausting with a snow suit and a dozen other garments on. Meanwhile, other participants claimed they didn’t need to aid their dogs whatsoever. At least half the members of the group crashed at some point from momentary lapses in control. One lady however was completely unable to handle her huskies, resulting in numerous crashes and long delays. Eventually, the guides ceded to her overtures of giving up and allowed her to ride in the back of a snow-mobile trailer. After the tour, we had the opportunity to enter the husky pens to pat these wonderful, semi-wild creatures. The dogsledding tour was definitely the highlight of my trip to a Lapland, an exhilarating and somewhat authentic way to see the landscape.

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The wilderness surrounding Abisko was one of the most enthralling areas for hiking that I have ever visited. Perhaps not so much for mesmerising vistas (although they were quite impressive) but for the sheer exoticism of trampling through an environment completely smothered in remarkably thick snow. Trails lead in all directions from Abisko, discernible from the boot marks and ski tracks in the snow. Following the trails into the desolate, inhospitable winter landscape was both exceptionally eerie and exhilarating, because of the interminable silence, stillness and lack of people. I went hiking for five hours on each of my final two days at Abisko and found it surprisingly exhausting, due to the clothing and occasional off-path wandering through knee-high snow. I vigilantly kept note of the time, to ensure I wasn’t caught out in pitch black darkness. I hiked through birch forests of grey skeletal trees spiking through the snow. I hiked across flat, open spaces that were probably frozen waterways, but I was often not sure. On one occasion, I encountered what was definitely a frozen lake and eventually mustered the courage to cross it (with a couple cracking sounds underfoot on the way!). I also encountered a frozen river that the trail evidently crossed and debated whether to also. Fortunately I decided not to, because I later noticed a couple hundreds metres upstream gaping holes in the ice sheet covering the river! I hiked mostly within shallow valleys surrounded by placid mountains of black rock and snow and enjoyed panoramic views of the perpetually white scenery.

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The opportunity to see the Northern lights is the constituent reason why people travel to Abisko; supposedly the best place in the world to view them. Witnessing an Aurora Borealis spectacle though is inherently unpredictable and not guaranteed. Consequently, there was an unofficial understanding among everyone staying at the hostel that if the lights were spotted, the alert was to be raised; regardless of the time. During the first (20 hour) night at Abisko, everyone in my dormitory was over-excited about the prospects of seeing the lights, after glowing reports from the previous days. In turns, we wandered outside hunting for the lights, until giving up completely by 2am: no lights. At around 6pm the next evening with everyone defrosting in bed, we suddenly heard a random hunter cry, “Lights! Lights!”. Within a nanosecond, we all jumped out of our comfortable perches and in a desperate hurry began the excruciatingly long and tedious process of gearing up for the external elements. Our fears of missing the lights were abated when we dashed outside and saw… grey cloud-like formations. I won’t lie, it was probably the single greatest anticlimax of my entire life, narrowly eclipsing my homemade roast chicken gravy for Christmas 2014. I was rather shocked by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses I was hearing from other light-gazers and wondered what I was missing. While I only just detected a tinge of colour, I was surprised to discover that photographs taken with very specific settings depicted the lights as vividly green. The phenomenon only lasted for twenty minutes, prompting our quick return to the warmth of bed. At around 9:30pm, lights were again spotted. On this occasion, the lights were substantially more impressive; though my fantasy of brilliant green light dancing across the night’s sky still hadn’t materialised. It was nevertheless a dynamic spectacle of formations that were obviously not clouds, with strands of feint green light gracefully folding through the sky. Mark and I braved the numbingly cold conditions for about one hour until we were satisfied the lights were not going to become any more enthralling; and returned to the warm refuge of the hostel.

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While I experienced bitterly cold temperatures in Abisko, it was even colder in nearby Kiruna. Abisko’s weather is relatively “temperate”, due to its location within a protective valley. Kiruna, however, is more exposed and can therefore experience much lower temperatures. When I visited Kiruna, the temperature hovered between -17 and -25 degrees. Since I was without a snow suit in Kiruna and depending purely on clothes bought from Primark, this temperature difference was certainly palpable. I had no issue walking outside in -17 degrees for hours, but exposure to -25 degrees for more than forty minutes was completely intolerable. My body’s reaction to conditions of -25 degrees was quite intriguing, because I found that for thirty minutes I would just be “aware” of the temperature, but then suddenly and rapidly I would feel very cold and need to find heated shelter. If you ever thought there’s nothing quite like an air-conditioned room on a hot summer day, wait until you travel to the Arctic!

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Kiruna is the largest Swedish settlement north of the Arctic Circle and Lapland’s transportation hub. The town exists in this incredibly inhospitable environment because of a gargantuan iron ore mine, the largest in Europe. The mine’s continual expansion will literally swallow Kiruna, which has resulted in the construction of a new town five kilometres away. However, the scheduled relocation to the new town has been delayed because of China’s economic slow down and therefore the lower demand for iron ore. The inevitable destruction of Kiruna will be rather saddening, because aside from the sterile concrete centre, its actually quite a pleasant town. Kiruna’s most attractive structure is the town’s main Lutheran church; a hulking, triangular wooden building that is often voted Sweden’s most beautiful. Kiruna’s neighbourhoods are composed of quaint timbers houses sporting a variety of colours (though mostly the maroon-red typical in Sweden); the vividness of which are accentuated by the unblemished white snow carpeting roofs, gardens, roads, cars and trees. Although the snow coverage was probably just slightly higher than in Abisko (nearly waist height, off the pavement), it seemed significantly deeper because of the surreal context of being inside a town rather than wilderness. I stayed at a lovely “hostel” in Kiruna, which was basically just an elderly woman’s very cozy house with guests sharing the bottom level.

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Kiruna Church

The internationally famous Ice Hotel is situated in the unassuming village of Jukkasjarvi near Kiruna (where it gets even lower). Unwilling to fork out $500 to freeze to death in my sleep, I opted to merely peruse through the hotel during the day (though for a still rather hefty $45) when all the rooms are accessible for public visitation. The Ice Hotel is constructed every November and melts away completely in May. Artists from throughout the world are invited to sculpt the hotel’s furniture and ornamentation from ice. The one-storey hotel only partially looks like an artificial structure; it certainly doesn’t feature a typical façade. But that’s because the focus is on the internal space, where jutting from a grand foyer are six corridors that lead to dozens of dazzling ice bedrooms. All of the rooms consist of an ice double bed covered in animal hides, with guests sleeping inside advanced sleeping bags to survive the night. The larger and more expensive rooms boast elaborate and distinctive designs, while the cheaper rooms are bare and generic. Some of the most impressive spectacles included a huge peacock in a wall replete with neon lights, elephant sculptures, a room full of quirky sheep and a creepy room full of human heads. While I thoroughly enjoyed visiting this remarkable building, I was also pleased to drive back to Kiruna for a warm night at the hostel!

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My typically high culinary standards changed completely in Swedish Lapland. Rather than attempting to sample traditional cuisine, my constituent objective was to counteract the extreme cold by achieving maximal calorie intake for minimal expenditure. I suspect the local population share this motive, because surprisingly affordable carb-and-meat-heavy food was readily available. The “dagens lunch” special offered by the only restaurant in Abisko was a buffet of two main dishes, potatoes, bread, pasta and salad bar. I chose strategically to attend the buffet at 2:30pm each day to avoid wasting precious daylight and to cover my lunch and dinner. My voracious appetite, which was exacerbated by the temperatures, was on full display. I also attended a brunch buffet in Kiruna that featured all the traditional Swedish favourites, including smoked salmon, gravlax (salmon cured in sugar and salt), pickled herring, potato salad, egg salad and roasted moose (quite delicious, richer than beef). Also in Kiruna, I sampled the Lapland version of (apparently) Sweden’s most traditional style of pizza, which features thin crust pastry, tomato, onion, cheese, slices of doner kebab (not exactly Swedish) and spicy garlic sauce. Perhaps for the novelty factor rather than improving the taste, the doner kebab was replaced by smoked reindeer.

Swedish Lapland was definitely one of the highlights of my nine month journey, a fitting (and cold) way to conclude my time in Europe. The five day trip was loaded with surreal experiences, including dogsledding, hiking through knee-high snow, walking across frozen lakes, observing the northern lights and enduring extremely low temperatures. The incredibly short days were also rather exotic and the only time I sighted the sun was when I was awaiting my flight at Kiruna Airport...

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 14:48 Archived in Sweden Comments (1)

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