India: Part 1

Kashmir to Udaipur

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Beautiful Udaipur


Our arrival at Nehru airport was underwhelming, since the agent who was to pick us up was nowhere to be seen.  After an hour and an attempt to get cash from 3 ATMs, all of which were out of order, we finally exchanged some Canadian cash and called our agent.  It seems that there are several places to meet agents at the airport, and we were at the wrong one.  We finally arrived at our hotel at 4:30am, but hey, that was only 11pm our body’s time, so we got a solid 4 hours sleep before going down to breakfast.  Since our travel office was just 2 doors down the street, we made our first visit to our organizers, while meeting up with Ralph and Caroline for the first time.   Although we sat around the office meeting people, talking and leisurely negotiating for a couple of hours, I found myself loving the pure calm  of it all – not a worry in the world, no kids, no concerts and everything taken care of.

Our first introduction to the city was a  trip to old Delhi, walking through increasingly busy streets to the Metro and taking 2 lines to the centre of the city.  The crowds were incredible: people packed like smoked oysters (I’m tired of product-endorsing sardines) in the metro stations as well as on the train cars .  Getting on and off the trains was a delightful exercise in physical intimacy with our Indian brothers and sisters.  A similar feeling of crowds pursued us as as we walked the streets of Old Delhi, except that now we shared the roads and sidewalks with cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, scooters, bicycle rickshaws, coco cabs, tuk tuks (don’t ask), dogs and the occasional cow.

Having experienced this high excitement for an hour, our guide wisely changed our mode of transportation to the ubiquitous bicycle rickshaws.  This provided a whole new level of excitement for us as we now had a rickshaw’s eye view of life on the moving streets.  In Shanghai and other S.E. Asian cities I’ve seen the chaos of urban traffic where motor vehicles mix with self propelled vehicles, but nothing like this.  Since my own god seemed to be ignoring my fearful prayers, I tried Vishnu, Ganesh and a few other Hindu deities, but after a while, I began to revere the finely honed skills of the  rickshaw driver who guided, aimed and careened within fractions of inches of the aforementioned vehicles whether they were on the right side,  the left side or coming straight at you. In real congestion, the rickshaw is king, usually arriving at the destination first.

After visiting the red fort and the spice market, we had a wonderful lunch of shish kebab and various curries at “Kareem”, an Indian chain restaurant.  In addition to a barbecue, they had a whole room dedicated to making the various Indian breads.  Cost per person was an outrageous $4. To return to our hotel, we switched transportation modes to the venerable tuk tuk (ok, you asked – it’s basically a covered motorbike with seating for anywhere from 2 to 4, but we saw a family of 8 in one of them. ).  This ride definitely upped the terror ante, but by now I was able to look at the whole phenomenon much more philosophically as we hurtled “homeward”.

After a luxurious, well earned, not to mention much needed nap, we convened back at the office to honour an invitation to dinner.  As in the morning, we sat around the office for more than an hour, talking and meeting new people.  Our agent Altaf (Ali), and driver & office worker Ram were joined by 2 Swedes, an Irish student and an Italian woman.  During this conversation a subject came up again which had begun in the morning: changing a couple of days of our planned tour to fly up to Kashmir (home of the owner’s family).  After a phone call from Nazir (who was up there visiting his grandmother) encouraged us to make this change, we decided to go for what seemed like a marvelous opportunity, particularly since we were able to salvage most of the rest of our destinations.  Sadly, Ralph had to sacrifice his erotic sculptures in Khajuraho, but this was the only casualty from our previous itinerary.

About 10:30, we were ushered into a small room with cushions to sit on, and beer and curry were served to the four of us, three members of the Dandoo family (owners), plus our new Swedish & Irish friends.  The curry was delicious, the beer intoxicating and the new friends most enjoyable.  It was like a return to my traveling days of the 60s, when new friends were made by the hour and travel plans changed daily, not to mention sitting around in small rooms on cushions, drinking beer and eating great ethnic (albeit European) food. (How many septuagenarians do you know who still do this?).

The next morning we met in the office after an excellent but decidedly un-western breakfast buffet.  We piled into 2 taxis and went back (so soon!) to Nehru International to catch a shuttle to Srinagar (capital of Jemmu/Kashmir). 1 1/2 hours later we landed at the airport, having enjoyed the emerging view of white mountains after the flatter plains of northern India.  What is immediately obvious is the military presence: gun emplacements, razor wire and lots of gun-carrying soldiers in the vicinity of the airport not to mention several checkpoints during out visit.  Airport security is clearly higher than at Nehru Airport.

We arrived in the Valley of Kashmir at the shore of Dal Lake, which has rows of sikaras – colourful long thin paddled boats with canopies, designed to transport people to the thousands of houseboats clustered around the lake.  The sikaras are clearly designed for luxury, as they have two reclining cushioned seats, room for 2 more on bench seats and seats at either end for the boat operator and servant.

Paddling across the lake took about 10 minutes and we arrived at our houseboat, a huge affair (more than 100 feet long and 20 feet wide with living room dining room and 3 en-suite bedrooms).  We were greeted  by 2 servants in uniform, although this seemed to be for show, since we only saw one of them after that.  Sitting on cushioned seats on the front porch and drinking Kashmiri tea, we reveled in the beauty and serenity of the lake before being shown to our bedrooms which, like the living and dining rooms are are lavishly appointed with heavy, ornate, plush walnut furniture from a grander era.  As you can see from the photos, the rugs, curtains and just about all of the wood are decorated – the wood in particular in great detail of geometric designs, which are apparently hand-carved. We stayed in an older houseboat for the first night, moving to a more elaborate one for the next two nights.

In the late 19th century, the British were forbidden by the monarch of the time to own land in Kashmir, so they had house boats built on the lake, by Kashmiri artisans, of which the Dandoo grandfather who built “our” boat was a pioneer.

After dinner we boarded 2 sikaras (so both couples can recline under thick plush blankets) and went for a 2 1/2 hour paddle around the lake as dusk descended.  By this time it had gotten quite cold, as one might expect being a mile or more up in the Himalayas.  The view is not as spectacular as one might imagine, since we couldn’t see snow-capped mountains, but there are very tall mountains on all sides which are visible in the haze of autumn and which combine with the lake vistas for a truly magical ambience.  We passed a small fraction of the houseboats, a large enclosed lotus field plus floating vegetable gardens, and then we went through a channel to the back waters of the lake where Ali is building his dream home.  Like Grandfather’s boat, the wood work is incredible in its detail, quite apart from the fact that it covers every square inch of this mammoth structure (130 feet by 40 feet).  We stopped for tea (again with the tea – not hard to imagine that India spent 250 years as a colony of the Empiah – Wot! Maybe it took the Brits that long to adopt the tea custom?).   We left to paddle back down the back waters of the lake.  For me, this was the most wondrous moment of our trip thus far, as darkness had fallen and the few glimmering lights  on the lake in the mist and the vague outlines of the mountains provided a magical scene.  But the great god of beautiful things was not happy with this tableau and provided state of the art surround-sound to accompany it.  6:30 was the sunset hour of “Isha” or the last call to prayer in the Muslim world.  One by one, amplified calls came from all over this huge valley  “Allaaaahhhhhhhh – Akbar”. As we were more-or-less in the center of the valley, the effect was stunning.  It was as if we had all been treated to a concert of new music with a thousand speakers place around us.  As we paddled, we passed many other sikaras which moved in erie silence, inches away from us.  I chuckled later when Ralph suggested it felt like a ride through Disney’s “Pirates of the Carribean”.   Dinner was served in the elegant dining room, consisting of rice and two contrasting curries with the already familiar “Kingfisher” Beer – a wonderful concoction, the label of which proclaims 5.5 to 8 percent alcohol – of this I have no doubt.

Our second day in Kashmir, included visits to three formal gardens with fountains and various vistas, trying the deep fried lotus root in the market and  lunching in the old city – where our guide the multifaceted, multitalented and multitasking Bashir (Cook, Valet, Driver etc.) showed us how to eat Indian Fashion with our right hands.  I quite enjoyed the experience, but hey, Canadians are no strangers to eating with our hands: burritos, fried chicken, beer…. My only problem was that the turmeric stained my moustache for the rest of the day, rendering me a more visible than usual minority.  Just before lunch we visited the Hazratbal Mosque, where Connie and Caroline got to cover themselves and experience the prayer mat, while Ralph and I got to stay outside with the rest of the infidels.  Next, we saw the immense Jamia Masjid (mosque) which can host 33,000 worshippers, followed by the also wooden Dastgir Sahib Mosque, with its facade of painted paper mache, astoundingly still in excellent condition.   The grand finale was an exhausting walk up almost 500 steps to the top of a mountain overlooking Dal Lake to see the Shankaracharya Hindu Temple.  It wasn’t much to see when you got there, but we were rewarded with the superb view and also the knowledge that four old farts can climb that high and live to tell their grandchildren about the experience.  Our last day was taken up with shopping at the floating markets.  Ralph & Caroline face a third mortgage on their house in order to buy two beautiful silk Kashmiri hand stitched rugs, with a pashmina scarf thrown in.  Connie and I had a go at some traditional paper maché artwork and still had change left over.  The experience in this magic place was dominated by the water-based lives of this community.  One goes nowhere without a boat – to shops, to school, to the mainland, to clinics and to other houseboats.  The visual effect of all this is stunning with all the  colour of the dwellings and the sikaras, set amid the lake, its canals, its lotus patches, lily pads, floating gardens and of course the surrounding majestic mountains.

 To paraphrase the 15th century lament of Heinrich Isaac:    Kashmir, ich müss dich lassen.

Our trip back to Delhi was uneventful except for the increased security.  We went through 2 security gates before we even checked our luggage and 2 more afterwards.  Our carry-on bags were thoroughly searched.  Connie lost a pair of tweezers, Ralph lost a cigarette lighter and had to put his sandals in his checked luggage, and I lost a miniature tape measure (weapon of mass destruction to be sure).  Ali, who had travelled up to Kashmir with us, flew back with us as well, so we were couriered all the way.  It’s hard to imagine getting through all the red tape and forms without his help.  This day started badly for me since the cold we had endured throughout trip built up to an intolerable level in the morning and I experienced almost “shock” symptoms.  Although everything was so charming and exotic, the heating of the rooms was not efficient (and many times non-existent) so we spent most of the time bundled up.  By the third day it was just too much as the cold went through to my bones.

Arriving back at to the (albeit smoggy) warmth of Delhi was a huge relief.  We met up with our driver and settled our bill with Ali (the Kashmir additional cost was $319 each to cover 3 days of extra meals and the 2 flights).

The next stage of our tour began immediately as we met our driver (for the next 2 weeks) Raj.  The trip to Mandawa was very long (7 hours) but there was always something to see.  The progression of urban to rural India is fascinating and colourful.  One is immediately struck by juxtaposition of beauty and lack of upkeep, bordering on squalor.  One sees well dressed men and women walking on roads through the rubble of ruined buildings, piled garbage and in and out of dimly lit shops, caked with the dust of the streets.  And through all of this are the animals: dogs, sheep, goats, camels and cattle, ranging from the big beautiful Brahman cattle to the shiny black Zebu (water buffalo). Whether in the city or in the countryside, the good grooming and dress of the people is constant.  On a country road, I was particularly struck with a woman herding a huge number of goats while carrying a basket on her head, wearing a full colourful sari.

Arriving at Mandawa in the dark, we got the impression of a dusty country town.  Suddenly we were sitting in front of a huge, ornate and beautifully maintained  “palace”.  This was our first hotel (former merchant’s mansion known as a haveli) and in and out it was a thing of beauty restored to its earlier 18th century glory.  Mandawa and the next village of Fahtepur were major stops on the silk road or spice route in its heyday, and they contain dozens of these mansions, most with 40 rooms or more with multiple courtyards, some restored but many not.  The major feature was the miniature paintings which mingle with the painted filigree of both the interior and exterior of these extraordinary buildings.  The frescoes run the full gamut of human experience and on occasion include curiosities of the late 19th century such as trains, hot air balloons and a rendering of Queen Victoria sitting in an early automobile.

Our next stop was in Bikaner at another haveli (heritage property hotel – restored landmark).  While waiting for our second room to be ready, we went out on the roof and enjoyed the spectacle of a highly colourful,  brightly lit “Bollywood” style wedding reception across the street.  Since the large dining room in our hotel “under the stars” was set up for a wedding reception on the next night, the four of us decided to order dinner in our room.  I had a chance to try the “thali” – a specialty of the house which is sort of a smorgasbord on a big metal plate.  I had the “super deluxe” and, as all of the food so far, it was superb ($8).  The main attraction in Bikaner is the Junagarh Fort, which contains several superbly restored palaces.   Since we arrived later than planned, we had a whirlwind tour of this attraction followed by a visit to a camel research centre, thereby having a good introduction to our new animal friends, two nights later.

Jaisalmer is as striking with its yellow sandstone buildings as Bikaner was with red. We have really enjoyed the many hours every day spent driving from one stop to the next.  There is always something interesting to see, or we read, we look over & organize photos or just nap.  Our Toyota van is comfortable, our driver Raj is first rate in spite of the road surfaces, which range from smooth to miniature Himalayas.  On arrival in Jaisalmer, we spent some time trying to find a working ATM.  After discovering 7 consecutive non-working ATMs (since arrival in India), my frustration was finally eased by the discovery of one which actually did work.   After checking into our heritage hotel (a beautiful yellow stone restoration), we drove into the country to a royal cemetery with striking cenotaph structures from the 15th century to watch the desert sunset.  The day was brought to a conclusion of perfection with a dinner at “Trio”, which sits outdoors atop an ancient palace wall.  It was a great view, superb dinner and evening with Ralph and Caroline.  Returning to the hotel room, we immersed ourselves in the world of internet communication, writing and receiving messages and posing merciless interrogations of Mr. Google from whom all wisdom flows.  A sound sleep was encouraged by the room decor, which with its vibrant, silky, filmy appointments, looked very much like  a zenana (harem).

The Jaisalmer fort is one of two remaining in India in which people actually live.  It contains great markets and fascinating temples including a 14th century Jain temple and a Hindu temple, where we suddenly found ourselves in a service – sort of a Hindu flash mob (see video).  We also had a good day of shopping, finding a number of Christmas presents (but I can’t tell you about those…….yet).  In the late afternoon, we left for Khuri, the embarking point for our camel safari.  This is a huge commercial venture providing many individual companies offering camel trips.  Our company had a central compound with courtyard and huts (some thatched) on the perimeter.  We mounted our camels with the help of our “drivers” who then led us out into the desert for an hour walk to a destination at the top of some sand dunes to watch the sunset.  I soon found that spreading ones thighs the width of a camel hump is not the way I want to remember life, so after 15 minutes, I asked to dismount and walk.  The discomfort was just a little too much for this aging choral conductor.  The others trotted ahead up the dunes (some unattached from their “drivers”), while my 18(ish) year old driver, Manuel, and I walked with my new love “Lallya” at our side.  We sat down in the dunes and had a delightful conversation, made all the more remarkable considering his English was non existent and my Rajasthani, even less so. I drew a map of the world in the sand showing where Victoria and India was; we made a video of meanderings of a sand beetle and used my mini digital recorder to record, then play back desert sounds.  He was a delightful fellow who made up for the heartbreaking shattering of my earlier dreams of a career in camel polo. (This sport actually exists!)

After a “desert buffet” dinner, we enjoyed local folk musicians and a superb dancer, ending the evening with a sort of conga line involving all of us.  We had been given a choice of sleeping in one of the huts or mounting a camel cart and sleeping out in the desert under the stars. Connie had had some gastric problems that day, so the two of us decided to take the safe route and stay in one of huts.  I’ve experienced well organized tourist “experiences” from the elephant show in Thailand to the Maori evening in Rotorua, N.Z., to Zululand near Durban, S.A., and this one was definitely in this league.  The four of us highly recommend it.

Ralph and Caroline wrote this entry to share their separate experience: We sat in the front of the camel cart with our feet hanging over and were impressed by the power of the camel tail that hit Ralph’s foot (ouch!)  We became fast friends with our cattle cart colleagues from Seattle and Washington DC.  We had to disembark the cattle carts to walk up the dunes.  The 3 camel carts made three communities in the dunes.  There were metal frame cots and very heavy quilts and blankets that kept us toasty in the clear, clean, fresh, dark night air.  The sky was black with a bright moon and a few stars.  Having gone to sleep at 9:30pm, we awakened at 1 AM.  It was a spectacular sight of the surrounding dunes and sleeping camels.  The moon was so bright I could almost read my book.  We had potty needs and 100 square kilometres to pee in, but we were told that if you go too far, you might find yourself in Pakistan!  Less attractive waking at three AM was the cold breeze that required a hat, not to mention developing a sore back from the camel ride. The next thing we knew it was 6:30 with a horizon of pinks and oranges, which intensified over an hour until the flaming orb arose.  

You’d think that one would get tired of forts and temples and mosques (oh my!), but each one we’ve seen has its own character, its own treasures and its own fascinating history.  The Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur was our next stop; it was the biggest and architecturally most astounding, with superb  collections of earlier century conveyances, weaponry and miniature painting.  Set in the hills above Jodhpur, its precincts cover many square miles, surrounded by a city wall, many miles in length and up to 40 metres high in places.  Our hotel was another impressive heritage building, but unlike the previous ones, the staffing was at times lackadaisical.  Due to road construction, we had to walk several blocks in the dark through rubble, mud and various sizes and consistencies of animal poop to get to it.  You gotta love those porters though, who happily schlepped our luggage through the muck to earn their 100 rupee tip.  Dinner that night was a huge amount of leftovers from our excellent lunch in town.  Although the hotel restaurant was supposed to be open until 10, no one could be found, so we borrowed some forks, ordered some beer at the desk and tore into the containers of leftovers.

Thursday, November 21, 2013  –  The day Caroline was attacked by a cow!

After breakfast, we went for a short walk on the streets of the old town near the hotel.  Take the chaos of Delhi streets, add lots of animals and………well, you get the idea.  An adolescent bull suddenly decided to mount a cow, who didn’t share his “amour”.  The cow bolted directly at Caroline, knocking her on her backside – all of this in the middle of a busy street!  Happily our resident nurse (Caroline) has a good sense of humour (not to mention a yoga-steeled body) and all that was lost was a very small patch of elbow skin.

The 5 hour drive to Udaipur goes through relatively arid farmland, the predictability of which is broken up by villages, any one of which would attract major tourism if it were plunked down somewhere in North America.  Every one has its own “riot” of colour,  from the fruit stands, to hanging clothing and everywhere the beautiful saris.   And the cows………always the cows!  Our lunch stop was the most grandiose and detailed structure I’ve seen anywhere in the world was the Jain temple at Ranakpur.  It has 40 separate rooms and 1444 pillars, all uniquely carved and the whole structure is white marble. Beyond this wonder, the surroundings changed to winding mountain roads and a most delightful rural countryside all the way to

Udaipur must be called the Venice of India due to all the beautiful lakes.  The outskirts looked like other Indian cities, but on arrival in the center of the city we see that it surrounds a huge placid lake.  The Hotel’s plain lobby is in contrast with the large beautiful rooms and a rooftop restaurant.  The view at dinner is as breathtaking as the meal prices are low.   My last memory as I slip into Nirvana:

This was the day we saw a mongoose!  

Since we were here for 2 nights, we had a leisurely breakfast before meeting our guide for the day and visiting the City Palace, the “sisters” fountain garden, shopping and having an out-door lunch at a lake-side hotel.

A definite curiosity of India is that the hotel meal prices are considerably less than those at the “rest stop” restaurants which one is forced to eat at on long trips.

This was another excellent shopping day for us, as we purchased some exquisite “miniature” art work and tailor-made clothing. One quickly gets an impression of a more cosmopolitan & artistic city, with well laid out streets and traffic circles and a surprising number of western style showroom-type clothing stores.  We had the afternoon and evening free to shop in the markets and watch a couple of political demonstrations, since elections imminent in Rajasthan at the time of our visit.  As we headed for our rooms after another superb (Chinese food) meal, we shared a group thought about tomorrow in Pushkar, as we had done every evening:

“What could possibly top what we did today?”