Autumn Chickens In India

Before our kids lock us up in an old folks home, we thought we'd better visit the Taj Mahal.

Face To Face With A Known Killer

View from our hotel towards Ranthambhore National Park

View from our hotel towards Ranthambhore National Park

Another day, another tiger hunt. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that, and it will probably be the last time as well. It’s another early start, and poor Mick has greeted us with the news that he has succumbed to the dreaded Delhi belly! However, we’re now down to our last two safaris, and he refuses to be denied the opportunity to spot a tiger, and so he has gamely agreed to join us, and suffer the jolting and juddering of our transport for the day, over the rough undulating road surface, while attempting to hold on to his dignity and to last night’s dinner.

Crocodile sunning himself on a riverbank

Crocodile sunning himself on a riverbank

By now we’re becoming quite blasé about the more common animals in the park, and we’re ready for something a bit more exciting. As we enter the Reserve, our hopes are immediately raised. Our guide pointed out some footprints in the sand, just yards inside the entrance. They were the tracks, or spoor of a tiger and they were no more than a few hours old. The driver, unlike the tiger, is obliged to stick to the road and so we soon lost the prints. After a while, Jackie’s eagle eyes spotted a crocodile sunning itself on a river-bank and we stopped to take a closer look. The guide had missed this one and so Jackie was keen to let me know how much better her eyesight is than mine. We then saw a beautiful white throated kingfisher, some ibis and some herons, and after a while, the guide pointed out some more tiger tracks at the side of the road. By now, we were beginning to think our luck was in. On our previous two safaris we had not seen any signs of a tiger, but this morning in the space of half an hour we had come across two sets of tracks. Surely the safari gods were smiling upon us today!

We drove on for about another half an hour, and suddenly, as we approached a bend in the road, there in front of us rounding the corner and sedately walking in our direction was

Tiger Approaching

Tiger Approaching

A TIGER.

Our driver immediately hit reverse gear and we eased our way back in the direction we had come. It was a truly amazing experience. The tiger was a majestic healthy looking beast. It was powerfully built, but was delicately picking its way between the sharp stones on the road as though it was wearing its best pair of expensive Jimmy Choo shoes. It turned left, descended a bank and made straight for a small river. At the edge of the stream, it stopped and dipped one paw into the water, like a child at the edge of a swimming pool might test the temperature before venturing in.  Satisfied that the water was wet enough, it headed for the centre of the pool where it promptly lay down and started its bath. At this stage, we had a grandstand view and were no more than about fifteen metres away from the animal.

Public bath in India

Public bath in India

In reflective mood

In reflective mood

Our guide told us that this tiger was known as “T 24” and its proper name was “Ustad” (promptly re-named Ofsted for the benefit of our teacher friends—I know that will mean nothing to those not familiar with the UK but you can always look it up), and it was a male Bengal tiger. We were advised that it was one of the largest, if not the largest tiger in Ranthambhore, and so we were very lucky to see it. What the guide did not tell us, but what I discovered later, is that Ustad has definitely killed one human being, and is strongly suspected of being responsible for the deaths of two or possibly three other people. It is difficult to believe that this seemingly gentle creature, placidly taking his bath and relaxing in the shade could turn in an instant, into a fierce killer who knows no mercy. Luckily for us, it appeared that he was not feeling peckish, as we were all within easy range if he had decided he fancied a snack.

Tiger Toilet

Tiger Toilet

Once he had completed his leisurely time in the spa, Usted left the water and made his way back up to the road, where he promptly defecated in the middle of the track. It seems that Mick was not the only one with Delhi belly that day. He then moved into the long grass at the side of the road (the tiger that is, not Mick), where, his hard work done for the day, he promptly lay down and had a nap. I tried to encourage Jackie to get out and stroke him, but for some reason best known to herself, she declined my invitation. To see such a magnificent creature in its natural habitat was a real privilege, and the memories of this experience will stay with us for ever.

Feeding time for the grey langur baby

Feeding time for the grey langur baby

Eventually the clock got the better of us, and we were obliged to bid our farewells to T 24  and return to our hotel for some sustenance. We passed some monkeys and noticed that the youngsters in the troop, had also decided that it was time for a meal. Food, however, did not seem to be very high on Mick’s list of priorities, and as soon as we got back, he headed briskly in the direction of his en suite facilities, where he remained until our final safari commenced in the afternoon.

After lunch we found ourselves back in the game park where our guide informed us that there were reports of a female tiger and her two cubs, having been spotted at the far end of the section to which we had been allocated. This meant that our driver would have to put his foot down to cover the required distance, but the thought of viewing more tigers , encouraged us to suffer the additional discomfort that an increase in speed would be sure to bring. We only made two stops along the way. The first, was to watch a courting peacock trying to impress a passing peahen, by fanning out his magnificent tail feathers  in a wonderful shimmering display, and doing a little dance for her benefit. We were fortunate to witness this event, because we were out-with the mating season and at this time of year it is uncommon to see such a display. The second stop was beside a large tree, where we were shown a huge colony of honey bees nesting in the upper branches. Our guide advised us that the previous week a canter had stopped close to another similar colony so that the tourists could get a good view. Moments later, a sloth bear (which evolved from the brown bear) appeared and started to climb the trunk of the tree. Apparently the majority of this animal’s diet consists of insects, although he is also partial to a spot of honey when he is able to get it. This was all very interesting for the tourists, but the closer the bear got to the nest, the more agitated the bees became. Eventually, they had enough, and the swarm headed in the direction of the open topped vehicle, where they proceeded to cause mayhem among the occupants, many of whom were seriously stung. It’s amazing how dangerous a short drive out in the country can turn out to be.

Sambar Deer

Sambar Deer

We were unlucky in our quest this time. We got to the area where the tiger sightings had been reported, but, in spite of much peering into the undergrowth, and several false alarms, we were obliged to return to our hotel without spotting our quarry. We were not disheartened, because our adrenaline was still in full flow from our morning’s adventure and we were in excellent form as we headed for a nice cold beer (or three) and a delicious barbecue. It had been a great day.

 

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“Look Down There. That’s Pish!”

Entrance To The Tiger Reserve

Entrance To The Tiger Reserve

We were up at the crack of dawn, extremely excited that we were about to take our first safari to Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, and if anything, even more excited that we were going to meet our first Indian “naturist”. We joined our fellow “hunters” in the lobby, where we told that our “naturist” would be with us in a few minutes. Imagine our disappointment, when a rather grizzled, middle aged gentleman arrived and announced that he was our NATURALIST for the morning. It’s probably just as well that he was fully clothed, as to have him bouncing around over the rough tracks in the back of a canter would have been a bit distracting, to say the least.

A Convoy Of Canters

A Convoy Of Canters

Jackie and I were allocated front seats, beside the driver in what was, in effect, an open topped lunch box for tigers, and after a short drive we found ourselves at the entrance to the 392 square kilometre National Park. The guide received a tip from the boss of the local hawkers and left us to the tender mercies of a swarm of tiger emblazoned hat, tee-shirt and jacket vendors for the next ten minutes or so. It was actually quite a sophisticated business and not nearly as disorganised and chaotic as it at first seemed. As soon as any transaction had been completed, the money was handed to the same man who had paid the baksheesh to our guide and it became clear that they were not operating as individuals but as one much larger operation, with the one aim of fleecing the tourists as much as they possibly could.

We were already wearing hats and tee-shirts and it was far too hot for a jacket, and so with our funds intact, the driver revved up his rather loud, diesel engine and we entered the park. We started off as part of a convoy of other vehicles and we thought it very unlikely that we would spot any animals, while sitting in this traffic jam. However we soon made another administrative stop where each canter was randomly allocated a specific section of the park to explore.

Spotted Deer

Spotted Deer

This sorted out the traffic problem and we were soon making our way into our sector of the park ,over extremely rough, bumpy terrain with lots of bends, short steep slopes and occasional precipice like edges. By this time our teeth were rattling in our heads and we were grateful that we had not been foolish enough to eat breakfast prior to our departure. These roads were not designed for passengers with full stomachs. This discomfort was soon forgotten when we started to see our first animals of the day. We came across a small herd of chital or spotted deer whose camouflage helped them blend in easily to their background of  long dried grass and sun dappled clearings.

Peacock

Peacock

We then spotted a peacock, the first of many, sitting high up on the branch of a tree and we came across large numbers of grey or hanuman langurs which are a type of monkey with black hands and faces. These langurs often act as lookouts for the next animal we saw. The sambar deer is larger, and less colourful than its cousins (the spotted deer) and it has very poor eyesight. It relies on langurs spotting nearby predators, and although they make up sixty percent of the tigers’ diet, this would surely be increased further, if it were not for the timely warnings given by the ever watchful monkeys. Another significant part of the tigers’ diet is nilgai, which was the next animal we found.  This is the only type of antelope to be found in Ranthambore and is a very common Asian animal which can be found throughout almost the whole of India (in fact we had seen some of them several days earlier, walking through a field of freshly harvested wheat).

We were following in the footsteps of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip who has visited Ranthambhore in 1961, and who had taken part in tiger hunts at that time. I’m glad to say that unlike the Royal Family, we were armed only with cameras rather than rifles.

Wild Boar

Wild Boar

Our guide pointed out a young snub nosed marsh crocodile, lying on the bank of a river. It was difficult to spot and without his experienced eyes it is unlikely that we would have noticed it. This was followed by the sighting of an Indian wild boar rooting around in the undergrowth.

Magpie Having His Breakfast

Magpie Having His Breakfast

While a wide variety of animals had been pointed out to us, our guide had not identified any of the large numbers of birds which we were seeing (other than the peacocks) and we were slightly disappointed about this. However we made a comfort stop, and close to a sign which read “do not feed the birds” we found a lovely magpie tamely feeding from the hand of a tourist. At this spot we also saw a number of parakeets, finches, sparrows and wagtails.

Our time in the park had come to an end, and in spite of not seeing a leopard or a tiger, we were thrilled with what we had seen, and we returned to our hotel, overjoyed with our experience so far, and full of optimism that we may yet spot a big cat during one of our remaining three safaris.

A late breakfast was followed by a swim and then lunch, by which time we were ready to join a new safari with a new guide and driver. This time, we were allocated a different section of the reserve, so with fingers crossed and bums jolting violently on the less than comfortably padded seats, we ventured forth in the hope that this would be our lucky time, and that we would see a tiger.

Banyan Tree, Or Walking Tree

Banyan Tree, Or Walking Tree

We were taken past what is claimed to be, one of the largest banyan trees in South Asia. The locals apparently call it the “walking tree” for obvious reasons. Many of the same common species of animals which we had encountered that morning were soon spotted again, and then we saw a creature which was to cause me to have a sleepless night. It was a mongoose, the first I had ever seen, but that was not the reason for my sleep deprivation. That evening, when lying in bed, thinking over the day’s experiences, I suddenly realised that I didn’t know the plural of mongoose. What would happen the next day if I were to spot another of these creatures. Should I then tell people that I had now seen mongeese, or should I say mongooses. Perhaps the plural of mongoose is simply mongoose, or it might be better if I just say “I saw a mongoose and then I saw another mongoose”. But what should I do if I saw two together at the same time? I was in a quandary, so had to get out of bed, get dressed remove my tablet from the safe and go to one of the public rooms in the hotel where I could access wi-fi.  Thanks to the wonders of Google, I can now report that the correct term is mongooses, so you can thank me for saving you from having your rest disturbed tonight.

We were passing a small river when suddenly the guide instructed our driver to halt the canter. He pointed down a slope, to a pool of stagnant water covered with a thin green scum of slime and algae. “Look down there. That’s pish,”  he said. I looked and had to agree, it did look like pish, but I couldn’t quite understand why he has wanted to point out the local sewerage works to us. Then it clicked, I hadn’t quite understood his accent. There was movement in the spot he was pointing to and I finally realised that he had been saying “Look down there. That’s fish”. It did make a difference.

About this time, our guide seemed to loose a bit of interest and settled down for a sleep while we were driven, at what seemed like ever increasing speed, causing ever increasing discomfort to the passengers for the remainder of the afternoon. This bumpy return ride, and reduction in interest on behalf of our guide probably cost him (and the driver) a reduction of at least fifty per cent of their gratuity for this safari.

Frog Or Possibly Toad

Frog Or Possibly Toad

We were dropped off at the entrance to our hotel, only to find our way barred by one final specimen of local wildlife for the day. There sitting in front of us was a large (Jackie, who is terrified of such creatures, would say, “gigantic”) frog or perhaps toad. Jackie, who had been in the process of complaining about the stiffness in her legs caused by our journey, soon discovered that the stiffness was gone, and she was off like a rocket. I’ve not seen her move at that speed since the last time that Debenhams announced an “up to 70% off” sale of handbags and shoes!

The evening was spent in comfort and with good company, drinking beer, eating dinner and retrieving our tailor made clothes from the hotel shop. The hotel showed a video of tigers, and just to rub salt in our wounds, at not having seen one of these cats, a lady appeared and showed us a series of photos of tigers which she had taken that afternoon in a different area of the park. I then sat for a while in the library trying to find a live British football match on my tablet, while surrounded by a number of Indians who were watching Sri Lanka beating India in the final of the 20-20 cricket by 6 wickets. By this time, I had discovered that my team had also been beaten so we had a quick beer together and sympathised and empathised, as only losing supporters can.

Nil desperandum. Tomorrow is another day and we still have two more safaris booked. There’s still time for us to see a tiger before we leave.

 

 

 

 

 

We Leave Jaipur And Are Promised An Encounter With A Naturist.

Squatter Camp. Jaipur

Squatter Camp. Jaipur

In the morning we said our farewells to the wonderful staff at the Trident Hotel and headed out of Jaipur on the way to our next destination, Ranthambore. On the outskirts of the town we passed a squatter encampment at the side of the road, and once again were reminded how lucky we are.

Flea Market, Jaipur

Flea Market, Jaipur

We then passed an area of waste ground which was seething with bodies, and where some kind of frantic flea market was being held. It appeared that many transactions were being negotiated. From what we could see, the goods on offer were pitifully poor in quality, but in spite of that there did not seem to be any shortage of customers.

Statue Outside A Hindu Temple

Statue Outside A Hindu Temple

A Typical Roadside Scene In Rajasthan

A Typical Roadside Scene In Rajasthan

We  continued on our way, and passed a Hindu temple guarded by large colourful statues. As before, our journey took us along roads bordered by wheat fields, interspersed with small towns and villages where the whole of life could be witnessed from the window of our car.  We saw a series of elderly Rajasthani men with colourful turbans, white  tee-shirts and baggy light weight trousers squatting on their heels and discussing world affairs (or the price of wheat). We saw a number of bare backsides facing the car, the owners of which were using the verge as a toilet, as their meagre dwellings did not boast any such luxuries. We saw the usual variety of human and animal life going about their business, and we continued to see suicidal tractor drivers on the wrong side of the road, overloaded vehicles threatening to deposit their cargoes onto the bonnets of following vehicles, cyclists weaving slowly from lane to lane, and pedestrians putting their faith in the Almighty and stepping casually into the path of onrushing buses and lorries.  It was fun.

Loading Grain On To Lorries

Loading Grain On To Lorries

Preparing Lunch.

Preparing Lunch.

We stopped for a break at a roadside service station, and, while sipping a cold drink, we were able to watch a group of men next door, loading a couple of lorries to the very top with recently threshed grain. Two of their colleagues were busily preparing lunch for them, which seemed to consist of chapatis and dahl.

Camel Train.

Camel Train.

 

Camel Herder

Camel Herder

We had not gone much further, when Murari suddenly shouted, “camera”, and promptly pulled the car over to the side of the road. Coming towards us was a heard of about forty or fifty camels being escorted by several camel herders. Following well behind the main group was a mother and baby (camels not humans), the latter of which Murari declared was probably only a matter of hours old. We thought that that had to be the most amazing sight that we would see on the roads of India, but we were mistaken. There was an even bigger surprise awaiting us a couple of days into the future.

When we reached Ranthambore, Murari our driver would be leaving us and returning to Delhi. He asked if we minded if he did a slight detour, to pick up his twelve year old son who had been staying nearby with friends, and whom he wanted to take back home with him. We of course agreed, and when he arrived at his friend’s house several people appeared around the car to inspect his “clients”. We were invited in for a cup of tea, but we politely declined as we had just had refreshments a short time earlier. Murari’s son then appeared on the back of a motorbike, and was soon ensconced beside his father in the front seat of the car. Jackie suggested that he might like to put his seatbelt on. However, Murari replied that would not be necessary “because he is just a baby”!!

Nahargarh Fort

Nahargarh Fort

The further we went, the drier the terrain was becoming, and eventually we passed through the town of Ranthambore. Either side of the street were lined with camouflage coloured vehicles resembling troop transporters for 20 passengers, but we were informed that these were the canters, which, along with jeeps are used on safaris in the nearby National Park. A few miles outside of town, Murari pulled off of the tarmacked road and onto a very rough, sandy, pot-holed track bordered by thorn bushes. We wondered where he was going, until he pointed in the distance to a magnificent white building, looking just like a Maharajah’s Palace and announced that it was to be our hotel for the next three nights. Nahargarh Fort Hotel, despite its grand appearance was built less than twenty years ago, and the architecture includes tree lined water features, well stocked gardens,spacious courtyards, many arches and towers and just under seventy well appointed guest bedrooms.  However, for some reason, they don’t seem to have been able to afford to build a road.

Murari, Our Driver, And His 12 Year Old Son.

Murari, Our Driver, And His 12 Year Old Son.

We got down from the car, and regretfully, had to make our farewells to Murari and his son. Murari had been extremely friendly and helpful, and had gone out of his way to keep as safe as possible on India’s interesting roads. He had kept us supplied with bottles of cool water, had answered our dozens of questions, and had offered a genuine “24 hours service” . He was a credit to himself and to the Indian tourist industry. We were going to miss him.

Mick and Doreen checked in at almost the same time, and we were given a welcome by the agent for our tour company, who outlined our programme for the next few days. He started by offering to take us to a very good shop which he could recommend, but we all pleaded exhaustion and thus avoided another confrontation with salesmen from whom we had no intention of buying. He then told us about the four safaris which we had booked and advised us that we should all meet in the lobby early next morning, when we would be introduced to our “NATURIST”. This went straight over Jackie and Mick’s heads, but Doreen caught my eye (She returned it later), and giggles were exchanged.

Room At Nahargarh Fort

Room At Nahargarh Fort

Our room was capacious with a grand four poster bed, but with no fridge or television (presumably they couldn’t get them delivered without a road). We all had lunch together, and then went our separate ways to explore our new surroundings. We asked at reception if it was safe for us to leave the grounds of the hotel as we wished to take a couple of photos. We were told that there was no problem during the day, but we should be in by nightfall, as otherwise, the jackals and hyenas could pose a problem. We went for a swim instead.

Swimming Pool, Nahargarh Fort

Swimming Pool, Nahargarh Fort

The pool was lovely and we were joined by our friends and entertained by a number of green parakeets who flew around, coming down from time to time to take a sip of the highly chlorinated water. There were also a myriad of brightly coloured butterflies and it was nice to be able to spend a couple of hours just relaxing after such a hectic few days. However, our peace did not last. Doreen and Jackie discovered that there was a shop in the hotel, and it was not long before they had all of our measurements, and most of our money, and we in return, had the promise of some high quality, perfectly fitting tailor made clothes which would be ready very soon.

It would have seemed churlish to go to dinner on an empty stomach, so we headed for the bar to enjoy a sundowner or two. This was followed by a barbecue, which in turn was followed by a nightcap or two. We had an early start to look forward to in the morning, and there was no way that we wanted to miss our meeting with the mysterious naturist that we had been promised.  Mick and I hoped that SHE would be very beautiful, while the ladies hoped that HE would be handsome and muscular (just like their husbands). Only time would tell.

 

 

 

 

Jaipur. Do You Want To Buy A Carpet?

View Of The Amber Fort-Jaipur

View Of The Amber Fort-Jaipur

This morning we received our first disappointment of the trip. One of the planned highlights was to have been an elephant ride up the hill to the entrance to the Amber Fort, or to give it its correct name, Amer Palace. We were advised by Vijay Singh, our guide for the day, that today was a religious festival, and that large numbers of pilgrims were expected to be visiting a Hindu temple in the fort. It was considered to be too much of a risk, to have elephants walking up the same road as all these people, and in order to avoid the danger of crushing or trampling, transport up the hill would only be permitted on foot or by vehicle. I had really been looking forward to the opportunity of riding on the back of one of the most majestic animals in the world, but Jackie had secretly been dreading it and she breathed a big sigh of relief.

We decided not to let it ruin our day, and after jumping into the car (we didn’t actually jump into the car-that would have been silly!) we set off towards the fort. We hadn’t gone far, when we rounded a bend in the road (you remember I said that in India, you never knew what was round the next corner) and there lying on his front on the opposite side of the road, was a rather dishevelled unkempt man of about 35 years of age, with tousled long hair and wide staring eyes. He was facing the oncoming traffic and his mouth was open, although we were unable to hear whether he was speaking, shouting or just moaning. We were unable to take our eyes off of this man, who was so obviously in danger of being run over at any moment, but our guide just glanced at him briefly, as though this was the most normal of occurrences, and uttered one word, and one word only, “LUNATIC!” I know that in Britain, we often criticise the National Health Service and our Social Services Department, but it is at moments like this that we realise how lucky we are to have the kind of safety net that we do. This poor man needed help and we felt a mixture of guilt and helplessness at being unable to assist him.

View Of Mountain Top Ramparts From Entrance Of The Amber Fort

View Of Mountain Top Ramparts From Entrance Of The Amber Fort

We arrived at the entrance to the fort and the view was superb. In one direction, we could look down on the blue waters of Maota Lake, while in the opposite direction we looked up to the top of the mountains which were fortified with huge stone walls studded with defensive towers positioned strategically along its length.  We were advised that these fortifications were Jaigarh Fort which is part of the same complex as the Amber Fort and which is connected by a subterranean passage. Unfortunately however, our itinerary did not permit time for us to explore Jaigarh.

Musician Waits For An Audience

Musician Waits For An Audience

At the gate, along with the usual postcard and guide book sellers, we were accosted by Rajasthani musicians and snake charmers who wished to provide us with photo opportunities in return for financial remuneration. By this time we have perfected the art of avoiding eye contact, so they spent little time trying to entice us, and moved on to more likely targets. I did try and encourage Jackie (after checking her insurance policy) to go and play with the cobras for a while, but all I received in return was one of her “stares”.

Entrance To Ganesh Pol

Entrance To Ganesh Pol

The interior of the fort or palace was breathtaking. It is extremely well preserved and dates back to the 16th/17th centuries. Photographs can not do it justice, and I would urge anyone in this part of India to make a detour and visit this location. You will not be disappointed!

One Of My Harem Of Dancing Girls----I Wish

One Of My Harem Of Dancing Girls—-I Wish

There is an Islamic influence To Some Of The Architecture

There is an Islamic influence To Some Of The Architecture

Sheesh Mahal or The Mirrored Palace.

Sheesh Mahal or The Mirrored Palace.

We were liberally supplied with facts and figures by our knowledgeable guide, but I’m afraid, as often happens with me, most of it went in one ear and straight out the other. However, there are plenty of websites available for any readers who require an accurate historical or architectural background.  I think that the lady shown below, also had had enough of listening to guides and had decided to take a well earned break.

Please Just Leave Me Alone. I Need A Rest

Please Just Leave Me Alone. I Need A Rest

Are These All Going To Fit Into One Cart?

Are These All Going To Fit Into One Cart?

Regretfully, we bade our farewells to the Amber Fort and headed back into town where Vijay promised us that we were in for a treat. We parked in a street, opposite a manufacturer of large clay pots and were ushered in through a fairly modest door, where we were met by our host for the next hour, who proceeded to try and sell us some very expensive pieces of jewellery. I don’t know how rich he thought we were, but even if we had been tempted, which I certainly was not (Jackie may have been!), the items on show were well beyond our modest budget. When we finally managed to get through to the salesman that we were not interested, he said “no problem” and promptly took us through to another room, where his wares were more expensive still.  We finally managed to extricate ourselves, when Jackie asked if they sold cheap tee-shirts, as that was all she was interested in buying.

The Observatory Jaipur

The Observatory Jaipur

 

Next on the menu for today, was a visit to The Observatory.  Now I don’t know about you, but I struggle to understand the difference between astronomy and astrology, and when it comes to horology I am completely flummoxed. Needless to say therefore, much of the scientific detail went straight over my head, but in spite of that, I was amazed and astounded. There were a load of chunks of stone (14 in all I believe) laying around in a courtyard, and if you knew what you were doing,  you could tell the time to a fraction of a second, work out when the next eclipse is due, ascertain the declinations of planets (no, I don’t know what it means either), and determine the celestial altitudes and related ephemerides (or so I’m told). My mind was totally boggled, but I was fascinated and wanted to know more. If only one of these facilities could be introduced into every school playground, think of how boring (I mean educated) the next generation would be.

City Palace Jaipur

City Palace Jaipur

Our next visit was to the City Palace. This was built around 1730 and was the home of the Maharajah of Jaipur. Much of the building is still a royal residence, but commoners, (and I include us in that description) were permitted to visit a very interesting museum.  There were some pictures and embroideries, some carpets (which by now we are experts on) and some weapons, but the most arresting of all the displays were the voluminous clothes which had been worn by Maharajah Sawai Madho Singh I in the 1760s. He was clearly a huge personage who was used to “going large” at whatever was the equivalent of the modern day McDonald’s. His pants could have easily fitted round the backside of a very large elephant.

 

Peacock Gate. City Palace. Jaipur

Peacock Gate. City Palace. Jaipur

We wandered around the rest of the Palace, and then Vijay came up with an amazing original idea. He thought, that as we had admired the carpets in the museum, that we might like to visit a carpet shop! By now, we had run out of polite excuses so we just said “bollocks”. He thought from this, that we had indicated that we preferred to visit the local cattle market, but we soon advised him that we were neither interested in cattle or in carpets.  “I know” he said, “would you like to do a walking tour of the old town?”

Fruit Stall In Jaipur

Fruit Stall In Jaipur

Flower Market Jaipur

Flower Market Jaipur

We thought this was a great idea, so set off along the pavement. We passed a couple of fruit stalls and then came across a flower market. Here, they mainly appeared to be selling garlands  such as those we received on our arrival into India on day one.  One very kind stall holder insisted that we each accepted from him (free of charge) a rose, and offered a huge smile to go with it. We didn’t realise it at the time, but we were almost at the end of our tour. We were led into a spice shop, which had, conveniently packaged for overseas visitors a selection of spices which would be “essential if we were ever to be able to replicate the flavours we had tasted in India”. I didn’t dare mention the Balti Triangle in Birmingham, Manchester’s Curry Mile or London’s Southall, and (suckers as we are) we went ahead and purchased some spices. We were hoping that we would then be able to sample a bit more of local street life, but our guide had received his commission so we returned speedily to our car.

Hawa Mahal--Palace Of Winds. Jaipur

Hawa Mahal–Palace Of Winds. Jaipur

We made a final photo stop outside the Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds in the centre of the Pink City and then returned to the hotel.

Welcome Home

Welcome Home

Time For A Snooze

Time For A Snooze

We got back to the Trident safely, and were thrilled to be greeted by an elephant who was passing by, and trumpeting a welcome, and by a slightly less enthusiastic camel who was having a kip on the other side of the road.

Carpet Making In Jaipur

Carpet Making In Jaipur

Prior to dinner we nipped next door to try on the tailor made goodies we had ordered the previous evening. We were both happy with the results and were soon being encouraged to buy “just one more”. When we declined, the salesman insisted on showing us his carpet department and jewellery department, before finally admitting defeat and letting us go on our way.

We joined Mick and Doreen for pre dinner drinks, then had dinner together in the hotel and continued on for post dinner drinks, which was all most affable. By now, I’d discovered that Mick likes whisky and Guinness, which is all good, and Jackie has discovered that Doreen likes T K Maxx, which is all bad, and so we were getting on like a house on fire. We were quite proud of our modest bit of shopping, until we heard that the others had been purchasing, wooden elephants, models of the Taj Mahal, tee-shirts, tailor made clothing and all sorts of other goodies. It quite put us to shame. I wonder if they’re interested in a carpet?

 

 

 

 

Oh My God——–There’s An Elephant Outside Our Window!

Entrance To Fatehpur Sikri

Entrance To Fatehpur Sikri

We knew we had a long drive ahead of us, so we checked out of the Trident Hotel (Agra) straight after breakfast, and travelled the twenty five miles to Fatehpur Sikri. We didn’t really know what to expect here, but we were met by an insistent crowd of determined hawkers of postcards, guide-books and cheap tat, and with a view of a series of red sandstone buildings contained within a six kilometre wall. We were assigned to a gentle upper- middle aged Muslim guide who completed the ticketing formalities and led us inside. Fatehpur Sikri was founded in 1569 by the great Mughal Emperor, Akbar and was built over the period 1571-1585. He wished to make it his new capital, but shortly after its completion, it was deserted, partly due to scarcity of water and partly because it was close to an area of political and military turmoil.

Panch Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri

Panch Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri

The whole site is maintained in very good condition and the architecture was greatly influenced by that of the Persians, but many Indian influences are also apparent.

Girls By A Pond In Fatehpur Sikri

Girls By A Pond In Fatehpur Sikri

In order to keep the area cool in Summer, the architects had included a number of pools or ponds of water. We passed one which was green in colour with a scum of algae on the surface, and Jackie was horrified to find a group of young girls greedily drinking its contents. She couldn’t get her Imodium out quickly enough, and I had to restrain her from insisting that all the girls went with her immediately for an anti-bacterial check up. I’m sure that our spoiled Western stomachs would not have been able to cope, but when you are brought up drinking the local water then you are probably immune to a lot of the problems that would undoubtedly completely floor us.

Hall Of Private Audience, Fatehpur Sikri

Hall Of Private Audience, Fatehpur Sikri

Anup Talao (Pond), Fatehpur Sikri

Anup Talao (Pond), Fatehpur Sikri

Our guide showed no inclination to sell us a carpet (for which we were grateful), but he did try to get us to buy a scarf, which we were to place on a tomb next to the scarf seller. We were convinced however, that this was a scam (assuming that the scarf would be recycled and re-sold as soon as we were out of sight) and so we declined. We had no choice however, when it came to paying to retrieve our shoes, which we had been required to leave in the custody of an enterprising “footwear storage and safekeeping operative” while we hopped painfully from shady spot to shady spot, on our barefoot meanderings around the palace in temperatures of 36 degrees. The smell of burning flesh is not a pleasant one, but every time I removed my socks over the next few days, a reminding whiff of scorched skin would assault my nostrils.

Roadside Fruit Vendors

Roadside Fruit Vendors

We successfully negotiated the obstacle course of street vendors and shop keepers that stood between us and Murari, but we were soon back in our Suzuki and heading towards the pink city of Jaipur. This time our road was not elevated above the surrounding countryside, so we felt much more part of things as we made our way ever westward from village to village.

This Camel's Got The Hump

This Camel’s Got The Hump

 

We passed many vibrant colourful fruit stalls laden down with delicious looking produce and then came across a sight that was to become ever more common as the day progressed. We saw a camel pulling a trailer along the road, and he seemed to be having a bit of an argument with his handler about which direction he should take. We did see some camels in Morocco a few years back, but other than that, this was the first time we had come across these magnificent creatures outside of a zoo.

As we crossed the state border into Rajasthan we were once again pulled over by the police, and once again a rifle was shoved into the rear of the car with a demand to see the contents of our carrier bag. Once again they failed to ask for any identification, or to look inside our suitcases, but it was slightly unsettling to have an armed man pointing his weapon in our direction.

A Village In Rajasthan

A Village In Rajasthan

Donkeys At Work

Donkeys At Work

We had a wonderful view of the hustle and bustle of small town and village life as we continued on our way. Some people were sitting at the roadside selling goods, others were transporting them, while others still, were manufacturing them, in full view of passers by. Human life was supplemented by large numbers of animals. Cows are sacred in India and are kept for their milk, but not for their meat. When they are past their milk producing days, they are let go, and they feed on any kind of rubbish they can find by the roadside. In addition to cows, we saw water buffalo, horses, donkeys, cats, dogs, pigs, monkeys, goats and an ever increasing number of camels.

Overloaded Lorry Provides Shade From The Sun

Overloaded Lorry Provides Shade From The Sun

As before, we passed many fields of wheat and some brick kilns along the way, and as we neared Jaipur, we started to come across some lemon orchards, although unfortunately, this was not the fruiting season. We also passed many piles of cow dung cakes (which looked extremely appetising) drying on the verges of the road. It was about a five hour drive, and we were starting to suffer from a spot of the old “numb bum” syndrome when we finally reached the outskirts of Jaipur. We witnessed some very humble living conditions and passed over a foetid river or large drain, which appeared to have more solids than liquids in it, and onto which abutted a squalid looking shanty town, very reminiscent of some of the scenes from Slum-dog Millionaire. Once again our hearts went out to these poor people who have to endure such conditions.

View Of The Water Palace From Trident Hotel Jaipur

View Of The Water Palace From Trident Hotel Jaipur

As before, we were being accommodated in one of the Trident group of hotels, and we were expecting to be in a “garden view” room. However, we were extremely lucky, and found ourselves in a “lake view” room with a beautiful view of the stunning “Water Palace” which seemed to be floating in the middle of the lake. As in Agra, the staff were very friendly and helpful and we soon settled in to our very comfortable surroundings.

Traffic In Jaipur

Traffic In Jaipur

I glanced out of the window and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. In addition to all the animals we had spotted earlier in the day, an elephant was casually meandering down the main road in front of the hotel with his mahout fast asleep on his back. It just goes to show, that in India, you literally never know what is round the next corner.

We had a swim in the hotel pool and then found a tailors shop nearby. Jackie ordered a lovely Indian outfit, while I was persuaded to order a shirt with Nehru collar. We will find out tomorrow when we collect them if we have made the right decision.

It transpires that my planned venue for dinner is too far away to be realistic, so we asked Murari to drive us into the “Pink City” to find an alternative. The city at night was really beautiful and many of the old buildings were floodlit to show them off at their best. We found a restaurant, which had a two for one offer for beer and wine (it would have been churlish to refuse), but while the food was ok, it was nothing exceptional.

I believe that Mick and Doreen had chosen to eat in the hotel, and that probably turned out to have been the better choice. We met up with them in the bar on our return, and the more we chat to them, the more we are finding that we have in common. It’s great to be able to share our day’s experiences over a refreshing cold drink, and to relax and laugh about what we’ve been up to since we last spoke.

 

 

 

 

 

The Taj Mahal

Wow! That was all we managed to utter.

 

Taj Mahal Through An Arch

Taj Mahal Through An Arch

After lunch we met up with our guide for the afternoon, and our first stop was the Taj Mahal. We were blown away, when we entered the complex and were treated to our first view of this magnificent white marble edifice. Many visitors have said, that in spite of having seen photos and films of the Taj Mahal, nothing compares with being there in person, and experiencing the scale, the quality of workmanship and the total opulence of this wonderful building. These people are correct. It is breathtaking, and we found ourselves just staring and unable to adequately express our feelings and emotions, while the hair on the back of our necks stood on end (not that Jackie has a lot of hair on the back of her neck) and goosebumps ran up and down our spines.

All the facts and figures of the Taj Mahal are widely known and can be read elsewhere, but suffice it to remind readers, that it was built in the mid 17th century by Shah Jahan (he had some help from several thousand skilled artisans and unskilled labourers), as a memorial to, and a tomb for, his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631.

Everything, apart from the positioning of the tombs inside the building is symmetrical and the skill of the architects and craftsmen of more than three hundred and fifty years ago has to be seen, to be believed. Shah Jahan however, has done me no favours. Jackie has started hinting, that if I really love her, then I ought to carry out some equally romantic gesture to show to the world for eternity, how much I really care. I bought her a new ironing board as a special present, several years ago, which I thought was an extremely romantic gesture, so I don’t know what else she expects me to do!

2003_0101Image0076

Since Princess Diana visited the Taj Mahal some years ago, it has been obligatory for tourists to sit and pose on the same bench as she did, and we were no exception. As you can see from the photo, one of us (and it was not me) was extremely relaxed at this stage.

Corner View Of The Taj Mahal

Corner View Of The Taj Mahal

Luckily for us, this is the start of the low season for tourists, as the really hot days of 45-50 degrees are just around the corner. As a result, the number of visitors were easily accommodated, and we were able to spend our time comfortably looking around and trying to take in the enormity of what we had been confronted with, without being constantly jostled and nudged from place to place. The memories of this day will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Hall Of Public Audience Agra Fort

Hall Of Public Audience Agra Fort

Gate To Agra Fort

Gate To Agra Fort

A couple of miles down the road from the Taj Mahal, we visited Agra Fort. It is known that a fort has stood on this site, since at least the 11th century, but the red sandstone walls and buildings which can be seen today were built by the Moghul,  Akbar, in the 1560s and 70s and then improved later by his grandson Shah Jahan. Akbar, was famous for having eight hundred concubines whom he “entertained” (but apparently not all at the same time) within the walls of Agra Fort. It is a magnificent architectural site, but much of the original is now missing, having been destroyed, partly by Shah Jahan to make way for his marble buildings, and partly by the British, to make way for military barracks.

Our guide decided that we might like to visit a family of artisans, whose ancestors had worked on the original marble work of the Taj Mahal, and who still work on the ever on-going restoration which is undertaken every Friday when the site is closed to the public. We agreed that this might be of interest, and we found ourselves watching a demonstration of how precious and semi precious gem stones are inset into pieces of marble. This took about five minutes, and then, surprise, surprise, we were given a strong sales pitch by the management who seemed very taken aback that we were not inclined to purchase a large marble topped dining table, which, we were assured would look perfect in our house.

On leaving empty handed, and with wallets intact, our guide suggested that we may find it interesting to see how a genuine Indian carpet is made. We assured him that we are now experts in carpet manufacture, as we had learned all the tricks of the trade in Delhi, and anyway, we had no more intention of lugging a rug back to the UK than we had of squeezing a table into our cabin baggage. He looked a bit disconcerted for a moment, but then brightened visibly and suggested we go and see a “Star Of India”

We thought that the Star Of India was possibly a local restaurant, or perhaps even a beautiful Bollywood actress, so we agreed, and were soon back in the car. We should by now have been able to anticipate what was coming next. It transpired that Star of India is the name given to a particular type of local semi precious gem stone. It could only be viewed inside a jewellery shop, from which we promptly spent the next forty minutes or so, trying to escape without damage to our finances.  The sales staff were charming and very polite, but they had selective hearing and “NO” was a word that just seemed to have no effect on them.

Finally we evaded the salesmen’s clutches, bade farewell to our commission-less guide, and Murari drove us back to the hotel. Every evening at this stage, he had said to us “Don’t forget that I offer a 24 hour service. I will drive you anywhere, any-time”. Up until this evening we had declined his kind offer, but tonight we asked him if he would be kind enough to collect us at 7:30 and take us to a Trip Advisor recommended restaurant which I had researched prior to our holiday. This gave us enough time to have a shower, watch some cultural dancing laid on by the hotel, and have a quick beer and a chin-wag with Mick and Doreen before meeting Murari in the lobby.

Kingfisher Beer

Kingfisher Beer

The Pinch Of Spice restaurant was only a few minutes from our hotel, so we told Murari that he could take a rest and come back to collect us about ninety minutes later. He however, would not hear of it. He insisted that he would sit outside the restaurant and wait until we were ready, and that we should relax and take our time. He really was turning out to be a very kind and considerate gentleman (yes I know he was probably hoping for a larger tip, but good service is rare to find these days and deserves its just reward). As soon as we sat down at the table and were told that beer was on a “two for one” offer, I knew we would have a good evening. Jackie however, was not so sure, until she discovered that wine was also included in this offer, at which she suddenly perked up and declared that she was glad I had chosen this venue.  In between drinks, we were interrupted by waiters who kept insisting that we should have some solids along with our liquid dinner, and we were glad that they had interrupted us. The whole meal was delicious, and was finished off with a small green coloured drink in a shot glass, which was their version of a mouth freshener. This left something to be desired, until I discovered that if you wash the mouth freshener down with a Kingfisher Beer (did I say they were on special offer?) the after effect was extremely pleasant.

As promised, Murari was waiting outside for us, and he chauffeured us back to the hotel, where we found we had time for a quick nightcap before turning in for the evening.

 

 

Delhi To Agra And The Cow Poo Pizzas

A Destitute Woman At The Road Side

A Destitute Woman At The Road Side

We had a full morning’s drive ahead of us, so as soon as breakfast was finished we bade farewell to Maidens Hotel, (for the time being) and headed towards the Yamuna Express Way which would take us to Agra. As we made our way through some of the outskirts of the capital city, we passed areas of extreme poverty. There were, what appeared to be bundles of rags, but which in fact turned out to be sleeping men, women and children, lying on pavements, in central reservations, under bridges and even perched on narrow ledges on the sides of fly-overs. There were tarpaulins slung over ropes as makeshift tents, housing whole families and there were shacks made out of pieces of wood, plastic and other scavenged materials. Groups of hungry looking men waited on the roadside, hoping that they would be offered a day’s work labouring for enough money to feed their families. The scenes of squalor, were truly Dickensian, and very depressing and difficult to understand in a country where there are so many others who have so much. Many people in India have already mentioned to us about the endemic corruption which runs through this country, and these poor people at the bottom of society are, at least in part, paying the price for this corruption.

The Yamuna Express Way proved to be a newly built six lane toll road which was wide, well maintained, clean and almost empty. It was very different from the roads we’d so far encountered, where, if they were designed to take two lanes of traffic, there would be at least three lanes, with a fourth being fitted in at busy times, when all wing mirrors were retracted to make enough space. On normal roads, driving on the left seems to be optional, straddling white lines is mandatory, and admiring the pretty markings on a zebra crossing while crossing it at speed all seem to be part of the fun. We thought that on the Express Way we’d managed to escape from the tarmacadam madness of elsewhere. That thought was not to last long. Some distance ahead of us, a car pulled onto the hard shoulder. He then did a U-turn and started heading back up the motorway in our direction. Jackie and I looked at each other in amazement, but Murari, who sees much worse than this on a daily basis, did not bat an eyelid, and for once, did not even bother to sound his horn.

Service-station On The Yamuna Express Way

Service-station On The Yamuna Express Way

The Express Way was mainly constructed on an embankment, some feet above the surrounding countryside, and as a result, we were treated to fine panoramic views of rural life. It was harvest time and we saw a few fields of rice, and many thousands of fields of golden wheat being worked on by farmers and agricultural labourers. With very few exceptions the work was being done by hand. We saw men and women, many of them dressed in bright saris (the women that is, not the men) squatting down on their heels and reaping the wheat with a hand held sickle. The stalks were tied into sheaves and laid in the sun to dry, while the workers shuffled a few inches to the side and repeated the process. The next stage was to winnow the wheat and separate the grain from the chaff. In some cases this was done by hand, and we saw old men beating the sheaves with flails. However, a degree of mechanisation seems to be creeping in here and winnowing machines (perhaps owned by co-operatives) were in evidence in quite a few of the fields. The grain was loaded into carts and hauled away either by small tractors or by animals, to be made into flour to produce chapatis while the straw was taken off in another direction and with another use in mind (nothing is wasted in India).

We noticed a large number of dark brown bee-hive shaped edifices, some of which were covered in thatch,  on the margins of many of the fields. As we looked more closely, it became apparent that these were flying saucer shaped patties or cakes about the size of a pizza, which had been formed by hand, out of cow dung, and which were drying in the sun. While they were not destined for the dining room table, they had a part to play in the production of the evening meal, in that they were to be used as fuel over which the cooking pot could be placed. We were told that in rural houses, cow dung is often placed on the walls and floors as it has waterproofing and cooling qualities, and that it also assists in repelling mosquitoes.

We came to an area where the fields became interspersed with the tall chimneys of brick kilns belching smoke into the atmosphere. Here you could see many thousands of grey hand-made mud bricks drying in the sun and awaiting awaiting firing, and many thousands of red finished bricks awaiting transportation to the hungry construction sites of modern India. This was the destination for much of the straw from the wheat fields, which is used as a fuel for baking the bricks. We could see many people working hard in these places, and it has been reported, that at least some of them (men, women and children) are bonded labourers, or 21st century slaves, whose families have been doing this kind of work for many generations.

We were now in the State of Uttar Pradesh (around 200 miles from Nepal), and we found ourselves being pulled over to the side of the road by an armed and uniformed police officer. Our car was fitted with Delhi number plates, and it transpired that, due to the forthcoming General Election, all out of State vehicles were to be the subject of extreme scrutiny. The back door of the car was opened and a policeman, preceded by a dangerous looking automatic rifle, demanded to know what was contained in a canvas shoulder bag sitting between us on the seat. He then proceeded to examine in great detail, our hats, Jackie’s sunglasses, a cereal bar and some tissues along with a banana,  a piece of banana bread and a small container of shampoo (the last three of which had been stolen-accidentally-from our previous hotel). Once satisfied that our fruit etc posed no threat to national security, he told Murari to open the boot. We groaned. We had three locked suitcases in the back, and anticipated that we could be here for several hours while our underwear and dirty socks were examined in microscopic detail. However, it was a warm day, and it seemed that the prospect of taking our belongings apart piece by piece, was less attractive that getting back into his shaded roadside hut, so he waved Murari to close the boot lid without disturbing our luggage, and to carry on our way.

Although our journey had allowed us some magnificent views, we had felt somewhat cocooned and distanced from our surroundings as though we were just watching a documentary without the commentary, from the air-conditioned comfort of our car. We had had free range of one of our senses (sight), but we had been unable to touch, smell or hear what was going on around us, and I felt slightly frustrated by what I considered to be a slightly sanitised version of reality. Jackie, on the other hand was delighted. She had not bee exposed to the hazards of public toilets, and her Imodium was still sealed in her bag. As far as she was concerned, the longer we could stay in our “bubble” the better.

Overloaded Bicycle In Agra

Overloaded Bicycle In Agra

First View Of The Taj Mahal

First View Of The Taj Mahal

We entered the city of Agra and were greeted with more of the chaotic traffic to which we were now beginning to become accustomed.  We dodged through a plethora of overloaded bicycles, rickshaws, lorries and carts, swerved around cows grazing placidly on discarded pink plastic bags in the middle of the road, ignored the frantic horns of other road users, encouraged pedestrians, especially the elderly and infirm, to get out of our way more quickly, and, refusing to give way to anyone, we eventually found ourselves past the worst of the mayhem, and were greeted with our first glimpse in the distance of the wonderful edifice that we had come so far to see, The Taj Mahal.

Trident Hotel Agra

Trident Hotel Agra

We checked into the Trident Hotel, and were thrilled to find a clean, modern building with all the facilities (except free wi-fi) which we could have wished for. The staff were most welcoming and we soon settled down with a delicious plate of shami kebabs and vegetarian samosas for a light, but much needed lunch. Mick and Doreen had arrived before us, and we exchanged news of our experiences of the morning’s journey, before going our separate ways again and preparing for an afternoon crammed full of sightseeing.

Sightseeing In New And Old Delhi

We breakfasted on the terrace in our hotel, and the highlight for me, was porridge, with banana and cinnamon. In order to restore the balance, having dined exclusively on vegetarian fare the previous evening, I indulged in some bacon and a couple of chicken sausages as well, just in case more pulses and green things would be heading in my direction later in the day.

Jama Masjid Delhi

Jama Masjid Delhi

We were met in the lobby by our guide for the day. Mr Singh, was a 78 year old Sikh, resplendent in his black turban and beard net, and it turned out that he had been an English teacher for many years, meaning that there were no communication problems at all. He started by telling us that Delhi people are very relaxed during the day, but that they work extremely hard after sunset, hence the ever growing population of the city. Murari drove us past the Red Fort, and our first stop was at the Shahe Jama Masjid (mosque), which was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1656. This was a very interesting location to visit, and was also our first introduction to “baksheesh” or pressurised tipping. On entering the mosque, we were required to remove our shoes, and Jackie was draped in a multi coloured curtain to preserve her decency, in spite of having turned up in long sleeves with a high collar, a scarf for her head and wearing trousers. Naturally, as a sign of respect we complied willingly. On exiting however, we first of all had to pay the lender of the voluminous fabric which had conspired to trip Jackie up with every step she took, and then, we had to pay someone else who had “guarded” our shoes.  No doubt we would have had to leave barefoot if we had declined the invitation to pay.

 

View From The Entrance Of Jama Masjid

View From The Entrance Of Jama Masjid

We departed from the mosque and drove slowly through part of the city of Old Delhi. This was fascinating, the streets were crowded, in spite of it still being early in the day. The narrow roads and lanes were overhung with a spiders web of electrical cables, some of them legal but many of them high-jacking power from official sources. This can be a real source of danger, especially during the monsoon season when it is not uncommon for these cables to collapse on to the street below. Business was being transacted on the pavement. Hair was being cut, chins were being shaved, fruit was being sold, food was being cooked, clothes were being sewn, knives were being sharpened and cars were being repaired. We passed along a street which was dedicated purely to providing spare parts for all types of car, lorry, bus and motorcycle. If your car is stolen in Delhi, this is the street you must visit to buy it back. The only problem is, that within no time at all, your vehicle has been totally dismantled, and so you will have to buy it back, bit by bit, and then pay someone to reassemble it for you.

We passed some buses parked on the pavement. One was a mobile dental clinic serving the poor and underprivileged, and judging by the queue outside, it was doing a roaring trade. Others were mere carcasses, but their interiors had been removed, and they are now used as sleeping shelters for the homeless. This is far from ideal, but at least it shows that some people are concerned, and are doing their best to help alleviate the suffering of others.

Raj Ghat. Where Mahatma Gandhi Was Cremated In 1948

Raj Ghat. Where Mahatma Gandhi Was Cremated In 1948

Maintaining The Gardens At Raj Ghat

Maintaining The Gardens At Raj Ghat

Raj Ghat, the location of the 1948 cremation of the great Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi was our next stop. Jawaharlal Nehru (famous for his collars, along with being Prime Minister of India), and Mrs Indira Gandhi along with others, were also cremated nearby. It is a wonderfully quiet, peaceful spot, and while there, it was difficult to believe that we were in the heart of the world’s second most populous city. Everything was immaculate with staff clipping hedges, sweeping pavements, weeding flowerbeds and cutting grass. In India, it seems that if a job can be done by one person, then they employ two people to do it. For example, one person would push the lawn mower while another walked alongside brushing cut grass off the roller. Up until now, I’ve never been allowed an assistant when cutting the grass, but things are going to change when we get home.

Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Presidential Palace

Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Presidential Palace

India Gate

India Gate

We drove to the beautiful Rashtrapi Bhavan (Presidential Palace) in New Delhi, and although tourists are not permitted to enter, we admired the building, especially its magnificent wrought iron gates, from afar. We continued along Rajpath which is a ceremonial boulevard (similar to the Champs Elysees in Paris–but longer and with no shops) and our next stop was at India Gate (think Arc De Triumph in sunshine).

 

Humayun's Tomb

Humayun’s Tomb

Mr Singh next took us to visit the Moghul Emperor Humayun’s tomb which had been commissioned by his grieving widow (not Mr Singh’s, the Moghul Emperor’s) around 1570.

Qutub Minar

Qutub Minar

Our final sightseeing spot of the day was Qutub Minar. This is a 73 metre tall tower which was commissioned by the first Sultan of Delhi and building was commenced in 1192. Its purpose was as a place for the muezzin to call  faithful Muslims to prayer. I’m not certain if the authorities will admit to this, but I’m sure the tower has an incline, and I’m seriously considering petitioning for it to be re-named “The Leaning Tower Of Delhi”.

Perhaps he wanted to make us feel at home, or perhaps he was likely to earn a good commission (call me cynical if you will), or perhaps he knew that the food was good, but for whatever reason, Mr Singh suggested we have a (by now) late lunch at a restaurant named “Essex”. It transpired that we didn’t care if he was making a percentage on our visit, because the butter chicken (which we couldn’t get the previous evening) was very good, and they were doing a very reasonable two for one offer on large bottles of Kingfisher beer. Perhaps, in addition to the above, Mr Singh was trying to soften us up for our final stop of the day. No, it wasn’t to a famous monument, or museum, it wasn’t to a street market or a garden, it was to a Kashmir carpet shop. The hard sell soon started, and when they eventually twigged that we didn’t want one of their rugs, they started in with their jewellery, their  pashminas, and their sari material. We promised to come back the next day (a barefaced lie) and promptly left.

On our way back to the hotel, Murari dropped off Mr Singh, who was a lovely old man and who had been extremely informative and helpful, near his house. I asked Murari if he could stop at a shop to buy some beer. This he did and I got out and made my purchase (3 bottles—approximately 1.5 pints in each), and very pleased with myself, got back in the car. “How much did you pay”, asked our driver. “One hundred rupees each” (£1.00) I replied with a big smile. “Oh my god, you’ve been cheated. Next time I’ll buy for you. They should be around seventy rupees each”. We live and learn, but I wasn’t unhappy with the price I’d paid.

Jackie decided that as we’d eaten a late lunch, I could do without dinner. I of course, didn’t have any say in the matter, but I agreed for the price of a cereal bar (Jackie had packed loads along with the Imodium in case we couldn’t eat the food) and the promise of Happy Hour in the hotel. Who should we happen to meet in the bar but Doreen and Mick again (again is not their surname, it was just that this was the second time we’d met up here). Was this going to become a habit? We hoped so. Tomorrow, we’re off to Agra for one of the highlights of our tour. A visit to the Taj Mahal (no, not the one in your local High Street, the real thing—no, I couldn’t believe it either!)

Normal Service Will Be Resumed Shortly—–I Hope

I’m afraid that due to being struck down with a case of The Masala Waterfalls, perhaps better known as Delhi Belly, I am unable to stray far from the smallest room in the house. As a result, there will be a delay before I next post further details of our travels in India. On the positive side, I’m currently losing about 1 pound a day and will soon have reached my target weight.

First Impressions Of Delhi

After what felt like a prolonged period of gestation, we were finally delivered from the distended belly of a beautiful young Virgin. Jackie was not in the best of spirits. She had not been able to understand why Jamie Oliver had not cooked for her when we visited Jamie’s Italian Kitchen in Birmingham recently, and to add insult to injury, she had now discovered that Richard Branson had not been the pilot on our flight from London to Delhi. Muttering something about contacting the Trading Standards Agency, she led me off the plane and along the walkway to immigration and the baggage claim carousels.

We looked around and were very pleasantly surprised. We’d read that Delhi airport was one of the worst in the world, but this building was bright, airy and modern and the facilities (this was our first visit to a toilet in India) were spotlessly clean and in excellent working order. It transpired that this airport was almost brand new, having been built for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, and not its grim predecessor, which was the one we were expecting to find. The passport officer even smiled and said “good morning” and in no time at all, we were past the formalities and being met in the arrivals concourse by our tour agent.

We were quickly escorted to our car, where we were introduced to Murari, who was to be our driver for the next few days. We were then bedecked with welcoming garlands of marigolds, which were placed around our necks, and once seated, we set off for our hotel. It was not long until we were passing through New Delhi and we were amazed at what we saw. We had been mentally preparing ourselves for scenes of extreme poverty and deprivation, only to be confronted with wide green tree lined avenues and large parks with beautiful floral displays, of species which would be very familiar to anyone who has ever seen a British garden in summertime. We passed a series of very smart, imposing government buildings, and although the traffic was hectic and there was an incessant tooting of horns, only one beggar approached our vehicle during one of many stops imposed by red traffic lights. We continued along new highways which were part of the Commonwealth Games legacy, and skirted round the much more dishevelled looking area of Old Delhi, and eventually arrived at Maidens Hotel where security guards poked mirrors underneath our car before allowing us to proceed to the entrance lobby. Maidens is a grand old lady, being a Heritage Hotel dating back to 1903 at the heart of  the Colonial era.

Maidens Hotel, Delhi

Maidens Hotel, Delhi

We were escorted to our king-size bedded room which was very spacious, and which led in turn to another, slightly smaller, but still substantial king size bedded room, which in turn led to a large bathroom. We checked that we were not expected to share with another couple, and when we were assured that we were not, we decided to sleep in one room this night and the adjoining one the next night.

We were tired but excited, and so decided to do a spot of exploring before trying to locate Gulati Restaurant where Trip Advisor had promised that along with some very fine mutton dishes, we would be treated to the best butter chicken in Delhi. The thought of these delicious meat dishes was already playing havoc with my taste buds, but I would have to contain myself for at least a couple of hours, before it would be time for an early dinner.

We decided to brave the Delhi Metro, as there was a station (Civil Lines) in close proximity to our hotel. We purchased our tickets for 12.5 rupees each (around 13 pence), negotiated the security xray machine and the manual frisking by a security guard with a metal detector, carefully bypassed another guard who was sitting in his nest, training his sub-machine gun on the ticket barriers, and made our way to the correct platform. The metro was clean and modern, and was on a par with anything to be found in European cities. It was easy to find the correct stop, as a bilingual announcer in Hindi and in English continuously gave updates to the passengers and this was accompanied by clear illuminated signs in the carriage providing the same information. In spite of the population of Delhi being around 10 million greater than that of London, we found that the Delhi Metro (out of rush hour) was as comfortable, if not more so than its western cousin.

After about half an hour we found ourselves in Connaught Place which is a huge circular parade of grand buildings dating to around 1930. We now felt that we had at last arrived in India. The street was a controlled confusion of hawkers, beggars, businessmen, tourists, men, women, children and more than a few suspicious looking animals. People were wearing a mixture of business suits, jeans and tee-shirts, bright saris, lop-sided turbans and rags. The whole of humanity seemed to be around us and we just looked and wondered. We had been warned in advance that one of the favourite scams in this area, is for tourists to find that dog, cow or even human excrement has been placed on their shoes (I was not keen on this idea as I was wearing open toed sandals at the time). This would be pointed out by a helpful individual who would lead the tourist to a shoe shine boy who would clean off the excrement and charge a hugely inflated price for doing so. We avoided this scam, exchanged some money and decided to look for Gulati restaurant.

Auto-Rickshaw In Delhi

Auto-Rickshaw In Delhi

With the aid of a couple of very helpful uniformed gentlemen (possibly police officers) we discovered that the restaurant was not as close as we had been hoping for. They flagged down an auto rickshaw (basically a three wheeled moped with a covered box on the back), gave instructions to the driver and we climbed in and set off. The first manoeuvre was a u-turn in a main road in the centre of Delhi in the heart of what was now, rush hour. We closed our eyes tightly, Jackie held on like grim death (there was nothing at her side to prevent her from falling out) and put our faith in an extremely skinny, somewhat elderly driver who took great delight in playing “chicken” with all the other road users, especially if they were bigger and faster than him. We survived, and 25 minutes later he deposited us at our destination and collected a modest 50p for his trouble.

Vegetarian Dinner At Gulati Restaurant Delhi

Vegetarian Dinner At Gulati Restaurant Delhi

At last, the moment we’d been waiting for all day. We would soon be eating mouth watering juicy tender butter chicken, along with one of  the highly recommended mutton specials. Heaven, we couldn’t wait. At the door to the restaurant, we were met by the maitre d’ who welcomed us warmly, and then advised us, that as today was the first day of a nine day Hindu religious festival, no onions or garlic would be served, and the only food on offer would be VEGETARIAN!!!!!! My first reaction was one of horror and disappointment, my second was even worse. I got him to repeat what he had said, and almost cried when he reiterated that the festival lasted for 9 days. He did cheer me up slightly however when he advised me that not every restaurant observed this festival and that it should not be too difficult to find my “pound of flesh” elsewhere. Jackie decided that on balance, vegetarian food would be less of a trial, than another ride on an auto-rickshaw, so we entered Gulati. But wait, there was still worse to come. We sat down and the waiter asked what we would like to drink. I ordered a large glass of  nicely chilled beer, only to be told that not only had we strayed into a restaurant that didn’t sell meat,  we had strayed into a restaurant that didn’t serve alcohol!!! Vegetables and water—-what a prospect. Reluctantly, I ordered some aloo (potatoes) jeera, a channa (chickpeas) and peas dish and paneer (cottage cheese) makhani along with a plain nan a cheese nan and a channa roti. We were amazed. I did not know it was possible to get so much flavour into a meal without the inclusion of garlic, onions or meat, but they managed it. The food was absolutely superb, and we were so pleased that in spite of our (or to be honest, my) misgivings we had decided to eat here. Even the bottle of water was good.

We took the metro back to the hotel, and it (the metro, not the hotel) was absolutely jam packed. We had to let about four trains go past before we managed to get aboard, but the service was frequent so we weren’t delayed too much. My mouth was as dry as the bottom of a parrot’s cage so we headed straight for the hotel bar to enjoy their two for one Happy Hour offer. By now, I’d almost resigned myself to being offered two bottles of water for the price of one, but no, Kingfisher beer was on sale, as was white wine, so we settled down comfortably and placed our order. While there, we made the acquaintance of a delightful couple of ex-teachers called Mick and Doreen, who we discovered were on the same tour as us (all-be-it with separate cars and separate drivers and guides). We chatted for a while, and then, as jet lag was starting to make its appearance we headed off for an early night. We still had to choose which bedroom to use. Tomorrow would bring the start of our official (guided) itinerary, so we chose sleep over the alluring prospect of more beer, in order that we could be fresh for an early start the next day.