Getting off the plane in Amritsar, India felt like coming home...after 2 months in Central Asia it was a relief and fun to be able to talk to everyone in english! We headed off to the Pakistan border for the afternoon closing ceremony. It was a little bizarre, tensions really are quite high between these two countries and yet they manage to co-ordinate this spectacular display of machismo, arrogance and bravado every day for the assembled crowds on both sides of the border. There were literally thousands of people on both sides watching the display from grandstands. Each side tries to outdo the other and goosestep, shout or march that little bit higher, louder or faster. There were MCs on both sides....ours whipping up the crowd with frenzied cries of 'Hindustan, Hindustan, Hindustan!'. Most of the hour long ceremony consisted of guards goosestepping quickly to and from the border culminating in the flags being slowly lowered....signifying that the border was closed for the day and that for us the show was over.
The next day was the Golden Temple - home to the Sikh religion. It was a great experience and brought to life the Sikh values of equality and inclusiveness. We had to cover our heads, a friendly Sikh chap at the entrance sorted Bryn out a bright orange pirate look. The golden temple (750kg of gold) is set in the middle of a giant square pond...which devotees walk around, swim in and also scarily drink as it's considered holy. There was a communal kitchen, a feature of all Sikh temples, staffed by volunteers serving up dhal and chappattis to all comers for any donations anyone wanted to give. Inside the golden temple are four priests who keep up a chant from the Sikh holy book which is broadcast around the whole temple complex on loudspeakers. It was fun chilling out around the pond and people watching.
We headed down to Delhi for a few days before catching the train to Jaipur in Rajasthan. We'd decided to do Rajasthan in style as we had so many wedding presents here and it seemed a shame to have to return to our backpacking ways in between our presents.....any excuse for us to upgrade!!
Jaipur - is the pink city. We had thought that this would mean that everything would be a nice delicate pink sandstone, but it wasn't to be. Instead all the buildings are actually painted pink....nice from a distance but up close everything just looked a little dirty. We visited the Observatory which dates back to 1728 and has the largest timepiece on earth....a giant sun dial which can tell the time to the nearest minute - see the shadow in the bottom right of the photo indicating it's about half one.
We also visited the City Palace and the Palace of Winds - enjoying the pretty buildings and a new style of architecture for us.
We went off to the Amber Fort, a massive structure 10km outside Jaipur, which we had fun exploring. There's always loads of Indian tourists at the sights - but sometimes we wondered whether they had actually come to see the sight or to take pictures of foreigners. Everyone wanted their photo taken with us!
We also climbed up to see the Tiger Fort overlooking Jaipur and had a great time walking round the ramparts as the sun started to dip.
Another overnight sleeper train and we arrived in Bikaner....a swirling dusty city set in the desert. Fi got particularly excited at seeing camel carts delivering their loads in downtown Bikaner!
We were staying in Bhairon Villas a heritage hotel, once home to Bikaner's Prime Minister - this was another wedding present, this time courtesy of Nicola and Kieron - thankyou! Our room had real character and really seemed like some sort of Scottish game lodge complete with stags heads on the walls.
We set off early one morning for the Karni Mata Temple which is 30km south of Bikaner, to foreigners it is known as the Rat Temple and the main reason people visit Bikaner. The people here believe that they will be reincarnated as kabas - a holy rat. The holy rodents receive first class treatment at this temple....large saucers of creamy milk left out for them, food in abundance and the temple has also been modified to provide them with plenty of holes to scuttle through the walls. It's considered particularly auspicious for you if one of the little flea-ridden bundles scurries over your feet. Yes, being a Hindu temple....you're barefoot, doing your best to avoid the rat poop. We were a little disappointed at the quality of the rats considering the treatment they receive - we had thought they might be a little more cute and furry. Instead they were mangy, dirty things...and we were both glad to get out of there.
We also visited the National Camel Research Centre...where we learnt about the different breeds of local camels...you need to select different ones for speed, endurance, strength etc They had a great little cafe serving up camel products....we weren't totally convinced about our camel ice creams!
We arrived into Jaisalmer at dawn, glad to get off our train as there wasn't an air-con option and we spent most the night coughing as clouds of desert billowed through our carriage. We were grateful for our pick-up which whizzed us across town and straight into our beds at Hotel Fifu. We were staying outside the fort walls....it's essentially the world's largest sandcastle and the extra demands that tourists are placing on the water infrastructure are causing the castle to fall down.
We'd organised a 3 day camel trek into the desert here - a wedding present from Lisa, Nat and Mel. Thanks girls we really had a lot of fun! It was incredible seeing how people survive here in this parched environment. It was tough seeing the fields which were literally dust.....this the second year that that monsoon rains had failed. Most the camels that we saw had actually lost their humps as they'd had to use their fat reserves due to the lack of food.
We spent our days riding for a few hours and then stopping up under a nice shady tree for a 3 hour siesta to escape the worst of the heat. We were well fed with fresh chappattis and veg curry every meal
Each night the camel men would let their camels wander looking for food, as camel food is scarce during the drought, for a few hours and then head out to find them before they themselves went to sleep. They spent 2 hours looking for their camels the first night! Sleeping was a magical experience...no tents, just a roll mat on the sand dunes under the stars. Our guide Mr Khan really looked after us, waking us up each morning with a cup of chai. We honestly didn't lift a finger for 3 days.
Our guide's devotion to our two camels....Mr Lalloo and Julian was quite astounding....whilst other guides spent their money on themselves (cigarettes/alcohol), he would buy his camels sugarcane and oil. We'd never seen anyone smile so much when we told him that we thought his camels were the best kept! He was an interesting chap, world's apart from our lives but with a very kind heart, who'd got married at the age of 12 and fully expected his children to be married off at that age as well...the dowry system is still in force in Rajasthan and he grimaced as he told us that his first three children were all daughters!
Back in Jaisalmer we enjoyed wandering round the fort at dusk - lots of little lanes and great views out across Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer is famous for it's rich merchants houses with their fabulous intricate sandstone carvings. We also bought some really stunning patchwork bedspreads made out of 60 year old Brahmin dresses.
We caught a dusty train over to Jodhpur where it was yet another wedding present....this time in the form of a luxury hotel stay from Paul and Millie - thankyou! Our train actually arrived in two hours late...and it was a lovely start to our stay when the hotel apologised that we were late!...bearing in mind that it was us that were late....and told us a tray of sandwiches was in our room....which had been upgraded to the suite! Kharni Bhawan is a 1940s red sandstone villa and was once home to Rajasthan royalty. We spent a fabulous day relaxing by the pool and pretending we were on some posh holiday. We splashed out one night and decided to sample a bottle of sparkling Indian wine....Sula Brut....surprisingly OK we thought considering the climate. The food was fabulous and had won awards in Europe...the chicken tikka was the best we'd ever had!
We visited Jodhpur Fort, where by this time in the trip, the sheer volume of forts was starting to take it's toll
Nice view out across the Blue City
It was time to move on and unfortunately there weren't train tracks where we wanted to go....so we had to settle for a non AC bus...with some wierd double sleeping compartments where we were actually pretty comfortable for the 8 hour trip to Udaipur. We'd found a nice hotel on the lake in Udaipur...we had a lovely view from our balcony over the lake.
Udaipur is a city set on the edge of an artificial lake....there's a pretty famous hotel in the middle where we had been supposed to go across for the lunch buffet for one of our wedding presents....but unfortunately they'd put a stop to day trippers such as ourselves since the Mumbai attacks....same hotel chain as the one that had been attacked. However, we contented ourselves with a really fabulous dinner on the lake shore looking over to the Lake Palace and also a afternoon tea at another posh hotel on the lake shore. The afternoon tea spreads were really stupendous! Thanks Claire and Matt - a couple of really nice experiences!
Udaipur and Mount Abu aren't connected by train so we ended up sharing a taxi for the day with two French people and stopping off at a few sights on the way. First up was Kumbalgargh Fort, which is the second biggest in Rajastahn, it was a really imposing sight up at 1100m. We had fun exploring and loved the breezy views at the top.
Next stop was Ranakpur where we visited a beautiful Jain temple - Jainism is one the oldest world religions, founded in the 6th century BC as a reaction against the Hindu caste system. The temple was made from beautiful milk white marble and despite having been built almost 600 years ago looked brand new. Jains take very seriously that they mustn't harm any living being and as a result many wear scarves over their mouths to prevent breathing an insect in. They also really don't want one scrap of flesh on display in their temples so Bryn donned a pair of baby blue janitor trousers and Fi got to wear a baby pink granny outfit. Everyone seemed to find us very amusing.
We arrived into Mount Abu late and had trouble finding a decent hotel due to Diwali, the largest Hindu festival of the year, when Gujaratis flood to Mount Abu for the holiday season. There's not a lot to do in Mount Abu, it's just a nice place, set in the mountains and at 1219m was a welcome break from the dusty desert plains of Rajastahn. We had a lovely dinner at the Jaipur Palace with a terrace looking out across the town and enjoyed the Diwali fireworks going off all over the city.
We also took a guided walk in the hills in the National Park and were lucky to spot our first bear of the trip. People are attacked all the time and we'd been given big sticks to fend off an attack, unfortunately our bear was a long way away. We also got to see some pretty lazy crocs sunning themselves.
Then we were off on our last Indian train journey We'd been really lucky to secure the last two tickets out of Mount Abu over the holiday period - and we'd had to upgrade to second class! A couple of nights in Delhi before heading off for our flight to Singapore and then onto Auckland. It's hard to believe that we've been in Asia for 10 months and we're definitely sad to be leaving but looking forward to seeing some family and different bits of the world!