A Travellerspoint blog

Agra fort


We had a lazy morning in our room as the air-con came back on early this morning- I think that at least some of the power cuts are due to the monkeys swinging on the electricity cables! At about 4pm, when it had started to cool down a little we ventured outside, on foot again to the dismay and displeasure of the rickshaw drivers, keen to earn some good money from tourists. If we knew where we were going we'd take one but we're wandering looking for diaries. It was still quite hot so we drank bottle after bottle of limca as we wandered around the market. We eventually found a couple of notebooks on the top shelf in a shop, the owner was reluctant to get them down but after a little persuasion he climbed the ladder and passed them to us. We were desperate as our old diaries were full and they were OK so we took them. We wanted to have a look around the fort next and were adamant that we weren't far away so refused the rickshaws, the only thing was that we didn't have a map and we couldn't see it over the 2 story concrete monstrosities that were surrounding us. We walked in the general direction of the fort and after 15 minutes we were non the wiser as to where we were. A rickshaw stopped and we asked how much to the fort, we haggled him down as we thought it was less than 1km away but it turned out that we'd walked back to near our hotel some 3km away so when we arrived we paid him what he had first asked for.

The fort was fort-like, giant and made from red sandstone. It was not as spectacular as Jodhpur fort and the information plaques were not very informative! As we didn't have long until it was closing we rushed around the '16 palaces' but in reality there were only 4 or maybe 5 with the final building, a giant white marble mosque closed for 'maintenance'. Of the buildings inside the fort, 2 were made from sandstone and 3 from white marble. The views of the Taj Mahal were spectacular from one of the marble palaces. It would have been a mixture of emotions for Akhbar (the architect of the Taj Mahal) when he was imprisoned in the fort by his son; sad for his imprisonment but happy at the splendor of his creation. We saw the beautiful little Gem Palace but the underground palace where the king used to keep his 1500 harems was closed along with the pearl palace (which we got a glimpse of through the thick glass windows- it was beautifully decorated in shell and pearl. When it was time for the fort to close at 7pm the security guards came around blowing whistles and wafting their arms so we left and bought drinks outside as we were parched. We refused the offer to buy a photo-book of Agra which the man wanted "20" for but when Sam showed interest he was quick to point out that he meant 20US$! Crazy fool!

We went for dinner in an LP recommended restaurant near our hotel, I had a really tasty Thali which comprised of rice, breads, Dal (lentils), curry, aloo (curried potatoes) and some semolina like dessert, Sam ended up eating a lot of it though as it was very spicy! The prices had also doubled since LP was published a few months ago so we've vowed to try not to go to LP places again! Back to our hotel for a film and bed.

Posted by SamAmy 04:50 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Pain on the way to Agra but ignored for the Taj!


We woke late, had a leisurely breakfast and packed our bags before checkout time. Late last night I had mild chest pains which have increased overnight and now I have pain as I breathe. We got a rickshaw to New Delhi train station where we sat in the queue for tickets to Agra, before sitting in the waiting room passing time before our train arrived. I felt like a criple because all I could do at times was sit still - even standing up felt like someone was stabbing my chest with a knife. After 5 hours our train arrived and we got nice, comfy, air-conditioned seats which swiftly took us to Agra. A nice taxi driver called Solomon obviously saw my pain and took us to our hotel with minimal hassling or haggling where we checked into a nice air-conditioned room and had real chips (!) in the restaurant before bed. Maybe all those horror stories about Agra being a tourist trap aren't true!

The next morning we woke early after a hot nights sleep. The AC was rubbish and Amy had spent most of the night in the next door room where it was much better. We switched rooms (sheets, pillows, towels, everything) so that the manager wouldn't have anything to complain about. Then it was time to make the decision between hospital or Taj Mahal. Not hard for me but Amy wanted to take me to a hospital. No way! We set off in a rickshaw to the east gate, then had a walk of almost a kilometre to buy tickets from the booth before we employed the services of a guide. We entered (after leaving our disallowed possessions - i.e. mini tripod and newspaper) and moved into the outer courtyard. Then through the kings gate to get our first view of the Taj Mahal! It was everything I had expected and more; such a beautiful building! We just stood with our mouths gaping and our guide had to snap us out of it. He explained about how long it had taken to build and why it had been built but we weren't really listening, so captivated were we by its beauty. Eventually we began to get used to it but our eyes still kept getting drawn back to it time and again. We walked through the immaculate gardens the "Princess Diana's bench" where, because we were so early, there were very few people and no fountains to destroy the perfect reflection in the water. The guide books are right - it is one thing to see it in a picture, another thing completely to see it in real life. We got closer and closer and had to leave our shoes at the kiosk before climbing the steps up to the level of the Taj itself. The detail and beauty when you are up close is amazing, and everything is perfectly symmetrical, all white marble with inlaid semi-precious stones. We joined the queue to go inside, filed past the steps down to the real graves of Shah Jehan and his favourite wife Mumtaz, who the whole place was built for, and into the exact replica of the tomb room, just one storey higher. Everything was decorated with semi-precious stones inlaid into the marble, with Mumtaz's tomb slap bang in the centre and Shah Jehan's bigger but somehow less important tomb off to one side. The tombs were protected from us mere mortals by a beautiful marble lattice which was obviously new but somehow seemed to fit right in. Our guide took us to the back of the room and showed us that if you look over Mumtaz's tomb, out the door of the Taj, you can see right down the centre of the path, past Princess Di's seat and out the Kings gate to the South gate, almost 1 km away. An amazing feat of engineering in its own right. We followed the slowly gathering crowds out of the back entrance and to the view over the Yamuna river and to Agra fort, where Shah Jehan was held captive by his son for the last 8 years of his life. We headed round the Taj to an empty building on the East side of the complex, an exact replica of the Mosque on the West side except it doesn't face Mecca. As the sun had risen not so long ago the Taj was lit up beautifully by the morning light. We slowly walked back towards the exit and picked up our tripod and newspaper before going for brunch at a rooftop restaurant right next to the South gate with excellent views of the Taj. After we had eaten we wandered around the tourist shops and were lured into one by a guy wanting a list of English Uni's that did MBA courses. He had a really bad fake London accent and proceeded to try and sell us everything in his shop. At one point he tried to tell us the stones that decorated the Taj were from New Zealand and when we pointed out that New Zealand hadn't been discovered when the Taj was built he quickly changed his story. We left after this bombshell and had a long hot walk back to our hotel but there was a power-cut and no AC. We ate lunch in the shade of the restaurant but it was so bad we vowed never to eat there again! Then we went to explore the possibilities of a swimming pool in an expensive restaurant but after looking at the scummy water and hearing the price we quickly dismissed that idea. It had cooled down a little by now so we caught a rickshaw with Singh the rickshaw wallah, partly to feel the breeze and partly to get to the so called Baby Taj, built as a tomb for Shah Jehan's father and 8 other relatives. You can see where the inspiration for the Taj Mahal came from. We left just before sunset and Singh took us to the bank of the river opposite the Taj so we could see the colours change as the sun descended. It was down a little alleyway at the side of a park and is supposedly a secret but it is in Lonely Planet so the whole world knows about it. As it got dark the street lights came on - that's how popular this "secret" alley has become. We headed back to meet Singh who asked if we minded going to some shops where he gets commission just for taking us to them. We agreed and had fun winding sales assistants up until I saw a pair of big wooden elephants, beautifully carved and painted that I actually wanted. Unfortunately they were way out of my price range and even after using all my bargaining skills I couldn't get an affordable price for them. Ah well. Then back to our hotel for chips (our vow didn't last long - the chips were that good) then bed.

Posted by SamAmy 04:45 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Golden Temple and back to Delhi


We woke early and set off for the 6 hour journey to Amritsar and the holiest of Sikh Gurdwaras, the Golden Temple. We passed lots of empty lorries waiting outside the grain markets to transport the grain grown in the Punjab to all corners of India, and drove through clouds of smoke created when the remaining stubble is bunt, some so thick that we couldn't even see the end of the bonnet. Poor cycle wallahs! We stopped for chai at a Dhaba (Punjabi restaurant) and eventually arrived in Amritsar at lunch time. We headed straight for the Golden Temple and found a parking space on top of a mound of gavel. All around were men in different coloured turbans, all looking busy and serious, with long beards down their chests, or plaited under their chin, or even in little 'beard-nets'. We left our shoes at the deposit station, walked through the foot bath and up the steps past the guard with his spear and Kirpan to get our first view of the Golden temple. We were gobsmacked! There in front of us, hovering on the surface of the lake, was a completely golden building, shimmering and shining in the sun. We were in a huge, square courtyard made completely of white marble, with a walkway around a large square lake and in the middle of the lake was the temple. Absolutely stunning! We got swept along by the crowds around the outside of the lake and towards the south gate. We followed Mukesh who took us away from the temple and to the large food halls where all visitors are entitled to eat for free. As it was lunch time we were more than happy with this. We joined the queue and were given a metal compartmentalised plate, a bowl and a spoon, then walked round the corner to the next queue. We didn't wait long before the whole crowd walked up the stairs and into a huge hall with a large kitchen in the corner. We passed the chapati making machine and the huge pans bubbling on the stoves and went to sit on the long carpets set out on the floor. We sat cross legged with our plates in front of us and soon they were being filled with dahl, chickpea curry and chapati, and water in our bowl. We ate quickly and were offered seconds and thirds if we wanted it, and once we had had our fill of delicious food we joined the general movement towards the door with our empty plates. Behind us the floors were getting swept and mopped quickly before the next 1000 people came for their meal. We went back down stairs to return our plates and bowls before washing our hands and heading back towards the temple. The whole meal had been eaten in 20 minutes and with 2 halls at about 1000 people a go that is a lot of food! Especially as the food halls are open 24/7. Amazing! And all run completely by volunteers. We continued our circumambulation of the lake, stopping in awe from time to time to admire the beauty and take photos. People were bathing in the lake and many more were walking around the outside. We reached the causeway that stretched out into the lake to the temple itself and joined the long queue to go in. We started chatting to a couple of Sikh guys who had just returned from 7 years in Canada and they explained a lot about the history and importance of the building. They were very passionate about their religion and very interesting. We eventually reached the temple and entered the ground floor room which was absolutely exquisite. Lots of gold and precious stones, silk and peacock feathers, with 3 holy men in the middle. Offerings of food were given as well as money. We followed the crowd back outside and admired the detail of the golden exterior before going back in another entrance which took us upstairs to a balcony overlooking the lower room. Here the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book is kept and constantly read. The Sikh's believe it is a living Guru as pronounced by the last human Guru, Guru Gobind Singh. It was a huge volume, beautifully decorated and covered in gold and silk. We said goodbye to our impromptu guides and stayed a while to soak up the atmosphere before wandering slowly out of the complex, still in awe at what we had seen. We met Mukesh who took us to the station to catch our long train back to Delhi where we were picked up by Pawan at the station and taken to our hotel.

Posted by SamAmy 03:50 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Kangra valley and on to McLeod Ganj


We got up very early and went for the breakfast we had ordered the previous night, only to find the restaurant was firmly locked and no-one was around. We hung around, reluctant to start a long day of travelling without breakfast, and eventually a guy turned up and quickly prepared toast and coffee. We gulped them down and thanked him before going to meet Mukesh who took us to Kangra train station to catch the Kangra valley train, a narrow gauge train that is still primarily used by the locals to get to market. We passed through wheat fields with the Himalaya towering in the back ground - a truly amazing sight - before emerging high on the cliffs above a steep river valley, a steep drop on one side and a rock wall on the other. We arrived at our destination and found Mukesh, chai in hand, leaning against the stall. We joined him, waiting for the train to leave before we could get the car out of the car park and on to the road to Masrur Rock temple, a Jain temple carved completely from the rock it stands on. It was very impressive if slightly damaged by the previous earthquake (which helped to raise the Himalaya by 15cm a year) and fun to explore, with steps leading up and little dead end passages blocked by rock falls. After the usual photos with Indian tourists we carried on to Kangra fort which we had seen across the river from the train. It was imposing, high on the hill with two rivers in deep valleys, one on either side. This meant a steep climb in the heat of the day which was very hard going, and after the forts of Rajasthan we were a bit disappointed. The view was nice though, even if the fort itself lacked a lot of its former glory. We headed back down and went to the museum to find some of the glory stuffed and mounted in glass boxes before finding Mukesh who took us for lunch at a restaurant in town. After almost getting my head chopped off by a fast spinning fan when I went to wash my hands we had a nice meal, then set off to another temple; this one in town, apparently on the exact spot where Sati's left breast landed when she died and is apparently very holy. There are other temples dotted about the region, all in places where different parts of her anatomy landed when she died, although if you plot them on a map she must have been a slightly deformed Goddess - not quite sure how she seduced Shiva to become his first wife. It was very similar to most Hindu temples with a courtyard and a shrine in the middle, a queue to go in to get your holy water and sugared rice (which we pretend to drink and eat as the priests hands aren't always the cleanest) but outside the shrine was a huge Banyam tree covered with thousands of pieces of red and gold cloth. Back through the markets to the car and off to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, the Dalai Lama's residence in exile. A bit of a drive and we were there, after a long day of travelling and sight seeing and we were all tired. We were glad to reach our lovely Tibetan hotel where we settled in, then went for a walk in the last of the evening sun through the tourist markets the make up most of McLeod Ganj. One guy invited me into his jewelery shop and offered to sell me diamonds which, along with 8 other precious and semi-precious stones, make up the navaratna (or navaratan), a piece of jewelery which is supposed to protect you from pretty much anything. Only $3000 US. Bargain! Unfortunately I don't have those sorts of funds so had to decline his offer and wander back to our hotel.

We had a leisurely morning and a nice breakfast before Mukesh took us to another Hindu temple, slightly strange in a town that is so heavily Tibetan Buddhist. It just shows how tolerant (for the most part) India really is. This one was next to a holy pool which had three layers; the first two for fingers only, the third you could swim in, and this is what Mukesh planned to do. While he was doing that we joined the queue in the temple for our holy water and sugared rice and watched fascinated as 2 builders succeeded in covering most of the nice marble floor in plaster whilst trying to square up a pillar. This seems pretty typical of India - the job gets done but it looks worse after than before it was started. After squeezing into the shrine for our blessed treats we proceeded to "feed" them to the deities dotted around the temple before setting out on a walk to a waterfall up the valley. It was a nice walk along the side of the valley, looking down on the monks washing their clothes, and up to the waterfall. It was quite high but not much water was flowing. Lots of pictures with Indian tourists later we escaped and headed up to the top of the falls to look at the view. I spotted the perfect vantage point and Amy came to join me. We were eye level with the blossom of a large tree and noticed little creatures that looked like humming birds collecting the nectar. We spent a long time trying to get a picture (they move so damn fast) before deciding Mukesh might be wondering where we were and heading back. Then it was off to a holy lake (without any water) and then further up the hill to a viewpoint, before heading back into town to go to the Dalai Lama's monastery. We anticipated we would spend quite a while inside (we are very slow when it comes to temples, monasteries, museum etc.) so said Mukesh could have the afternoon off but he didn't want it - he said he was quite happy to wait. We headed in, down the alley, past the museum, through the "metal detectors" that abound in India and either beep for everyone or for no-one, and up the steps into the monastery. We came up next to a religious ceremony that was taking place right outside the main temple doors and we sat down to watch. There were 4 rows of monks sat chanting and occasionally playing the buddhist horns and drums while a lama sat on a high throne opposite, with a fire in the middle. As we watched the fire was lit, then several different things were ceremoniously thrown into it by the lama, including cup fulls of water before a procession came out of the main shrine room and circled the lama and his fire a few times whilst playing music and chanting. We went to explore the rest of the building and saw the beautiful shrines with their gold, and lots of tibetan Thangkas, then went to watch the ceremony again. When we had seen enough we headed down and out to the Tibetan museum where a documentary was just starting. It was about the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the atrocities that were occurring there under their rule. An hour later we were both quite subdued and looked round the rest of the museum quietly; it was all on a similar theme. We headed out to meet Mukesh (who definately looked bored) and went back to the hotel for tea of Tibetan momo's and Chowmein before going out to a coffee shop that was just closing for cake, then to bed.

Posted by SamAmy 03:05 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Taragarh, buddhism and tea


We had an early breakfast before meeting Mukesh, our driver for the next few days. We set off for Taragarh, near Palanpur, 6 hours away and had a nice chat before stopping for lunch at a typically dingy roadside cafe, then drove some more. Eventually we got close and stopped off at a Jain temple to have a look round and rest our bums for a bit. Then it was down the last hill and the last few kilometers to Taragarh, our second palace of the trip. We arrived, checked in and then went exploring. It was an old palace with a new wing added (not the prettiest addition in the world) and we explored the old wing first. It felt very colonial India with tiger skins on the walls, photos of 100 dead animals with one hunter in the middle and "the blue room", a lounge with a huge, blue chandelier. It wasn't as grand as our last palace (how weird to say that phrase) but definately had character, right down to the scummy swimming pool outside. The new wing was just like any other hotel but this was where our meals were served - an all you can eat buffet style meal, which advertised as open from 7 but the soup was set out at 8, with everything else following at 30min intervals. We persevered and were rewarded with a very nice dessert. There were only us and another couple in the whole restaurant and some of the dishes weren't even touched. Crazy! I guess the staff eat well here. Then to bed with a very full tummy.

After a breakfast of nice cereal and cold milk (!) we went to meet Mukesh who too us up the hill to a Buddhist monastery which was part of a complex including an institute. All the buildings were very beautiful and colourful, decorated all over in the bold reds, blues, golds and yellows that we had seen in China; the large square windows with the sloping window frames and the roof beams sticking through the walls, all coloured in intricate patterns and well looked after. After smiling at a few monks and finding the gate was locked we got back in the car and headed to a much larger monastery with attached institute, passing a long row of huge gompas or stupas, bright white and shiny new, decorated with prayer flags of the 5 auspicious colours; red for fire, blue for sky, green for earth, white for water and yellow for sun. We pulled up in the car park and at first it didn't look like much, just a huge square concrete building, but we were directed down a little passage and came out in a courtyard. We came out into a large tented area with buddhist chant music echoing from one of the rooms high above us. On our right was the main temple room and the other three sides seemed to be monks quarters and meditation rooms. The roof was a huge piece of canvas stretched tightly between the concrete buildings and succeeded in amplifying the sounds of the monastery. We stood for a while enjoying the atmosphere and admiring the temple before going to walk round it clockwise, looking in the windows at the exquisite decorations of gold and silk. We saw some monks marking out a complex painting and Mukesh explained that Buddha always has the same proportions to his face in all depictions, hence the need for careful measuring and plotting. On the way back down the hill from the Monastery we stopped off at the stupas to spin the huge prayer wheels housed inside and build up our "Om Mani Padme Hum", the buddhist mantra that covers most prayer wheels and is supposed to bring positive karma and energy. At the end of the line of stupas we found a small workshop housing a wood carvers who was creating many different buddhist images by selecting a suitable piece of wood then taking a very sharp chisel and carving out a couple of pieces of wood, then holding the wood up to the light, swapping chisels and carving a little more off. Such detailed work decorated the walls and we found out that most of it went to the devotees and pilgrims that came to the monastery. After a cup of chai we headed back down to Taragarh then on to Palanpur to try and find a waterfall (which we didn't find) and a tea factory (which we did). It was set amongst sprawling tea gardens that completely covered the ground between the trees with barely enough room for the pluckers to get to the new buds. Then the freshly plucked tea comes to the factory and is spread out on huge drying racks with big fans where the tea is partially dried. The the tea designated to become green tea goes to be dried even more and the rest is dropped into the temperature and humidity controlled room below to ferment, before it too is dried further, this time with heat in a huge moving oven. Now the tea is in its drinkable state but needs to be sorted, first into whole leaf or broken leaves, then sized. The smaller the leaf the more flavoursome, right down to the new bud right on the end of the stalk. The broken leaves are used to make tea bags or Indian CTC tea, used for chai and other very cheap teas. We were told all this by a friendly guide who briskly showed us round (after we checked with the boss it was OK) before he headed back to his work and we headed to the shop, armed with our new knowledge. As it was the only tea on sale was the highest quality (of course) so our knowledge was not needed, but we bought some anyway. We headed back to the hotel and decided to give Mukesh a bit of a rest as he has been so good to us so far, so we went for one of the recommended walks we found on a leaflet in the hotel. We set off following a very funny map which marked "tall trees" and "big rocks" down to a river, along the banks to a village, through some wheat fields where the farmers wanted their pictures taken, then though another village where we saw some wild baby kittens, still blind, then through some tea gardens and past some people threshing wheat in a field and back to the hotel. A very nice walk, then time for tea, another extended meal but well worth the wait, then bed.

Posted by SamAmy 03:00 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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