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We were meant to stop by Agra and Varanasi on our way up to Darjeeling, but we ran out of time and had to head straight from Kochi to Bagdogra and travel with jeep from there up the mountain to Darjeeling. Both sad to miss the Taj Mahal and the Ganges, but at the same time quite relieved as it would be stressful with touts and rickshaws, crazy traffic – more dusty, dirty and smelly cities of which we’ve had quite enough of for a while. The journey from the airport is a very rough ride at times, which make you realise why you pay a little bit extra for a jeep taxi rather than a normal car. They seem to be doing a lot of improvements on the roads up there though and some stretches are an absolute joy to travel on. Very winding though and no crash-barriers with several hundred meters drop if you should be so unlucky to go a bit too close to the edge. I wouldn’t want to be driving on these roads that’s for sure. The direct jeep from the airport took us about 3 1/2 hours, and we arrived just in time to get a bit of food before everything shut down at 21:00. We had hoped to stay in the Hotel Tranquillity, but they were unfortunately full (but also fortunately, as we found a better one next day). We ventured across the road and found a room at Hotel Tower View. The room was cheap and would have been OK if it hadn’t been so damp. We stayed in the lower floors where there is less light coming into the room, so the rooms further up might have been nicer and drier – I don’t know. It was sufficient for two very tired travellers though, so after a nice heart-warming meal at Kunga’s, we went to sleep damp but fed and happy. Next day we got out in time to go and research some other hotels and guesthouses before it was time to check out from the Tower View. We again went to Hotel Tranquillity but they still didn’t have the best rate rooms available so we had to go further afield and finally found a very nice hotel called Hotel Aliment. The room was lovely and when the hot water was on it was a real treat to have a warm shower.

The atmosphere in Darjeeling is really laid back and people are very friendly. We instantly regretted not putting off more time to stay here… We get to visit the Happy Valley Tea Estate, and although it’s out of season in this tea plantation we have a tour of the factory and get a little bit of info about the processes and various qualities of the teas they make. About 95% of the produce goes to Harrods of Knightsbridge, so they say it’s exclusive to Harrods. Another four percent goes mainly to Twinings and a Japanese tea brand I can’t remember the name of. The last percent is for the tea-estate’s own boutique. Unfortunately we don’t have any space for carrying around boxes of tea for four more months in our backpacks… We also arrange for a sunrise trip to Tiger Hill with an early morning start at 04:00. We’re amazed of how much traffic there is on the way up to the sunset viewpoint – we realise it’s such an early start because otherwise we would be stuck in a traffic-jam and not reach the top in time for the sunrise. The downside is that we arrive there one and a half hour before the sun rises and it’s not exactly tropical up there on the top. There is an indoor bit where we can stand with a bit more shelter, but there is of course no heating and all the doors are wide open. Having a couple of cups of Chai does help thaw us out a bit. We’re not lucky with the weather though unfortunately, so the view when the sun rises is more or less nonexistent… Such is life… Big excitement from the crowd of people when the sun becomes visible in the fog though – especially by one loony who runs around inside the shelter/house shouting at the top of his voice for quite a few minutes – why exactly is a mystery to us, but he was clearly happy to see a new dawn. After seeing the sunrise we head down towards the town Ghum to visit some Gompas (monasteries). First on the agenda is the Yiga Choling Gompa, second is Dunggon Samten Choling Gompa, and the third and final one is the massive Druk Sangak Choling Gompa (also known as the Dali Gompa). These are all magnificent and well worth visiting – a nice award after the disappointing view from Tiger Hill earlier. These Gompas have a very relaxed air about them and time just flies by as we meander about and taking photos – the poor driver is kept waiting for a bit more than supposed to but he doesn’t seem to mind – I’m sure he’s used to it.

We also do a little trip on the Darjeeling “Toy Train”, an old steam train that snakes its way along the road to Ghum and back in about two hours. Quite a fun ride, and thankfully the weather have cleared up a bit from the morning so we can at least get a little bit of view of the valley. It’s quite crazy how much soot comes out of the chimney and also sparks flying about everywhere to the annoyance of local passersby who quickly have to brush them off as they land on their clothes, or in their hair. Many sparks even fly into the petrol station as we go past, which I’m sure can’t be entirely safe.

As we have such limited time available to spend in Darjeeling we don’t get to explore much more of the place. I can really recommend coming here though, but the winter months can be a bit on the chilly side and there is no heating in the houses up here. We’re so glad we’ve brought our thermal underwear, trekking trousers, fleeces and proper trekking shoes with us – it’s taking up a lot of space in our luggage, but it’s well worth the extra bit of lugging around.

It too quickly becomes time to leave Darjeeling and the journey continues towards Nepal and Kathmandu. We get a shared jeep from the Main Bazaar down to Siliguri and have to get another shared jeep from there to take us to the border crossing at Karkarvitta. The journey down from the mountain is again on very bad roads and very winding, but it’s now of course much less comfortable in a crammed full shared taxi-jeep as compared with the privately hired jeep-taxi that took us up the mountain. By the time we get to Siliguri we’re already a bit tired from travelling. As we come out of the jeep we are instantly swamped by rickshaw drivers ensuring us we need their services to get to the next taxi-stand for the jeeps to Karkarvitta. We’ve learnt that the rickshaw drivers are not to be trusted and try to get away from the taxi-stand we’re at to avoid being harassed. Walking down the road we spot another set of taxi-stands at the next road down, and although this isn’t the right one we’re guessing we’re heading the right way and all the stands are close to each other. As luck would have it we’re right and a few roads further down we finally find the stand for Karkarvitta – one more point on the scoreboard against the rickshaw drivers YEAH!!! A little later – after a little more hassle and a taxi trying to over-charge us because of our backpacks, we get help from the manager of the stand and get into a jeep and we’re off to Nepal.

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We expected a small town, or even village, from what the Lonely Planet was describing – not even close (and thank you again Lonely Planet for your useful maps, of which for Tiruvannamalai there was NONE). This place is very noisy and dirty – I thought I’d seen a lot of cow-dung in Hampi but this was just as bad, if not worse. In Hampi they at least cleaned the streets every now and then, so the manure wasn’t left there. There is also a near constant sewage smell everywhere in Tiruvannamalai, and there is the channels of waste-water along the roads that are all just full of rubbish as well as the smelly water. Up to half a million people take the pilgrimage to Tiruvannamalai for the Karthikai Deepam Festival in November/December because of the town’s spiritual significance, and one of the rituals is to walk clockwise around the mountain – and this walk have special importance and is supposed to boost your success in life as well as heal your body… (if I sound a bit sceptic, please excuse me…) Also, the way Lonely Planet described the spiritual walk around the mountain we expected it to be a footpath at the base of the mountain, which sounded like a nice tranquil trek – how misleading is it possible to get? The “spiritual walk” is along a dusty main road, and although it’s got a sidewalk to walk on for most of the trip it’s nothing like what we had expected from the Lonely Planet’s description, also worth mentioning was the amount of beggars along the way – they even look coordinated with the same colour dress – almost like a uniform, and if that was not bad enough one decided on giving us a free strip-show shaking his “bits” at us as we walked past. We circumnavigated the mountain – despite its disappointing settings – on a Friday, which should bring us prosperity, so “bring it on!” I say (not sure if I’m in the right spiritual mindset to receive and appreciate it, but hoping for the best). I would not advise anyone to go to Tiruvannamalai, except maybe if you have a very strong “spiritual” reason. If you stay in an Ashram and don’t go outside and venture around you might be OK.

As we arrived in Tiruvannamalai, on the bus that nearly broke every bone in our body, we rolled past the Arunachaleswar Temple and our first thought was “that looks amazing”. It’s apparently one of India’s largest temples and it does look impressive when you drive past. I Have to say I was disappointed when we finally got inside of it – after being sent back out twice (first because I was wearing shorts – fair enough, although it’s not been an issue in the countless other temples we’ve been to so far… The 2nd time it was because I had a laptop in my bag – no explanation on why exactly laptops were forbidden, just had to accept it and go back to the hotel a second time). Inside they’ve done a very good effort to ruin this once beautiful temple. Rusty steel structures everywhere and ugly cables crisscrossing and hanging everywhere – it all looks a complete mess. It doesn’t help that for every second step you take there is a beggar coming up to you – it seems encouraged by the Hindu religion, but it has not been so in our face in any temples before. There has always been some around, but this was just ridiculous.

We stayed in a fairly OK place called Annamalai Lodge just next to the temple – it was cheap and cheerful, and maybe the only thing that was true to its expectations in this place. Along with Shanti Cafe it might be the only thing I can recommend in Tiruvannamalai.

We also found the food not up to the standards we’ve come to get accustomed to. Hampi had very lovely food in all the restaurants, while wherever we went in Tiruvannamalai it seemed there was not much choice available, and the flavours were quite bland. One exception would be Shanti Cafe where we had a lovely baguette sandwich, cake and coffee – not very Indian I know – while hooking up to their Wi-Fi to check our emails and such. We’re looking forward to get to our next stop Mamallapuram and hope there we’ll have a better experience – we’ll just have to survive the bone-rattling bus journey.

I’m hoping to have a much more positive addition to my next blog-post – have to stay positive!

The swarm of tuc-tucs following the bus as we rolled into Hampi was a sure sign of what was to come, but after being so relaxed after our stay in Goa we weren’t quite prepared for the amount of harassment we were about to receive. Some of these tuc-tucs had been following the bus already from the last rest-stop it did in nearby Hospet. We really felt like we were the honey among a swarm of wasps, and there were no let-up to the constant bombardment. All of them seemed to be the owner of a guest house and could ensure us they did not get any commission – how thick do they think we are? Especially obvious as there seemed to be many owners for the same guest houses in the end. When I asked one alleged owner of Gopti Guest House his name he said “Roy – I’m the owner” I confronted him with the fact that the person I’d been in contact with was not called Roy. He then goes on to explain he’s the owner and doesn’t deal with the bookings – that would be just the people working for him, like it was beneath him… strange then that he was roaming the dirty cow-dung littered streets harassing newly arrived tourists, because that really sounds like a job for the top boss…

The harassment seems to cease somewhat shortly after I leave the backpack with Hannah at the outskirts of the main bazaar and venture in to have a look around for a guest house. I finally find one that looks OK (Rocky’s) and we go there and check in. Also mandatory is that all tourists have to report and register with the police, so after a quick breakfast we wander down to the station to get that over and done with. As we now are walking about without our backpacks we’re suddenly largely left to ourselves apart from the odd shop or tuc-tuc driver.

Hampi is a world heritage site, and you quickly become very aware of the splendour of what was once here. We decided to hire push-bikes and cycle around. Being optimistic, and not realising the extent of this site we thought we’d be able to do all the sites in a day, but soon realised we’d bitten over more than we could chew. A second day with sore cycle-saddle-bums was definitely needed (oh… did I not mention the bikes were not very comfortable and break down on a regular basis? Top tip is to check the saddle, brakes and tires before you agree on a bike…). There are literally old ruins scattered around everywhere, so to see them all wouldn’t be very feasible. We get to see most of the highlighted temples and monuments on our two days of cycling around but there are a few we don’t get the time to see.

A bit of an eyesore is all the demolished houses around the Main Bazaar of Hampi, but it’s a necessity for preserving further damage to the site. The centre of Hampi is slowly getting moved from its current position to a new location away from the protected site. One would think it could be demolished in a nicer fashion though, and not leave half broken houses everywhere as if an aftermath of a warzone. When walking around in the ruins we again notice how these historical sites are not being looked after very well – we see where people have been littering these monuments with all sort of rubbish, and in true Indian fashion we see people casually urinating on their own heritage – and that seems to sum it all up…

There is another part of Hampi they call Hampi Island, which is across the river by boat – the bridge apparently “mysteriously” fell apart and they are in the process of building a new one up river and away from the protected site. This side of the river seems really quiet and relaxed, and I would recommend staying on this side if you’re not on quite as tight as budget as we are – it’s quite a bit more expensive on this side in comparison to the budget options available in the Main Bazaar.

Our second day of cycling around is on the other side of the river, and on the agenda is the Hannuman Monkey Temple and Anegundi, a small village by where the new bridge crossing is being built. First stop is the Monkey Temple, and the 600ish steps to climb to get to the top. The steps were a challenge in itself in the baking heat, but the monkey-attack near the top of the steps (when you’re at the most exhausted of course) was the proper test of strength. We didn’t get attacked in the end, but it looked bad when we managed to startle an aggressive little firecracker of a monkey with some very large teeth, that he was more than happy to show off… With a lot of growling and waving with his hands as he was trying to grab a hold of me he was a little bit too close for comfort… Managed to slowly back away and move down the stairs a bit to get away and rethink how much we really wanted to get to the temple on the top of the hill. Quite suddenly our little furry friend found an alternative outlet for his aggression and started to chase another poor innocent monkey down the steps right in between us, brushing our legs – the scuffle seemed to be due to a piece of coconut. Just after – while we’re trying to calm down – a man comes down the slope squeezing on an empty water bottle. This noise seems to keep the creatures at a distance, and he also breaks off a branch of a tree and hands it to me as an extra deterrent against more attacks. So there is me armed with a twig, and Hannah crushing a water bottle – creating a right racket – we climb the last few steps up to the top of the hill. There is a nice view from the top, and a very tranquil atmosphere – good to relax and unwind a bit after the heart-stopping experience just below. The temple is apparently on the spot where Hanuman the Monkey Faced Hindu God was born. Second stop, after the descent from the Hanuman Temple, is Anegundi village which has a nice little temple (Ranganatha Temple). We also have a bite of lunch and a drink at the Hoova Craft Shop & Cafe here – the food was heavenly. Anegundi is a very relaxing little place, and we kind of wish we had known about this place when we arrived and arranged to stay here instead of the Main Bazaar, although we really enjoyed our stay at Rocky’s this place would have been even more tranquil.

After our exploration of the other side of the river we hand our hired bikes back and head down to the river crossing. The crossing seems very busy this time – it must be rush-hour or something. The result is of course that they try to fit as many people on as possible. We only just get a space on the boat crouched down between two large motorbikes. The boat by this time looks like it’s about to give up and sink to the bottom, but somehow we do get over to the other side without having to start swimming. I’m sure for the boatmen this is a complete mundane daily thing, but most of the passengers (being tourists) look very worried on the short voyage across the tiny river. By the river crossing there is always a well of activity from people bathing and washing. Many women can be seen washing clothes in the river and drying them on the stones or bushes along the riverbank. You can also sometimes see people throwing what looks like prayers (pieces of paper or parcels of offerings) into the river from the Ghats – some wrapped in plastic bags, which doesn’t seem the nicest thing to do to their local environment.

Hampi is a very tranquil place once the touts have left you alone. The historical sites are amazing and that alone is a good enough reason to endure the initial shock and stress as you arrive. The place itself has an aura of peacefulness to it and you can get lost in just taking it easy for a few days. I can highly recommend visiting Hampi – just beware of the touts initially and you’ll be fine – it’s probably advisable to book a hotel/guesthouse in advance, so you don’t have to hunt around for a place to stay on arrival with a swarm of people constantly harassing you claiming their hotel/guesthouse is the best (and make it more expensive as the hotel will have to whack a big commission on top of the rent to pay off the tout. I would recommend staying on other side of the river if you like a more tranquil experience, but can highly recommend Rocky’s in the Main Bazaar. Rocky is quite a young man – very friendly and helpful – he runs the guesthouse with the help of his mum and dad, and he can of course also help with booking of further travel and such without charging extortionate commissions. With his help we booked our tickets to go to Bengaluru (Bangalore) where we picked up a local bus for the onward journey to go to Tiruvannamalai. A fun bumpy ride on a rickety bus for about five hours – unfortunately, not what we had expected was waiting for us on the other side of this journey…

What a difference a beach makes.

Our first day of lounging at Vagator Beach in Goa. We’ve been here for six days and the last day while waiting for our bus to Hampi we’re spending chilling at the beach (although it’s more like frying than chilling…).

Our first day here in Goa we didn’t really do much at all, just looking around the Vagator area, eating and having a few beers. We’re very surprised about how quiet this place is, bearing in mind its reputation for being a partying Indian version of Spain’s Ibiza or Costa del Sol. But after a bit of research we realise that due to stringent noise-pollution laws the big Goan beach parties that goes on for days at end are no longer happening. They still try to arrange some beach rave-parties here but because they have to shut the parties down at 22:00 they don’t seem to properly take off at all, and it leaves many tourists here very disappointed. Apparently in the very high season – leading up to Christmas and New Years – they still go on. The Lonely Planet did mention that the club-scene in Goa was winding down a bit and it’s not like it was in its heydays – this information is really out of date though unfortunately, as it’s now pretty much dead. The new noise-pollution laws must have been disastrous to many local businesses and the employment in the area. With signs of many closed guesthouses and shops, it looks like it used to be a very thriving place and it now is trying to clutch at straws to stay afloat. It has been very nice with a bit more relaxing quiet atmosphere, but we’re disappointed with the nightlife here. There are good sides to the fact that the party paradise is no more of course. One such is that the locals can have a more normal life and get some sleep. Another is of course that the now much slower pace of life makes it a very relaxing place to visit, and we’ve sworn to come back again.

After some recommendations from other travellers we decided to hire a scooter while in Goa. I’ve never driven a scooter before, so naturally I was a bit reluctant to just hire one and shoot off into the crazy Indian traffic without first a little practice on the local small roads. Found the scooter really weird to handle and it took me a little time to get used to drive this weird little thing (quite big and awkward actually), especially with a passenger on the back. It gave me a bit of hope and boost in confidence to see many others having the same problems. Many near crashes later, as in about 30 minutes and as many near-crash-experiences, we got to our first destination with our new vehicle of freedom – my nerves were by this time slightly frazzled… The trip back was however much smoother and easier – also because by then I knew the way back of course, and we didn’t have to navigate by inadequate maps. The first test of fire had gone well (we didn’t crash), so I was sort of confident enough to take the next leap of faith and head out on the main roads to get down to the capital of Goa, Panaji. Leap of faith indeed – the traffic here is nothing like I’ve ever seen before, and driving in it can be a hair-raising experience – not recommended even if you have a strong heart. From the back of the scooter I had a running commentary mostly consisting of “crazy bus driver”, “use your horn Tom”, “Watch out for the cow/dog/goat/massive crater of a pothole/crazy bus/mad tuc-tuc driver” and so on. We finally get to Panaji – thankfully in one piece – and try to find our way around to the government run Goa-Tourism office in order to book a couple of sightseeing tours. This turns out to be quite difficult with the poor maps of the Lonely Planet guide (we’re seriously starting to become tired of these not-adequate maps). By the time we find the office it has closed for the day and the sun is about to go down – we decide to come back next day and start to head back in the midst of rush traffic – bad idea! What earlier seemed like mad traffic now appears quite tame in comparison all of a sudden. The commentary from the back was more or less consisting of the same phrases as before, only now much louder and more frequent…

Next day we went straight down to the Goa-Tourist office and booked our trip for a sightseeing tour of South Goa. We also wanted to book a tour to see the Dudhsagar Falls, but had to give up on that idea as it only run on certain days – none that fitted our schedule obviously. Once that task was done we headed out on our trusted scooter to see one of the spice plantations. It took some time to find the one we were looking for – Savoi Plantations – but at the end of a very long detour we finally got there with very numb bums after shaking about on the scooter for God knows how long. The tour of the plantation was very interesting and informative so it was definitely worth the numb bums. We also got lunch included in our tour and it consisted of a huge serving of various dishes – about as much food as you might be able to finish off in about a week.

On our way back from the spice plantations we sort out our bus tickets for going to Hampi. We can’t seem to get exactly the type of bus that we would prefer, but by now we’re starting to get used to the way things work here – or not as the case may be. All sorted out we manage to leave Panaji just in time to beat the mad rush traffic – result!

The tour we booked with Goa-Tourism isn’t quite what we hoped for. As it’s a government office we thought it would be of the same standards as the RTDC (Rajasthan Tourist Development Company) sightseeing tour in Jaipur. To our surprise they only act as an agent for another travel agency, who in turn is an agent for yet another travel agency… We get onto the bus and hope for the best. The guide seems perfectly able to speak English and promise to first do briefings and info in Hindi before translating into English for us. Unfortunately he becomes very lazy and decides to make it one of our fellow passengers’ tasks to translate for us, which we find is very rude of him. This poor little girl of only about maximum 13 years old get the responsibility for looking after us around the sights and translate instructions for when to get back to the bus and such. We feel very sorry for this poor little girl who probably wants to enjoy her tour she’s paid for, and we try to be of as little of a burden as possible. One thing, and the thing that annoys us the most with the tour is that the most interesting scheduled stop (for us at least) – Ancestral Goa – gets dropped off because the majority of the passengers doesn’t want to spend the extra 100 Rupees for the entrance fee to the site, and because the vote for this was all done in Hindi we weren’t able to object to this before it was too late. Even with some disappointments along the way we had a good day, and it’s nice to get a little bit sightseeing done. But when at the end of the tour our guide tries to sell us another trip for the day after, we secretly chuckle to ourselves (what a joker…) and tell him we can’t as we’ll be travelling towards Hampi.

After our beach-session on our last day we’re so docile we forget to check our ticket for departure time, and we both have it in our mind the bus leaves at 21:00… We realise as we sit down in a cafe in Panaji and are about to order that the bus leaves at 20:00 and according to the ticket we were already supposed to be at the assembly post… In full rush – waving our oversized backpacks around in this little cafe it’s a miracle we don’t knock anyone over or break something – we start running to get to the bus on time.

The bus to Hampi would have been much more comfortable if we had some leg-space, and the couple in front of us didn’t recline their seats to the max. With crushed knees we arrive in Hampi about 07:00 in the morning – what met us there woke us up pretty sharply…

We quite enjoyed our journey by train from Udaipur to Mumbai. The seats/berths were quite comfortable. It did get a bit cold during the night though, especially because we were on the bottom berths and got the draft blowing right onto us from the windows that didn’t shut properly. We met a very nice couple from the Czech Republic that could explain how travelling on this class works (Non A/C Second Class 3 Tier Sleeper). They also put our minds at rest assuring us the bags would be safe while we were sleeping – they swore to travel by this class on the train and had by now never seen or heard of anyone having problems with missing luggage. With this newfound trust in our fellow travellers we started to relax. The journey was about 17 hours with countless stops – which I still find a bit strange for an express train… We finally arrived at Bandra Terminus in Mumbai in the afternoon.

First impressions on entering Mumbai from the station were not the best unfortunately. We got stalked by a few taxi-drivers – one was even so eager he started hassling us on the platform as we stepped off the train completely disorientated – how considerate of him to try to help us out… We thought, right this is New Delhi all over again and started completely ignoring everyone and everything trying to talk to us and made it up to the main terminal building. We had the belief that there was a Metro in Mumbai as we’d seen some Metro maps online before leaving Udaipur. We asked some guards at the terminal and he looked at us like we were from a different universe (we sometimes feel exactly like that, so there might be something to it). We were advised to go down the road a bit to a local suburban rail station and take one of those trains to our destination. Feeling very confused we decided to have a bite to eat in the railway cantina and have a little think and a cool-down. Here we had another look in our guide and spotted a little paragraph about the Metro project that is severely behind schedule, so that would explain the look on the guard’s face earlier. We loaded up our bags and started to look for the suburban station – a very smelly (rotting carcass smell) kilometre and a half later, walking along a slum most of the way, we find the station and travel down to where we’ve decided to stay in Mumbai.

Only a short stay before the journey goes further, so after a bit of sleep we head out to get our bus tickets to go to Goa. We get to see a fair bit bearing in mind we only have a few hours to spare. There is a walking-trip in the guide that leads us past various grand buildings with various architectural styles – Gothic, Victorian, Colonial, Art Deco and more – and finally to the boat to Elephanta Island by Gateway of India. The boat takes forever to get there and suddenly our plans are a bit messed up and I’m starting to feel the stress about being able to catch our bus – we have to do a speed tour (as far as it’s possible with the crowds of slow-moving tourists blocking our every move) of the island’s famous cave temple and run back to catch the boat. When we finally get ashore we have about 40 minutes to get to the hotel and pick our backpacks up and get to the bus (I’m by now extremely stressed…). We try and try in vain to get a taxi to take us up to the hotel, but although there are plenty empty ones that say “for hire” none of them are picking up passengers for some reason. “Sod’s Law” is a phrase that springs to mind – when you need a taxi then none are for hire, but when you don’t want a taxi it seems you’re unable to walk two meters without someone shouting out to you “Taxi! Where you go?” I start pondering about what the Indian equivalent phrase would be – in Ireland it’s “Murphy’s Law” maybe in India it’s “Singh’s Law”? We just keep power walking towards the hotel and finally get our bags. While loading our backpacks on to our shoulders the hotel concierge informs us that a very prominent political figure (Bal Thackeray) had just died in Mumbai and as a result shops were closing, and transport in the city had started come to a halt. That all explains why none of the taxis were picking up passengers… We had planned to try to get a taxi for getting to the bus from the hotel, but now it looks like it will be difficult, and the time keeps ticking… Again we start power-walking it to get up to the bus-stop in time. With about one minute to spare we manage to sling our backpacks into the hold and get onto the bus to Goa. Phew!!!

Arrived in Udaipur ahead of schedule - and silly early - with our very luxurious Volvo A/C bus from Jaipur. This time we had a lovely smooth ride with nice reclining seats. Was once again a bit worried early on in the ride as they started to show some traditional dance on the screen up front - this in itself wouldn't have been any problem had it not been for the volume set so high our ears were about to pop. It didn't help with the people seated behind us singing along and tapping the beat. Luckily they gradually lowered the volume, and after about half an hour turned it off completely, before dimming the lights so people could go to sleep.

Because of our early arrival before the break of dawn we had to navigate our way in a strange place in the dark with a less than sufficient map... Why guidebooks often leave out maps for bus and railway stations is beyond me - they are fairly essential to our travels - thank you Lonely Planet. It's not only with the Lonely Planet we've had this issue though, it seems to be happening with most of the guides we've been trying out on previous trips.

We start walking in roughly the right direction and have to backtrack a few meters to get on the right road, but with the exception of one more wrong turn - where we get stopped by some security guards - we get to the chosen hotel Minerwa (www.hotelminerwaudaipur.com). By this time it's about 05:30 in the morning and the whole town is absolutely dead quiet. We find a doorbell and manage to wake someone up to let us in. As they won't have any rooms free before about 10:00 they give us some blankets and let us crash out up on the roof terrace, so we can get an extra bit of sleep. To our surprise we find there are quite a few travellers already up there fast asleep. We try to make ourselves comfortable and get a few moments of rest. Our rest was unfortunately short-lived and about 07:30 they started preparing for opening the restaurant for breakfast. We seated ourselves by one of the tables and started the patient wait for getting a room ready for us. Hannah had been suffering all morning with her stomach, but it now suddenly started to escalate and we had to consult the guide (which I earlier slagged off) to find out what course of action to take. Antibiotics - specifically Ciprofloxacin - were recommended. I asked the owner of the hotel for directions to the nearest chemist and he quickly took me there on the back of his motorbike. Moments later the first dose of drugs were administered. The wait for the room seemed like an eternity but we finally got to crash out in our room. Completely knocked out we spent the day resting and even had to get the dinner served in the room. Later in the evening I had to face the fact I had to start on the antibiotics as well. Delhi-Belly for two please... I have to praise the hotel for the way they looked after us while we were feeling a bit poorly, and this did of course help us to recover faster.

Next day we were both feeling much better and decided to explore the town more. We ventured out to a cafe called Edelweiss close to our hotel and found it had good coffee, tea and food for our delicate stomachs.

Hannah decided on a stress relieving massage, while I took a little walk around the backstreets of Udaipur. Found it reminded me a lot of the medinas of Morocco, with its narrow snaking roads where you completely lose your sense of direction. Some places had blue painted houses and this specifically reminded me of Chefchaouen. Also, one thing that were immediately apparent was that the streets were clean and not the dusty dirty ones we were used to so far here in India. Very little hassle from rickshaw drivers and no touts about also make this place like a chilled heaven in comparison to previous experiences of this country. We can see more people just enjoying themselves as they mosey around and looking into shops. It's good see they've caught on to the fact that hassling people to come into their shop does not work as well as good service when people choose to have a look around - I bet the various shops sell much more per tourist because of the relaxed atmosphere (and they probably have less stress-related illnesses due to not standing shouting at passerbys). We also notice many families with small kids - something we haven't seen much of before, again suggesting people find this place more tranquil and friendly.

[caption id="attachment_444" align="aligncenter" width="545"] A bit of street art by the lake, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_445" align="aligncenter" width="545"] A bit of street art by the lake, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_446" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_447" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_448" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_450" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_451" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_452" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_453" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_454" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_455" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_456" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_457" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_458" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_459" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption]

As we had a very nice city-tour with the RTDC (Rajasthan Tourist Development Company) in Jaipur we wanted to inquire about their tours for Udaipur. The guide had the RTDC office located at a hotel somewhere outside its map... GRRRRR... We went on to the RTDC website and found the address of their office there with a map pinpointing the exact location. Great we thought and headed out to find the office and book our tour. We soon realised this place was not easy to find - we ended up walking around for quite some time, and when we finally found the location specified we realised there was no such hotel at that spot, let alone any RTDC office... All that was there was the entrance to the Udaipur Zoo. We gave up trying and headed for the brilliant City Palace Museum. The museum is quite big with many steps and narrow corridors to manoeuvre, and being a bit under the weather from the Delhi-Belly symptoms I found I had to stop to rest quite frequently as I was feeling a bit light-headed after climbing stairs and such. Going through the museum almost killed me off, but it was a very good experience. The palace seems very well kept, although some parts not included in the museum tour does look a bit worse for wear. Compared to some sites it's really well looked after, and I'm sure they're gradually restoring more of the palace. It's obviously a very popular attraction and at some times it got a bit congested. We managed to "overtake" one particular large group of Indian tourists that were blocking our way. Only just passed this group and I was admiring one of the multi-coloured mirrored rooms of the palace through a window from the assembly courtyard - I was about to go over to the door leading to the next part of the tour when in the corner of my eye I spot the guide pointing in my direction, and as a result the whole group starts to run towards me like a mad hoard. I actually have real problems getting towards the door to the next room as there is no stopping this stampede - they seem afraid they'll not be able to see this room unless they are the first to reach it, and that their life depends on it.

[caption id="attachment_460" align="aligncenter" width="545"] City Palace, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_461" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_462" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_463" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_464" align="aligncenter" width="545"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_465" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_466" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_467" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_468" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_469" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_470" align="aligncenter" width="545"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_471" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_472" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace Museum, Udaipur.
City Palace Museum, Udaipur.[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_474" align="aligncenter" width="533"] City Palace, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_484" align="aligncenter" width="545"] City Palace Gate, Udaipur.[/caption]

For the next day we do one of the small boat trips on the Lake and visit Jagmandir Island, We also get a good look around Jagniwas Island, the location for the floating palace on the James Bond Octopussy movie. We decide to take it easy for the rest of the day while recovering more from our bacterial attack up on the roof terrace of our hotel and arrange a walking tour with a British-run resort just outside of Udaipur for our last full day.

[caption id="attachment_475" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Jagdish Temple, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_476" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Jagdish Temple, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_477" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Jagdish Temple, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_478" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Lake Palace (Jagniwas Island), Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_479" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Jagmandir Island, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_480" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Jagmandir Island, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_481" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Jagmandir Island, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_482" align="aligncenter" width="462"] Jagmandir Island, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_483" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Jagmandir Island, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_485" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_486" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_487" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_488" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Diwali celebrations, Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_489" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Udaipur.[/caption]

The trek starts early, and unfortunately Hannah is not feeling up for the trek and decides to stay back at the hotel while I go for the five-six hour excursion out in the countryside. We visit a cave-temple and enjoy a cup of chai with the guru, and also go through a village and meet some of the local people on our way. It's so refreshing to get out in the countryside and see how green and lush it can be. Also notice the air is much cleaner and less dust has been kicked up in the air. It's the morning after the main Diwali celebrations and apparently the "Day Of The Cow" so we find the cows and oxen, and even some goats, have been decorated with paint and headgear. After a few hours walking about we get served an excellent lunch with lovely home-made lemonade - just the ticket after a walk in the hot sun.

[caption id="attachment_490" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Trekking in the countryside outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_491" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Trekking in the countryside outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_492" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Trekking in the countryside outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_493" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Trekking in the countryside outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_494" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Cave temple outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_495" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Cave temple outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_496" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Cave temple outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_497" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Cave temple outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_498" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Having chai with the guru of a cave temple outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_499" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Villagers decorating their animals for "Day Of The Cow", Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_509" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Villagers decorating their animals for "Day Of The Cow", Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_501" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Freshly decorated animals for "Day Of The Cow", Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_502" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Trekking in the countryside outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_503" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Freshly decorated animals for "Day Of The Cow", Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_504" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Trekking in the countryside outside Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_505" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Trekking in the countryside outside Udaipur.[/caption]

Later in the evening after returning from the trek we head down to the railway station to book tickets to go to Mumbai. Here we discover that the RTDC office is located there - very far from where their website informed us... We manage to get a 2nd class 3tier non a/c sleeper for going to Mumbai - a 17 hour journey for a mere four pounds - bargain!

[caption id="attachment_506" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Hannah getting Henna done in Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_507" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Hannah getting Henna done in Udaipur.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_508" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Hannah getting Henna done in Udaipur.[/caption]

We spend most of our day, before taking the train, up on the hotel roof terrace updating our blogs and generally relaxing. We head off to the train station in good time and manage to get a bargain deal with a tuk-tuk to take us all the way there. When we get to see the outside of our train carriage we start to get our usual worry about how this journey will go - it looks from the outside more like a prison-transport than a comfy train...

Arrived by express train from New Delhi, although I think they have to look up in the dictionary for the meaning of express. It was more a stopping service and a whole 3 hours longer journey than our guide suggested. After about eight and a bit hours we arrived pretty much on time. The journey was an experience in itself, with sellers jumping on at the various stations quickly to sell some of their goods, before jumping off onto the platform in speed as the train had started to roll out of the station.

We had agreed to try to see if they had any rooms left at the cheapest guest house we could find in the guide (Tourist Guesthouse). We found the guest house in a very glamorous location on an incredibly dusty road under a dual carriageway flyover at the edge of the Amritsar Old Town and we were in luck as they had a room spare. Tourist Guest House is not the most luxurious accommodation, as the location would suggest, but it’s fairly clean and secure. They also have a nice little quiet courtyard at the back with a table and chairs. To be honest I think anything would have been fine for us anyways after the whole day travelling.

We were very pleased to see the blue sky for the first time since arrived in India. Amritsar is obviously not quite as polluted as New Delhi, but the dirt and dust is just as prominent. Streets are also franticly busy, so it’s quite a contrast when you get to the very tranquil Golden Temple (the centre of the Sikh religion). A complete opposite to the rest of the city it immediately relaxes and soothes your stress with its music and chanting. It is also an impressive temple with its gold-plated centre building of the temple surrounded by holy water (Pool Of Nectar). This is the most sacred part of the temple, and where the original copy of the Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib is on display (under a shroud) during the day.

[caption id="attachment_319" align="aligncenter" width="545"] The Golden Temple in Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_320" align="aligncenter" width="545"] The Golden Temple in Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_321" align="aligncenter" width="545"] The Golden Temple in Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_354" align="aligncenter" width="545"] The Golden Temple, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_355" align="aligncenter" width="533"] The Golden Temple, Amritsar.[/caption]

We booked a trip through Hotel Grand to the India-Pakistan border for the changing of the guards ceremony, and a visit to Mata Temple before re-visiting The Golden Temple. The change of the guards was very entertaining indeed – it was very light-hearted, and it has a lot of comedy in the ceremony. The stands were completely packed with spectators which made for a fantastic atmosphere. The Hindu Mata Temple is an amusing place – almost like a labyrinth it takes you on narrow walkways, up and down, through mirror-chambers, crawling through a little cave, and wading in a little stream. All this while passing by figurines, and mirror-mosaics of the Hindu gods.

[caption id="attachment_326" align="aligncenter" width="545"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_327" align="aligncenter" width="545"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_328" align="aligncenter" width="533"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_329" align="aligncenter" width="545"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_330" align="aligncenter" width="545"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_331" align="aligncenter" width="545"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_332" align="aligncenter" width="533"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_333" align="aligncenter" width="545"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_334" align="aligncenter" width="533"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_335" align="aligncenter" width="533"] India-Pakistan Border changing of the guards ceremony.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_336" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_337" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_338" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_339" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_340" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Self portrait at Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_341" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_342" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_343" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_344" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_345" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_346" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_347" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_348" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_349" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_350" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_351" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.
Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption]
[caption id="attachment_353" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Market outside Mata Lal Devi Mandir Hindu temple in Jammu, Amritsar.[/caption]

On our first day after a lovely breakfast at Hotel Grand we wandered up some dusty roads to have a look at the Maharaja Sanjit Singh Panorama. On our way there we passed through what once must have been a magnificent garden (Ram Bagh Park) but now in very sad state with a small neighbourhood of slum-shacks on the grounds by the entrance. Two small kids from these shacks started to follow us and were very persistant shouting what sounded like it could be "change please". For a mere 10 Rupees (12 pence) the impressive and massive Maharaja Sanjit Sing Panorama diorama, depicting various battles of the Maharaja Sanjit Singh's empire, and some smaller dioramas and nice paintings is good value for money. It has clearly seen better days, but it's an interesting and quirky attraction. It's a sad sight to see how all these historic sites with its grand architecture are now just crumbling - literally vanishing by turning into dust. Signs of the grandour of what once were great empires. Also, many traces of the colonial period is withering away. Finding it odd how they seem to have no regard or respect for their historic architecture, let alone their own houses and businesses. Continous maintainance appears to be a very foreign concept. I'm hoping as we're moving further south it will improve on the crumbling, the dust and the pollution. It would be nice to breathe cleaner and less smelly air. A good pitch for some quick but delicious food in Amritsar is "Brothers Dhaba" in the old town. We read about it in our guide and happened upon it on our way back after our second visit to the Golden Temple. Cheap and tasy, and with friendly staff - what more can you ask for?

[caption id="attachment_312" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Lovely breakfast at Hotel Grand[/caption] [caption id="attachment_313" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Ram Bagh Park, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_314" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Two kids following us around asking "change please" Ram Bagh Park, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_315" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Remnants of a once stately house in Ram Bagh Park, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_316" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Gandhi staue in Ram Bagh Park, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_317" align="aligncenter" width="545"] Outside the Maharaja Ranjit Singh Panorama in Ram Bagh Park, Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_318" align="aligncenter" width="545"] A food vendor in the streets of Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_322" align="aligncenter" width="533"] A poor street-kid staring longingly into a coffee shop in Amritsat.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_323" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Some kids posing in the streets of Amritsar.[/caption] [caption id="attachment_324" align="aligncenter" width="533"] Fresh fruit stall in Amritsar.[/caption]

We got a Deluxe sleeper bus booked through our guest house as there are no direct trains down to Jaipur from Amritsar. Were a bit sceptic about what the definition of “Deluxe” would be here in India and found our grounds for scepticism very much justified. The trip was an adventure of its own, and not much sleep by the end of the journey. More about that later...

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