Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Sigh of relief in Singapore

High rise and tree lined
We couldn't have come to a more contrasting location, Singapore is everything India isn't...clean, quiet, calm, organised, wealthy, healthy, green, easy! We breathed a sigh of relief when we stepped out of our hotel, breathing in dust-free air, walking along wide tree and foliage lined pavements, navigating the ridiculously easy streets, buses and train systems and being ignored as we mooched around (rather than hassled or stared at).

Pavement attraction
That being said, it is expensive and everything here is geared up for consumerism. Plastic, technology and shopping is prolific and a lot of money is spent on making things look attractive which is making me and my eco-hat feel a bit uncomfortable.

Sculptures enticing you into the shopping centres
The locals are a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian etc and the varying cultures can be seen in different areas of the city though the food and styles. As Chinese New Year is coming up soon, there is a lot of red around and it feels a bit like Christmas with decorations and sales of good luck charms. We found an interesting temple in Chinatown that claims to be housing a relic of Buddha's tooth. Whilst the tooth wasn't much to get excited about as it was viewed from a distance and was so minuscule, the temple was beautifully ornate with gold everywhere.

Around our hotel in Little India, there has been a Tamil festival called Thaipusum which looks a bit like an Indian Notting Hill Carnival until you take a closer look to realise that self-mortification (or carrying a burden) is the theme, gross!

Those spikes are through his skin and his tongue and cheek is pierced with a spear
The Botanic and National Orchid Gardens made for more relaxing viewing with awesome tropical plants and beautiful landscaping. We were treated to a free concert here and met up with an Irish guy we met on our journey from the airport.

Rob's favourite the White Tiger
Singapore Zoo had come highly recommended so we headed here for a brilliant day. The tropical surroundings certainly felt more authentic than other zoos we've visited and there were lots of feeding sessions to watch the animals in action.

Up close and personal
Super trees had eery Jurassic Park type music playing
Another highlight for us was another set of gardens behind the marina which had two biodomes containing a cloud rainforest and waterfalls as well as structurally stunning gardens and all promising to be self-sustainable by generating electricity from the amazing solar super trees, watered by harvested water collection and producing it's own energy using biomass.

Sundown on our last night showed us another great landscape as we headed for Marina Bay to admire the promenade, skyscrapers and light show.

Marina Bays Sands Hotel has a pool, restaurant on this boat like structure on top.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Cowboys, Indians and Camp fires!

Wow, what an experience our four days on horseback through a VERY rural and hilly Rajasthan has been. We've felt like a cross between Brangelina, as we passed through village after village smiling and waving so much at calling children and shy adults that it's given us repetitive strain injuries, and circus freaks, as people have gathered around us staring intently and without embarrassment whilst we tried to eat breakfast, brush our teeth or simply read a book.

We must first thank Nancy, who gave us the skills and confidence to tackle "walk", "trot" and "canter" before we left England - unfortunately she couldn't help us to pre-empt extremely spirited horses and lots of hill walking, rock climbing and river wading. The Marwari horses we have been riding are slender, sensitive and have distinctive curly ears. They were used for war and hunting by the Maharajahs for hundreds of years.

Feisty Namari
The trek has also brought us several other "firsts", one being the outdoor toilet facilities for ones and twos (namely a rustic commode over a pit or behind a wall or bush), another being the lack of showering facilities for four days so it's been a top and tail with a wet flannel or hair washing with a bucket full of river water. We've had meals round a camp fire each night and there's been all kinds of new wildlife to spot (electric blue kingfishers, mongoose, yellow woodpeckers etc).

Washing my hair
The scenery has been mountainous and dry with the occasional lake and lush crop areas. Terrain has been a combination of steep rocky pathways, concrete roads and river crossings as we climbed higher and higher heading for Kumbalgarh Fort. Village life and it's simplicity has astounded us as the majority of dwellings have no electricity or running water (a village pump provides this). A mixture of cow, buffalo and goats are kept in pens around the housetops provide milk and the dung is patted and sun dried to use as fuel for the fires. Camel, cow and buffalo are the work force here, carrying heavy goods and pushing the water mill around to draw water from the wells to the crops. Mustard seed, sugar cane, tomatoes and wheat have been the most prominent crops.

Horns painted for Diwali
Making it look no effort
Brick making by hand
Shocking too is how basic their existence is....children play with hoop and stick and a simple marble flicking game or just sit about. Shoes are not worn and bathing and brushing teeth seem to be unimportant.... it makes the bright white smiles and gorgeous vibrant saris look out of place amidst the dust, dirt and animals. Ladies can be seen carrying anything from huge pots of water, 12ft lengths of cane or large bundles of leaves on their heads.

Schools have been intriguing too - the state uniform of baby blue shirt and tan trousers look smart but it appears you can rock up at school whatever time you feel like, lessons a held outside, on the ground en masse and the cane/slap around the head is very much still acceptable.

Each day we have ridden for about 5 hours, starting the day with an outdoor breakfast and stopping half way for lunch. Late afternoon we have stopped at a new camp, set up by the guys before we arrive. An hour or two until darkness when a camp fire is lit and dinner eaten. The best meals of all our Indian trip! Without electricity bedtime has been around 8.30pm but despite the early retirement, sleep has been challenging with unusual noises and freezing temperatures to disturb us. The guys who run the trek have all slept outside on the floor, making us feel guilty in our bedded tent.

Camp near the river
Keeping warm by the camp fire
On one of the evenings, we were treated to a trip on the back of the truck up to a remote Hindu temple in the forest. We drank tea with a Sadhu and then watched the evening Puja ceremony and with candles lit, bells rung and drums beaten, it was another interesting experience, topped off with Rob smoking some of the Sadhus home grown Ganga.

Our nemeses this adventure have been rock hard cavalry saddles and sore bottoms as well as roaming buffalo who terrorise the horses with their scatty, lollopping run and large horns but overall this has been an amazing four days and definitely worth the saddle sores.


Sunday, 20 January 2013

"Welcome to Udaipur Mr Bond"

Our final destination in India (not including the forthcoming horse trek) was to the lake city of Udaipur. With no trains or suitable buses available, we decided to go by taxi. We left Jodhpur in heavy rain which made the already murky streets somewhat unsuitable for walking around so it was great timing to head off! The taxi option provided us with stress-free comfort and a half way stop off at the Jain temple of Ranukpur.

The temple was huge and every inch delicately decorated and carved in grey stone and white marble. Inside, lots of individually designed pillars and domed ceilings dominated the space together with the 600 year old mimosa tree growing through the floor. A very spiritual place as described to us by our monk guide.




The luxurious City Palace Hotel on the right
Udaipur is in complete contrast to any of our previous Indian destinations. More Western tourists, less hawkers, much fewer signs of poverty, minimal tuk tuk tooting and of course the stunning lakes. Our hotel roof terrace, like most of the restaurants and cafes overlook the magnificent, man-made lake. Backdropped with a mountain range, and rugged country side it reminded us of Lake Garda in Italy, with an Indian twist.... and of course, any keen Bond fans will recognise the setting in the1981 Roger Moore movie, "Octopussy"!

Lake at sunset from our roof terrace
On our first evening, we met up with some friends we'd met in Jaipur and went to a puppet / dance performance. Ladies, in fantastic jewelled dresses twirled, played miniature symbols and showed of their dexterity whilst balancing various objects on their heads. A puppeteer perform tricks whilst the musicians played traditional songs.

We had a fantastic morning exploring the City Palace and local temple on day two. We observed a service taking place at the temple which started with a eardrum-busting bell being chimed, followed by chanting, worship and further singing by the women. A privilege to be part of despite the ringing ears!! The City Temple was a labyrinth of rooms each taking their own distinctive themes with colours and materials used to decorate them. It was deceptively small from the outside but huge from within demanding wonderful views of the lake and city.

Front of Palace
With Damai and Thomas in the Palace
Much of our time in Udaipur had been spent strolling along the pleasantly quiet streets, visiting a tranquil park with rose garden, perusing a classic car museum and generally just relaxing. Oh and Sonja got a henna tattoo!!




Udaipur is definately not the most interesting of destinations thus far, but in term of recovery before our next adventure, it ticks every box. Tomorrow we head off into the countryside on a four day horse trek / camping expedition, can't wait......


Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Feeling blue in Jodhpur

Another transfer day..... and you guessed it.....another train delay. Not so much stress this time, perhaps we're getting used to India's transport system. Like our previous journey, we ditched the train, opting instead for the bus again. The journey took seven hours and was full of fascinating scenery. From lush green countryside to crowded market villages and animals (mainly cows) everywhere.

The Blue City

Our first impression of Jodhpur was that it was smaller and less affluent than Jaipur. Our tuk tuk ploughed it's way down impossibly narrow roads lined with shops and abodes alike. We're surprised we've not seen an accident yet, the near misses are frequent. Having said that, traffic, pedestrians and animals all go about their business with minimal fuss and no road rage, just the loud tooting to let you know they are coming.

Our terrace view of Mehrangarh Fort
Any feeling of claustrophobia passed as soon as we were invited onto the roof terrace of our hotel. Up high above the busy world below, we had an incredible view of the Mehrangarh Fort, which almost looks like it's been carved into the hillside. Here too we could get a glimpse of the number of blue buildings which Jodhpur is synonymous for. Our hotel, with six rooms, is essentially a family's house which they share with their guests. As you navigate to your room or the roof terrace, you have to walk through their private space. Surprisingly it is not uncomfortable at all, in fact it made the experience all more enriching as we got to interact with the family all the time, especially their two year old daughter, who was as cute as can be especially when she blew us kisses!!

The perfect city for a Chelsea fan!

On our first full day, we decided to visit the fort we'd been admiring over breakfast. It looked in touching distance from the terrace, but as we found, there was the small matter of the labyrinth to get through followed by a steep incline. With the most basic map in the world, we made it to the fort feeling slightly unfit!! Mehrangarh Fort turned out to be our favourite fort so far, and believe me we've seen a lot. In addition to it's incredible dominating existence from afar, the inside was equally stunning. It had clearly been maintained much better than the others. The top of the fort housed numerous cannons over looking the blue city. The Maharaja's quarters were decorated with gold, silver, jewels and beautifully coloured rugs and other textiles. Examples of clothing worn over the generations and the different types of elephant carriages were included in the excellent museum. The fort also provided incredible views of the city, highlighting the pale indigo-washed buildings which apparently are not only pretty but cooling and the natural colorant helps to ward off mosquitos. We also visited the adjacent Jaswant Thada, a cenotaph built for the late Maharajas. It was very peaceful with well kept green gardens and a lake also overlooking the city.

In the evening, we took an Indian cookery lesson. Run by a lovely family in their modest home behind the front of their spice shop, we were guided through the process making of Saffron Lassi, Biriani rice, dal, Masala Chai, Paneer Masala curry, naan bread and chapati.

Anyone want naan at our next dinner party?
It was a real hands-on course, where we ate all we cooked.

Saffron lassi was full of calories, so the extra blob of butter on top of the cream and nuts made no difference!
Definitely our best food yet and made all the more interesting to hear the health benefits of each spice that we used. The course lasted over five hours and Rekka told us her story of the business with great pride. It was humbling to be in an Indian home as they are beyond basic, with open sewers, mice and an open ceiling and were glad our money went to such a family.

Silver-topped veg Biriani, nice.
On our second day, we decided to simply explore the local markets and back streets and just take it all in. It has a real local feel to it, with small shops selling just about anything you could think of, sharing the road space with cows, goats and dogs sunbathing and the school children in smart uniform chattering away and saying hello to us. There is very little hassling from people here and it makes the experience of exploring so much more pleasurable.

No road rage from this elephant.
I think it's next left and then right at the mangy goat on the corner.

Monday, 14 January 2013


To say we had a bit of a palaver this morning might be a bit of an understatement, it was a drama at it's very best. We woke up at 5am to catch our 6.20am train to Jaipur and suffered a rather tense tuk tuk journey which only got us to the station in the nic of time, only to find that our train has been delayed by 12 hours. A bloke suddenly suggested it might be running after all. With hope and 60 seconds to go, we sprinted to platform 2, via the footbridge battling through the crowds, me struggling with the 42kgs of luggage, knocking people including elderly and children out the way................only to find it was still delayed. We felt exhausted and deflated. "What shall we do for the next 12 hours?" Sonja asked. There was only one option, head back to the hotel and beg for our room back and a late check out despite the fact we'd already checked out! Fortunately Sonja's charm did the trick and the staff allowed us to have our room back at no extra charge. We returned to bed for some stress-busting sleep.

Delux Volvo bus to the rescue!!!
At midday we checked the Indian train website and learned that our train was now delayed by 14 hours with the likelihood it would be delayed by more, meaning that, at best, we'd arrive in Jaipur at 1am. Change of plan required. We decided to go by bus and so booked two tickets to Jaipur, leaving at 2.30pm. The move proved to be a stroke of genius. The journey only took 5 hours and as well as being very comfortable, provided us with amazing scenery and views of Indian countryside. We arrived safely in Jaipur one hour after our train was supposed to leave Agra. Result!!!

Our hotel was beautiful. It is an old maharaj palace and reminded us of the film 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' with it's ornate design and quirky furniture and trinkets, even down to the charming young men managing the place. It has a fantastic rooftop terrace with incredible panoramic views of Jaipur with the surrounding hills and in front of us the dominating Tiger Fort nested on top.

Entrance to our hotel
Lower roof terrace


Unfortunately Sonja awoke to our first experience of "Delhi belly" so therefore spent much of the first day relaxing on the roof terrace, reading, watching life continue beneath us and enjoying the views. Unadulterated, raw Indian life was going on in front of us and it was fascinating. So many things to describe....a hundred or so kites soared in the skies preparing for the kite festival in two days time (reminding us of the book, The Kite Runner), sounds of children laughing, car horns hooting, Indian music playing, the "call to prayer" echoing and Sonja's tummy growling!! Beneath us, a woman doing her laundry in the street, men shaving on roof tops, children being washed and dressed by their mothers whilst smiling and waving at us, even people going to the toilet. Not sightseeing as such, more "Indian life-seeing".

We did manage to visit two sites that afternoon. The City Palace was very impressive with it's pink coloured external walls, a wonderful collection of textiles and Indian clothing and a detailed history of previous to current Maharajas. We also strolled down to visit the Palace of the Winds. The frontage has many covered windows which allowed the women to watch processions pass without being seen.

Our final morning in Jaipur consisted of a trip to the Amber fort. A guide took us round this palace on the hill, telling us the history and tales of the Maharajas exploits. The wall surrounding the fort is 16km in length and spectacularly dominated the rugged hills around fort. Afterwards we thought we deserved a bit of fun so we bought six brightly coloured paper kites. It was a pathetic attempt as none got off the ground, which the local kids found rather amusing. Our kite careers started and ended there!

It was a shame not to see a bit more of Jaipur as the people have been more friendly and there is much less hassle, but another train journey awaits.