Saturday, 18 February 2012

Indian Thali Days

A trip to India is always difficult to describe, to do justice to. On this, my fourth visit, it presents no less of a conundrum. Chris mentioned to me that he felt our experiences there had been a bit like a thali - a taster of lots of different bits and pieces - and as I look back, this description seems to fit perfectly. Our time there conjures up a hodge podge of memories and experiences, tasty morsels of Indian culture that have all come together to make a perfectly balanced and truly wonderful travelling experience. The only thread, or staple (to maintain the culinary metaphor) binding it all together is the train trips that took us from A to B, often proving as experiential themselves as their destinations and introducing us to an intriguing cross section of India's vast people; otherwise each place or region that we visited has had a unique charm and focus of it's own enabling us to sample many different facets of the country in a fairly short space of time.

Rishikesh introduced us to the laid back, spiritual side of India; although not the usual frenzied spirituality that is often found in Hindu pilgrimage sites around the country. Instead it was a more peaceful, meditation led spirituality much more in tune with the beautiful natural surroundings of the city.  Having never visited the Indian Himalayas before I could see why it is often described as a haven away from the chaos of the lower regions and why so many Indians like to escape there whenever they can. It is cool, the wind blows, the rivers flow pollution free and there is a serenity and calm about the place that is rarely found in populated India. In short you can breathe. Chris and I had been keen to get into yoga whilst in this spiritual mountain retreat, which we did enthusiastically and had a thoroughly relaxing and detoxing time, the perfect re-introduction to the road for Chris post-England visit. Unfortunately we were unable to explore this region more fully as the winter weather was closing in, but the taster was enough to confirm that we will most definitely be returning one day. As in Nepal, the Himalayas here have captured our imaginations far more than we would have foretold and I have a feeling that holidays in the future may well be dominated by visits to this magical part of the world.

Rajasthan was the chalk to Rishikesh's cheese and something of a wake up call to the 'real' India we had come to see. This was my second visit to the region and I found it even more bewitching than my first. For those of you who have yet to visit India, this is surely the gateway to this incredible country, the quintessential Indian experience. Everything you imagine when you visualise India in your head is Rajasthani. The colourful saris, the showstopping turbans of the Rajput princes, the old, embellished havelis, the decadent palaces, the desert, the camels, the name it, Rajasthan has it in abundance. It is on the touristy side, this is true,  but there are still areas you can visit which are relatively off the beaten track and the tourism angle does have the added benefit that the accommodation is spectacular and restaurants abound. One of the highlights of our visit here was a trekking tour through the desert surrounding Udaipur. Simply an hour outside of the city, it felt like we were in another world as our local guide walked us around the desert villages, introducing us to his local friends and family. Many of the people there seemed never to have seen tourists before and eagerly posed for family photos which we later sent on to them. It was a magical experience watching life go on much as it must have done for hundreds of years; farmers ploughing the land by water buffalo, women collecting water from the wells in huge buckets on their heads. We also managed to pass through the seldom visited Chittaurgarh and Bundi whose rambling and overgrown hill top forts and authentic bustling bazaars were a far cry from the more touristed cities of Jodhpur and Jaisalmer (although they are not to be missed either!). The only people we had to share these places with were a few Indian tourists and the monkeys!

After the hustle and bustle of the tourist trail we were keen to get back to nature and tranquillity again, and I was desperate to see a tiger. It transpires that the best place to see one of these mighty cats is in the very centre of India, in Madhya Pradesh. Chris showed his patient side as I dragged him on an eighteen hour train ride, followed by a three hour train ride, followed by an hour taxi ride, into the heart of India. He was then even more patient as I persuaded him to stay for two nights in our most expensive hotel yet and to do four extortionately priced game drives into Bandhavgarh national park. Did we see a tiger? No. The closest we got was some growling in the bushes supposedly 300m from us, and the odd 'jungle chicken' (again!). Did everyone else staying at our resort see a tiger? Yes - we were very unlucky but we really did enjoy the experience. There is something hugely exciting about setting off on a 4 hour safari to track down one of these elusive big cats. I've never been safariing before but I can understand why people get really into it and it's made me super excited for African adventures. The staff at the Nature Heritage Resort also helped make our few days there unforgettable. Wake up calls at 5am with tea and biscuits, big blankets to wrap around us in the jeep, hot towels to wipe our dusty faces on return from the forest, camp fires at night for drinks and nibbles, hot water bottles to take to bed. We will definitely be back one day in another attempt to spot these beautiful creatures and can highly recommend a stay here.

Next up - Varanasi. Like Rishikesh,this holy Hindu town is also built along the banks of the Ganges river although that is where the similarity of the two cities ends. Renown worldwide for being one of India's most sacred sites and consequently one of it's busiest and most eye opening it is a city that you will never forget. Varanasi is a place where people come to die and the banks of the river are dotted with the 'burning ghats' where families come to cremate their deceased relatives and release their ashes to mother Ganga. A walk along the ghats of the city offers up some sobering and unique scenes and the daily ganga arti performed on the river bank at sunset is always a sight to behold. Hundreds of Hindu Pilgrims gather here to pay their respects and watch this colourful display of devotion. It can be a tiring place to be as a tourist with as many scam artists and touts as you'll find in Delhi, but it is a must see for any visitor to India who really wants to get under the skin of the country. This was my second visit here and it was no less enthralling than the first. Chris and I spent a few days soaking up the atmosphere before heading on to the final stop on our railroad adventures.

Lucknow, the former capital of the country and a city famed for its kebabs was our final stop before the Xmas treats began. Chris is particularly fond of Indian kebabs and we had planned to spend two days doing little more than sampling the city's best. Little did we know however that this place too is a bit of a hidden gem. Entirely off the tourist trail (there was only one guest house that we could find in the whole city) Lucknow is home to some outstanding architectural delights. Although in need of some repair, many of these sights would be on a par with the Indian greats such as the Taj were they given the attention they deserve. As it was, we were able to wander leisurely around, unperturbed by the usual crowds, and eat some of the best food we had come across thus far. Our 4 hour wait in the train station at midnight for our final train journey only to find two men asleep in our double booked bunks was a fitting end to our gallivanting around the country - we were ready for some festive fun, the gulab jamun to our Indian thali if you like.

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