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Planes, Trains & Taxiwallahs

a travel blog by phileasdogg

I'm travelling to some places, taking some photos, eating and drinking local stuff, trying to keep it down, talking to people then travelling somewhere else. Oh, and writing about it. Maybe. If I remember.

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In the beginning...

Delhi, India

Sooo, Delhi. Cows roaming the street? Check. Traffic everywhere but no discernible highway code? Check. Stifling humidity? Check. People (mainly but not exclusively men) relieving themselves against walls? Check.

The taxi ride from the airport was a bit of a nerve-jangler to start things off. Think the driver was auditioning for the role of Keanu Reeves in Speed 3: Taxi Suicide. The most surreal bit was when he started to dismantle the steering wheel while driving down a busy street at about 50mph. He was trying to get the horn to work (almost as essential a part of the car as the steering wheel in India).

Anyway, he got me to my luxury accommodation. When I say luxury, I mean it had a flushing toilet. And that's about it. Although I did push the boat out and fork out an extra 2 quid (can't find pound sign) a night for aircon. Oh, the profligacy.

In India, white face = cash register. Everyone wants to be your friend. And polite refusals don't work. Someone told me the Urdu for "go away" yesterday, but I forgot it. It's a more vital phrase than Hello, Goodbye, Yes or No. Must find out what it is again. Might also try to find out what the more persuasive alternative means too in case of emergency.

But anyway, in spite of all that, I'm not really feeling particularly stressed. Must be mellowing in my old age. There's a lot of pestering but I haven't felt remotely threatened. And early experience of the food is encouraging too. A) it's staying down, and b) it tastes pretty good too.

So I've done a few of the tourist spots and completed my Indian initiation over the past couple of days. Tomorrow it's on to the Temple of Love. That's not 160 Holland Road, it's Agra, and the Taj Mahal.

From Delhi, with love.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 10, 2008 from Delhi, India
from the travel blog: Planes, Trains & Taxiwallahs
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A teardrop on the face of eternity

Agra, India

Not my words, someone else's (can't remember who now).

Caught the train from Delhi to Agra on the Kerala Express this morning which takes about 3 hours. It seems every train is a Something Express, but there's nothing very express about them - you can tell it was the British who set up their rail infrastructure. But it was a good journey on old 1930s rolling stock with the 4-berth cabins that turn into bunks at night. I felt like I was in Brief Encounter.

Agra is altogether more relaxing than Delhi (although New York would be more relaxing than Delhi). Fewer cows, fewer scam merchants, less beeping etc. And the accommodation is a whole lot better too - I've even got my own private bathroom here. Ambassador, you really spoiling us.

Now all beautiful things never look as good in photos as they do in real life, and the Taj Mahal is no exception. It is truly spectacular. The first thing that hits you is the colour - Bright white marble against a backdrop of pure blue sky. Then it's the setting, on the bank of the River Yamana, in beautifully landscaped gardens, with very little noise, in stark contrast to Delhi. Then you wonder how the hell they managed to build something like that in the 1630s. Shucks, I'm gushing. But it is magnificent, all the better for the absence of a sulky Diana in the foreground.

And then sundowners on a rooftop restaurant overlooking it this evening. All very pleasant, until the rains came. Off to see Agra Fort in the morning, then it's a train to Jaipur later in the day.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 11, 2008 from Agra, India
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Bomb avoidance

Jaipur, India

Blimey, those bombs in Delhi were a bit close for comfort. I was in Connaught Place and India Gate 3 days ago. Hey ho.

Here's how a typical conversation with an autorickshaw driver goes...

Me: I'd like to go to (insert place).
Driver: Sure.
Me: How much?
Driver: 100 rupees.
Me (looking shocked): That's ridiculous, it's only just down the road. I'll give you 40.
Driver (looking shocked): (Insert elaborate story about how it looks short on a map but is actually much further than that, followed by) I'll take 80.
Me: 50. Final offer.
Driver: No. Is too cheap.
Me: (Start to walk away)
Driver: OK, 50.

It's OK the first two or three times, but gets a bit tedious after that. It's tempting to just pay what they want as it's sod-all in pounds, but other Indians say we shouldn't do that, because it means they'll hike their rates for everyone else. So the pantomime goes on.

Anyway, stayed an extra night in the comparative calm of Agra and got an early (6am) train to Jaipur this morning. The train actually departed at 7am which counts as on time in India. Jaipur is pretty similar to Delhi in noise and smell terms but the Old City is a bit more interesting and attractive. But I'm getting a bit bored of cities now, so looking forward to getting out to the desert of Jaisalmer and the lakes of Mt Abu and Udaipur over the next week or so.

I saw a coming together of two buses this afternoon, nothing serious just a bit of a crunch that blocked the road. 3 Indians all tugged excitedly on my shirt saying "Accident, accident". I replied to one that I imagined that was a fairly regular occurrence and he just looked back, slightly aghast, and said "No. Roads very safe in India." I beg to differ, but didn't like to hurt his feelings any more.

Accommodation is getting increasingly luxurious. The place I'm in tonight has soap, towels and, shock horror, bog roll. The rate I'm going I'll have an Elizabeth Shaw mint on my pillow by Mumbai.

Jodhpur tomorrow.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 13, 2008 from Jaipur, India
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It's the fort that counts

Jodhpur, India

Long old day yesterday. Finally succumbed to an autorickshaw driver offering to take me round all day, but he was good value for it. So went up to the Amber Fort just outside Jaipur, then took in a few more sights, and finally to the train station for the 5.5 hour ride to Jodhpur. I don't know whether it was the journey, or food, or sapping heat or just general exhaustion, but I felt pretty rough by the time I got to my hotel in Jodhpur at 11pm. Thought some food might help but my stomach said "erm, no thanks" and sent it back from whence it came! Not the best way to ingratiate myself with my new hosts.

Jodhpur is a town that sprung up on an old trade route, and is dominated by an impressive fort that looms over it on a big hill. The Indians love their forts. In fact, given that they're so heavily fortified, it's surprising that the British were able to just waltz in and take over in the 1600s. It wasn't even the British military, but the East India Company, a commercial trading company. "Right chaps, surrender your independence or we'll, erm, audit you."

Jaisalmer tomorrow, and you've guessed it, another fort. But also some camel trekking in the desert. A chance to live out the Arabian Nights fantasy that I, er, never had. And also a chance to see how effective the ciprofloxacin is on the 5 hour bus ride!

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 15, 2008 from Jodhpur, India
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Camel Happy

Jaisalmer, India

Ah, peace at last. All my previous stops have had populations of at least 800,000, and within 24 hours you feel like you've been approached by every one of them. Jaisalmer only has 58,000 and they were all waiting at the bus stand when I arrived, so once I'd got through that melee, it got a whole lot better.

It's (another) fort-dominated town in the desert of western Rajasthan, and having once been a major trade route town, it now relies on tourism dollars, and specifically, camel safari dollars. So against my inherent unwillingness to be a typical tourist, I'm joining the throng of desert-trekkers tomorrow, with the promise of rolling sand dunes, and sleeping out under star-laden skies.

The 5-hour bus ride here was disappointingly incident-free. I'd been promised that I would fear for my life at least once every hour, but there was only one minor brake/swerve action caused by an errant bullock. I was in more danger getting off the bus - as the only white face on board I was besieged by a gaggle of teenagers eager to get my accommodation business. I now have some understanding of what it must be like to be a celebrity, but rather than flashbulbs, I was confronted by a sea of suspiciously amateurish business cards carrying such testimonials as "Hotel Jaisal View - most bestest hotel in hole of Rajasthan". Thankfully I'd booked in advance, though was slightly concerned on arrival to see that my hotel was next door to Hotel Swastika. As far as I know none of the Third Reich hail from Jaisalmer, but one can't be too careful.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 16, 2008 from Jaisalmer, India
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Saddle Sore

Jaisalmer, India

Hmm, don't think I'll be investing in a camel when I come back to London, they're not the most comfortable mode of transport. My backside hasn't been this sore since I left public school.

My Swiss co-rider Stephanie and I were driven out into the desert by jeep where we met our trusty steeds and two camel drivers. We then trekked about 20kms through the desert, but it's no Turkish Delight setting of rolling sand dunes and tumbleweeds, more like a cross between arable farm land and scrub, so not especially exciting. We had a 4-hour lunch stop because it's just too hot in the middle of the day, then trekked a further 10kms until we finally hit the sand dunes we'd been promised, and very impressive they were too. For about the last hour, sipping occasionally on hot water, I just couldn't stop thinking about a cold beer. It was like torture, but when we reached our destination the camel driver whipped out a few bottles of Kingfisher that he'd somehow managed to keep relatively cool. I can't begin to describe how good that tasted. So we cooked up some dinner over a fire and for the first time in 10 days just appreciated some complete silence. We just slept out on blankets on the dunes, and then trekked for another couple of hours in the morning to meet the jeep. I wasn't sorry to see the back of that camel (jokes to the usual address please).

Spent most of yesterday looking round Jaisalmer with a great Slovenian couple from Trieste, and have given myself a day of rest today before a gruelling 12-hour bus ride to Mt Abu tomorrow.

PS. Lest there be any ambiguity, the statement about public school was a joke!

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 19, 2008 from Jaisalmer, India
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Another fort

Jaisalmer, India

This one of the Jaisalmer variety, as viewed from my hotel.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 19, 2008 from Jaisalmer, India
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Rules & Regulations

Jaisalmer, India

Note to self - must stop misusing drinking water.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 19, 2008 from Jaisalmer, India
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Scaffolding, Indian-stylee

Jaisalmer, India

Sooner you than me buddy...

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 19, 2008 from Jaisalmer, India
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Buses. Lots of them.

Abu Road, India

Mount Abu is a bit like the Blackpool of Rajasthan, a weekend retreat for Indians complete with ice cream, candy floss, pedaloes and amusement arcades. It's on a hilly plateau 1200m up, and the winding drive up the mountain felt more Alpine than Indian. Not that I was spending much time admiring the scenery. It was the final leg of a torturous 4-bus, 14-hour journey from Jaisalmer. When it comes to public transport, there's no room for politeness here. I was a bit too British in boarding the final bus amid the flailing arms and legs of the locals, so ended up in a cramped space in the driver's cabin. With 5 other people. And all our luggage. Not good.

What I really wanted on arrival was a slap-up feed and a beer. Sadly Mt Abu is on the border of Gujarat state, and 90% of Gujuratis are vegetarian and teetotal. But to my great surprise, the non-descript looking restaurant next to the hotel served up comfortably the best meal I've had out here. It was a thali, a meal made up of rice, chapatis, poppadums, salad, dry veg, curried veg, dhal and various relishes. Waiters just kept bringing the various component parts and ladling them onto my tray until I admitted defeat. It was fantastic. And the price of this princely feast? 70 rupees. About 90p. And I even managed to get a couple of beers to smuggle back to my room. Result.

permalink written by  phileasdogg on September 22, 2008 from Abu Road, India
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