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Archive for November, 2015

Homeward Bound

We were awake this morning well before the alarm-call, so I got up and decided to have a long, hot shower as we knew we had a long day ahead of us.  We packed up our cases, labelled them and left them for collection outside our room.

I felt an ominous rumbling in my nether regions and thought “oh no, not Delhi Belly just before a long-haul flight…!”

We enjoyed a good breakfast but, after I had to run to the loo again half way through, I decided to pop a couple of Imodium Plus capsules, to stop any cases of the galloping trots before they started.  We then went back to our room, had a final check around before picking up our carry-on bags and making our way to reception.

It only took about 30 minutes to get to Indira Gandhi International Airport, where the Virgin Atlantic desk was already open and there were no queues.  We therefore checked in our luggage straight away.   🙂

There were not many shops or cafés landside, so we decided to go through security and have a look around the duty-free shops and find somewhere to sit and relax, as we had about three hours to wait before our flight.

I thought I would try some new perfume and, after looking around the shop and trying some of the testers, I settled on a bottle of Valentino Donna, which had fruity top-notes (raspberries) and warm vanilla base notes.  It was $105.00 for the 100ml bottle, about 65 quid.  They also threw in a free cosmetic bag and a free men’s shower gel for Trevor.   🙂

There was nothing else I wanted to buy, so we decided to go and find a bar.  We weren’t going in the executive lounge this time; we discovered that you had to pay for alcoholic drinks in the lounge (as well as the £15 per head entrance fee) so it wasn’t worth it.  Instead, we found a bar with a good view of the aircraft and hangars, and we settled down with a cold Kingfisher beer each, and just relaxed and enjoyed the ambiance, talking over some of the fantastic things we’d seen on this memorable trip.

Once we’d finished our second beers, it was time to start making our way to the airport gate.  The round of four cans of Kingfisher beer turned out to be very expensive – 25 quid by the time they’d added their taxes and service charge on.

We walked along the endless corridors and travellators before we reached our gate, and discovered that flight VS301 to London Heathrow was boarding already, so we joined the end of the queue.

it turned out to be the same brand-new aeroplane that we’d flown out on; this time our seats were in row 61 and I’d requested an aisle seat because of my dodgy tum.  In any case there were quite a lot of empty seats on the aircraft; the flight was obviously not full and I ended up with a vacant seat beside me.

Not a lot else to say really.  One long-haul flight is pretty much like another one.  Pre-dinner drinks, meal, post-prandial drinks, in-flight entertainment (I watched the 2015 docu-film Amy about the life of Amy Winehouse – it was great!).  Trying in vain to sleep, etc.

The only annoyance was the Indian couple in front of us – I think they were mother and daughter.  The daughter put her seat back as soon as the plane was airborne almost into Trevor’s lap.  She then stretched herself out over the vacant seat next to her (which was in front of me).  That was not enough, however, and she ended up putting the seat back in front of me!  How many bl**dy seats did she want?!  We forced the seats upright again, viewing her glaring face through the gaps; one of the cabin crew guys said he would see if he could move us if we became uncomfortable.  Honestly – some people are incredibly inconsiderate when it comes to other passengers.   😦

The time passed slowly as it always does when you’re flying home from holiday.  Once we were within an hour of landing, the cabin crew came around with a light meal and some tea and coffee; they’d barely got it cleared up when the “Fasten Seatbelts” sign was switched on and flight VS301 started its final approach into Heathrow.

When we disembarked the aircraft it was cold, but still fairly mild for November.  We made our way through security to the baggage hall, and had absolutely ages to wait until our cases appeared on the carousel.  All around us people were collecting their bags and saying their goodbyes; some only had 30 minutes to an hour to get home, while we were trying not to think about the six-hour journey we still had to come, back to the North-East.   😦

Eventually we retrieved our bags and made our way to the Arrivals hall, where a private car would be waiting to drive us all the way home.  Our chauffeuse was a pleasant Brazilian lady and she was taking Trevor and me, as well as another lady from Bishop Auckland (about 14 miles from Durham) home.

The car was a Skoda Octavia which was large and comfortable; there was plenty of leg room and there was bottled water and tissues in the door pockets for us.  We left the airport at 7.15pm, so we weren’t expecting to get home before 01:00am, by the time stops were included.  And we had to get up for work in the morning!   😦

As it happened, however, no-one really needed a break.  So we managed to reach our front door at 00:15 hours – five hours after leaving the airport.  Then it was into the house, dump the bags, and straight into bed as we were obviously still on Indian time, so it felt like the middle of the night.

Another great holiday had come to an end.  Here’s to the next one!   🙂

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It was a later start again this morning – 8.00am – but before we went along for breakfast we had to pack our cases and leave them outside for collection; we had the long journey almost back to Delhi to undergo today for our final night in India.   😦

Afterwards we assembled in reception and watched the cases being loaded on as we awaited the call to board our bus.  Then everyone piled on and once more we were on our way.

En route we were given the chance to photograph the distinctive Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds).  The palace is a five-storey pyramidal shaped monument that rises 50 feet (15m) from its high base. The top three floors of the structure have a dimension of one room width while the first and second floors have patios in front of them. The front elevation, as seen from the street, is like a honeycomb web of a beehive, built with small portholes. Each porthole has miniature windows and carved sandstone grills, finials and domes. It gives the appearance of a mass of semi-octagonal bays, giving the monument its unique façade. The inner face on the back side of the building consists of need-based chambers built with pillars and corridors with minimal ornamentation, and reach up to the top floor.  It certainly was a sight to behold.

Off we went once again and, when I wasn’t looking out of the window, I spent the time reading my Kindle, listening to music on my iPod, chatting or napping.  We weren’t due to arrive at the hotel until around 4.30pm, but Peter said we’d have plenty of comfort stops, including lunch, on the way.  Of course, there was also Harry, with his bottomless basket of cold Kingfisher beer.   😉

We arrived at a small, unassuming rest stop for lunch.  While they had a full Indian and Chinese menu, we decided just to settle for a sandwich; Trevor had a cheese toastie and I had fried egg.  We knew we’d get a big meal tonight.

Afterwards we had a little browse around the gift shop, but it was really just selling the same sort of stuff as all the other places we’d visited, so we didn’t bother buying anything.  We decided to make use of the restrooms, as we didn’t know how long it was going to be until the next stop.  As usual, we had to hand over a 10 rupee note to the “toilet attendant” for a couple of sheets or toilet paper or a paper towel.  At least the loos we’d been to on this trip had not been too nasty; we’ve seen much worse!

Back on the bus we set off again, down the dual carriageway and just whiled away the time.  Our driver Malekith, however spoke briefly to Peter, who advised us that there was a tremendous traffic jam ahead, a tailback of about 25 kilometres.  Oh dear!  We would, if we got the chance, try to find another route to get us to the hotel on time.

Around 3.15pm we felt a slight lurch in the bus, then heard a sort of flapping sound.  It could only mean one thing – a puncture.  Malekith pulled the bus over at the first opportunity he had, which was in a sort of truck stop next to what looked like a spare tyre place – India’s equivalent of Quik-Fit.   🙂

Peter said we could either stay on the bus or get off and stretch our legs, as long as we didn’t venture far, and certainly to keep off the busy road.  We decided to get off and have a look at the damage.

The burst tyre was the rear offside inner tyre (as coaches have four wheels, i.e. 2 x 2 at the rear) so Malekith and Harry had to remove the outer wheel to get to the inner one.  The wheel nuts were on very tight and, while Harry slowly jacked up the bus, Malekith had some considerable effort loosening each of the nuts before the wheel would come off.  Then he had to repeat the process with the wheel that contained the burst tyre.

As all this was going on, we walked about while some people just stayed on the bus.  Arriving and departing wagon drivers left their cabs and came over to have a look, or to help.  The outer wheel was eventually placed on the inside, and the next step was to retrieve the spare wheel to put on the outside (if you get my drift).

What a job it turned out to be!  The spare wheel was screwed onto a bracket under the front of the bus, the only access to which was via a removable plate at the front.  The space was tiny and, even though the two Indian guys were slightly built, a very tight squeeze, with hardly any room for manoeuvre.

To cut a long story short, it was a full hour and a half before the wheel was replaced and we were ready to continue on our way.  The time was now 4.45pm – so much for getting to the hotel by 4.30pm.  In fact we’d be lucky to make it for 6.30pm.

Once we were underway again, Malekith said he would try another route in order to avoid the traffic tailback.  So we went so far up the dual carriageway before turning round and coming back down the other side.  We passed the truck stop where we’d stopped to change the wheel, and noted that it was a full two hours since we’d arrived there; in other words, we’d made zero progress in two hours.   😦

Dusk was now falling as the bus made its way through the minor roads and backstreets.  Some of them were really poorly lit and it was difficult to see anything out of the window.  We went so far until we found ourselves in the middle of an enormous queue of lorries, stuck fast bumper to bumper (quite literally, you would not have been able to put your finger into the space between the bumpers).  Nothing was moving at all, and the incessant honking of horns didn’t help matters at all.

Our driver then decided he wasn’t staying in the queue, and pulled out to overtake the long line, on the wrong side of the road.  There was a collective sharp intake of breath when we saw the approaching headlights of a vehicle coming straight at us, but as ever it was a case of “the biggest wins” as the car swerved off the road at the last minute, in order to let us past.

Thus we continued our journey in a similar manner; in fact there were four lanes of traffic crammed into a two-lane road, and we watched in disbelief as two trucks went along, neck and neck with neither being prepared to give an inch; in the meantime a guy on a motorbike blithely sneaked through the space between them, with inches to spare.

The hours slowly passed – 7.00pm, 8.00pm and 9.00pm – still no sign of us reaching our hotel.  There was nothing we could do about it, so there was no point complaining.  This was the British “stiff upper lip” – we just had to get on with it.   🙂

Eventually the traffic thinned out and we were told it was about 40km (28 miles) to the hotel.  We arrived at around 10:15pm and thankfully left the bus, stretching out the kinks in our backs and legs.  We were told we could go straight to the dining room for our dinner, but first of all we wanted to go to our room and get washed and get some of the day’s dust and grime off us.

The hotel was the Trident Gurgaon, and was probably the poshest and grandest one we’d stayed at this trip.  It was all pillars and columns, high ceilings and doorways, and a fantastic atmospherically-lit outdoor pool surrounded by lily ponds and fountains.  It was a pity we’d arrived over five hours late, and had missed out on some of our time here!   😦

The meal was, as ever, delicious and I washed it down with a glass of sauvignon blanc wine (too late for Happy Hour this time!)

By the time we’d finished our meal we were too tired to go to the bar for a nightcap, so we just went straight to room 103, at the end of a scented corridor.  The beds were big and comfortable with crisp cotton sheets and plump pillows. We looked forward to a good night’s sleep.

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This morning we had a veritable lie-in, as our wake-up call wasn’t until 8.00am.  We therefore got ourselves ready and went for a leisurely breakfast along the scented hotel corridors.  One thing we’d noticed about the hotels we’d stayed in; they seemed to have a lot of oil-burners and incense sticks around, leading to a pleasant and evocative fragrance.   🙂

We enjoyed a good breakfast, as ever, then went to the reception to await our bus.  This morning we would be visiting the Amber Fort, amongst other things.

Off we went once again through the frenetic streets; this time however, our journey was only about a couple of miles.  When the bus pulled up, we were told we’d been split into groups of six or seven and put into Jeeps for the climb up the zig-zagging road to the fort.  Visitors could also reach the fort on elephant back, but Peter explained how Titan Travel had stopped doing this a couple of years ago, following rather a nasty accident.  When we saw the rustbuckets that passed for the Jeeps, however, we weren’t entirely sure that going this way would be any safer.   🙂

Trevor and I, when called, climbed into our Jeep which was open-sided but enclosed within curtains and tarpaulin.  The back was open and we could see the Jeep behind us; one of its tyres was practically bald and it had a broken side-light; it certainly would not have been allowed on the roads in Britain!

As our driver started his engine the Jeep lurched forward then made its erratic way up the winding road to the fort.  Once there, we alighted from the vehicle and waited for the others to arrive, as ever being pestered by the ubiquitous hawkers.

The Amber (or Amer) Fort is known for its artistic Hindu style elements. With its large ramparts and series of gates and cobbled paths, the fort overlooks Maota Lake. It is the main source of water for the Amber palace.

The aesthetic ambiance of the palace is seen within its walls. Constructed of red sandstone and marble, the attractive, opulent palace is laid out on four levels, each with a courtyard.  Access to each level was via tunnels either with steps or a long ramp, and we enjoyed great views as we climbed up; particularly of the parade of elephants plodding their way up to the main square, carrying two or three people on their backs.

The fort consists of the Diwan-e-Aam, or “Hall of Public Audience”, the Diwan-e-Khas, or “Hall of Private Audience”, the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), or Jai Mandir, and the Sukh Niwas where a cool climate is artificially created by winds that blow over a water cascade within the palace. Hence, the Amber Fort is also popularly known as the Amber Palace. The palace was the residence of the Rajput Maharajas and their families. At the entrance to the palace near the fort’s Ganesh Gate, there is a temple dedicated to Sila Devi, a goddess of the Chaitanya cult, which was given to Raja Man Singh when he defeated the Raja of Jessore, Bengal in 1604.

The buildings were ornate and opulent; I particularly enjoyed the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace) wherein pieces of mirrored mosaic adorned the walls and ceiling in intricate patterns.  Imagine how they would have gleamed and shone in candlelight!  Fabulous.   🙂

We spent a couple of hours looking around the buildings before Vikram rounded us all up again, and counted us into groups ready for the Jeep rides back down again.  While we were waiting, a lady showed us some little colourful decorated trinket boxes she’d bought from one of the hawkers; five for 100 rupees, so the equivalent of 20p each!!  I wish I’d seen them; they’d make great gift boxes for small jewellery items such as earrings.

Eventually we were called to a Jeep, and this time I found myself in the passenger seat next to the driver.  I was somewhat perturbed to find that, not only was there no passenger door, but there was no seat belt either!  So I hoped the driver wouldn’t take any corners too fast, otherwise I’d fall out.   😦   There was, however, a stout iron bar attached to the dashboard so, feeling as if I was about to participate in a ‘White Knuckle’ ride, I hung on for dear life for the manic journey back down to the buses.  Phew!  We made it in one piece.

Back on the coach Peter called out “Shop’s open!” and invited a couple of the milling hawkers into the entrance of the bus, so he could display their wares.  I was pleased to see that the little trinket boxes were on offer; but I got a better deal because I got a pack of six for a £1.00 (100 rupees).  So definitely a bargain.   🙂

Once everyone had purchased what they wanted, the bus set off.  Our next visit was to a carpet and textile factory/warehouse and again, it wasn’t very far from the hotel.

Entering the workshop, we saw a weaver making an intricate carpet on a loom.  The proprietor of the workshop explained to us how the carpets were woven either from pure sheep’s wool or, for the most expensive ones, from silk.  The greater the number of knots per square inch, the finer in quality the carpet.  The weaver’s nimble fingers flew as he worked, and like a lot of master craftsmen, he managed to make it look easy.

The next step in producing a fine carpet was to comb and trim the pile and, again, this was done by hand (or that was how they showed us).  A lady, squatting on her haunches, was using a sharp pair of scissors to trim the pile really short, combing away the excess.  This allowed the pattern to sharpen and really show up in all its splendour.

The final stage was for any stray hairs or fibres to be burnt off the carpet using a type of blow torch; the residue being brushed off the carpet.

After we’d seen how the carpets were made, we were ushered into the showroom and offered a hot or cold drink.  Trevor and I opted to try an Indian rum and Diet Coke; it was actually very nice.  They showed us lots of different carpets of varying sizes, some in wool and some in pure silk, and told us the prices (per square metre) in pounds sterling.  As expected, they were not cheap; one large mat was about £1,700 in silk.  One lady did buy a small hearth mat, however.

After we came out of the carpet factory we went downstairs to the textile workshops, where fabulous printed fabrics were produced.  A large roll of plain calico was unrolled onto a long table, and the master craftsman was putting the design onto it by means of block-printing.  If you remember the potato printing you used to do in art classes at school, it was a similar idea but obviously a more intricate design carved onto a hardwood block, and dipped into indelible vegetable dye.

The patterns or pictures on the fabric were built up in layers; each block was carved into a different part and a different colour was used, the block being placed in precisely the right position on the cloth to build up the design.  It was quite addictive watching the printing guy; place the block into the dye, place the block onto the fabric, give it a little tap, place the block back into the dye, then move it to another part of the fabric, ad infinitum.   🙂

Once we’d seen the fabrics being completed we were then invited into the emporium to see the locally woven, printed, spun, sewn, embroidered materials.  There were all sorts of stuff, from handkerchiefs up to duvet sets.  In particular, I was looking for a gorgeous pashmina or hand embroidered/beaded wrap.  One of the shop assistants was trying to get Trevor to order a hand-tailored bespoke shirt or jacket (“I will have it ready for you tomorrow.”) or me to buy a sari.  Gorgeous though the saris were, when on earth was I going to ever wear a sari ?!

I ended up buying a lovely translucent, diaphanous wrap in a pale eau-de-nil colour; it was edged in red velvet and featured appliqué and sequins and embroidery.  it will look fabulous with a plain black dress or strappy top; you wouldn’t want to wear any other colours with it so as not to detract from it.  It was only £28.00, far cheaper than one I’d seen in ‘East’ back home, which was 60 quid.   🙂

Afterwards we returned to the hotel for lunch. Peter asked us all to be back on the coach for 2.00pm for the next stop on the itinerary – the City Palace and the  Jantar Mantar observatory.

After lunch we had about half an hour before we had to be back in reception, so we decided to have a 30 minute power nap as we were quite tired after our action-packed morning.  However, when the alarm went off I really couldn’t be bothered to go back out again; since we’d arrived in India we’d barely had any time to ourselves at all.  So I told Trevor to go without me; I’d spend the time pottering around, getting showered and sorted out at leisure and doing some of this blog, which is exactly what I did.   🙂

Trevor and the rest of the party arrived back around 5.00pm and, as the hotel bar was offering Happy Hour, we went along to enjoy a couple of freezing Kingfisher beers each, and chat to our fellow travellers.  As is often the case on these types of adventure holidays, a lot of us had tales to tell of other places we’d been to and other sights we’d seen.   🙂

When it was time to go to dinner, I promised myself I wouldn’t eat too much (!!) but it was very difficult not to want to try a bit of all the delicious dishes.  I had some spiced chicken, some lamb curry with saag aloo and some lime- and mixed-pickle, as well as rice and thin, crispy naan bread.  The mixed pickle packed quite a punch!  Then I just had a small crème brûlée for dessert as I couldn’t eat any more.   🙂

We were trying not to think about the fact that our fantastic Indian tour was fast coming to an end.  Tomorrow we’d have to pack up and make our way back to Delhi, where we’d have one more night in a hotel before our flight home on Sunday.   😦

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Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night.
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

– William Blake

The early morning phone call shattered the silence once again at 05:45am and we tiredly rose and went about our business, getting washed and dressed and along to reception in time for coffee and biscuits.  The hotel had lots of magnificent professional photos of some of the Ranthambhore tigers and, whilst we couldn’t hope to get photos like that with our little Samsung Digimax, we hoped at least to see these majestic animals, if only once.   🙂

At 06:30am off we went again, into the cool morning air and early traffic.  Our safari wouldn’t last as long this morning, as we had to be back and have breakfast as well as pack up all our stuff for the next leg of this amazing tour – this time to Jaipur.  But we’d still have a couple of hours to see whatever we were going to see.   🙂

On arrival at Ranthambhore we were advised we’d be doing a different route today; this was to maximise the possibility of a tiger sighting as well as not to have too much traffic going along the same route.  As we bumped and rattled along, I found that my right arm was decidedly tender and bruised looking, probably due to being bashed off the side of the vehicle yesterday.

We made our way into the forest and saw lots of monkeys and deer, as well as birds, wild boar and crocodiles in the lake.  Each time our canter passed another vehicle, there’d be a discussion between the drivers as to whether any tigers had been seen.  Apparently one had been, so off we went in the general direction, and eventually parked up with a couple of other vehicles, and the driver switched off the engine.

We waited with baited breath until a cry of “There he is!” went up.  Standing on my seat and craning my neck, I managed to see – oh, how I saw!   🙂

There, just crossing the road in front of us and going into the trees, was a beautiful tiger in all its magnificent splendour.  We were advised it was a female about 18 months old.  She was perfect in every way, and I suddenly felt small, insignificant and humble in her presence.  She wasn’t in a circus; she wasn’t in a cage – she was where she should be, in her natural habitat, born free.  I had a huge lump in my throat and felt so amazingly privileged to see this; it is something I will remember forever.

After the tiger had ventured out of sight, we continued on our way again, completely content.  We’d seen what we came to see.   🙂

We arrived back at the hotel around 9.00am and had our breakfasts, before returning to room 118 and packing up all our stuff, leaving the cases outside the door to be collected and loaded onto the bus.  The hotel would provide us with a packed lunch to eat at some point during the journey, and when we boarded the bus we each saw an interesting-looking box on our seats.

Fighting our way through the endless traffic, we couldn’t help comparing the peace and beauty of Ranthambhore and its inhabitants with the dirt and squalor of the bustling streets.  I suppose it is these stark contrasts that makes India such an interesting country to visit as it is completely different from what we’re used to in Britain.  In its own way, it was pretty entertaining looking out of our bus window at what passed for everyday life here.   🙂

We had a few hours on the bus and Vikram said we’d be stopping at a restaurant for lunch.  In the meantime, the bus made its way to the main road (dual carriageway) and a lot of us took the opportunity to catch up on lost sleep, read, chat or just pass the time.  Harry punctuated the journey by coming round with his basket of chilled drinks, from which we purchased a Kingfisher each.   🙂

Eventually we pulled up at a service stop for our lunch break.  Grabbing our packed lunches we made our way into the restaurant which involved walking through the souvenir shop before reaching our tables.  We took our seats and the waiter came around offering cold drinks, tea or coffee.  With trepidation we opened our lunch boxes to see what we had, but it was OK really; there was a foil-wrapped cheese sandwich that was a bit dry, a bag of Lay’s crisps, a couple of small bananas and a couple of hard-boiled eggs, as well as a carton of juice.  We washed it all down with the inevitable Kingfisher beer.   🙂

Afterwards we had some time left to browse the souvenir shop.  It had some fantastic stuff on offer; hand-embroidered scarves, wraps, clothing and bags, as well as hand-made jewellery and carved items such as trinket boxes and candle holders.  I ended up buying a rainbow-coloured chiffon scarf and a fridge magnet of the Taj Mahal, which I will give to my aunt.

Once we were all rounded up again, we got back on the bus and continued on our way again, everyone looking at what each other had bought and commenting on what bargains they were.   🙂

We arrived at the Trident Hotel, Jaipur at about 4.30pm.  Some of our party (who are braver than I!) wanted to go for a ride in a tuk-tuk, so Peter asked for a show of hands and said he’d arrange it.  In the meantime, we’d already spotted the welcoming looking swimming pool at the hotel and, as our cossies had not yet been out of the suitcase, we decided to wash off the day’s grime with a nice refreshing swim.

We dumped our bags in our room and got changed into our swimming gear, which we wore under our clothes.  When we got to the poolside we couldn’t find a vacant lounger, but the pool guy who dished out the towels said we could leave our shoes and other stuff with him.  Hardly anyone was in the pool and, when we ventured down the steps into the water we found out why – it was pretty cold!

Once we were in, however, it wasn’t too bad.  We enjoyed a swim of about 25 minutes during which time the pool attendant kindly moved our stuff to some loungers that had become vacant.  We then climbed out of the pool, wrapped ourselves in over-sized thick towels, and sat on the loungers, enjoying the relaxation and taking in our surroundings.  As it was Happy Hour between 5.00 – 7.00pm, we enjoyed a couple of Kingfishers each.   🙂

Then we returned to our room to get dried off and changed, ready for dinner.  We were allocated room 209 which appeared to be on the ground floor, but in actual fact had a small Juliet-style balcony at the back overlooking pleasant gardens; it must have been a split-level room.

When we went along to the massive dining room it was very busy, as there were quite a few tour parties other than ours there.  As ever, the food was an Indian buffet, and there was a good selection of dishes and accompaniments, as well as a tempting array of desserts.  Once we were fed and watered, we had a nightcap in the bar before returning to our room; we were quite tired after our early start.  What a day it had been!    🙂

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We were awake before our early alarm call this morning at 05:45am, and we got washed and dressed and made our way to the hotel foyer where there was hot coffee, tea and biscuits on offer.  We would not get our breakfast until after our safari.

Everyone was in a suppressed state of excitement at the thought of venturing into the world-famous Ranthambhore National Park.  What would we see?  Would we see India’s national animal, the Royal Bengal Tiger?

We all had our cameras ready, as well as warmer clothing as India can be quite cold overnight, and early in the morning – we are, after all, heading for winter, even though it is obviously warmer than it is in Blighty at this time of year.

We had already been split into two groups;  Group 1 and Group 2.  One of us would have Peter in our canter, and one of us Vikram, as well as the local wildlife experts.  Trevor and I found ourselves in Group 2 and, when the call came, we went outside into the fresh early-morning air and clambered into the canter, which had metal side-bars as well as bars in the front to hold onto, as we would be covering some uneven ground.  🙂

At around 06:30am we set off along the bustling roads which were already thronging with people and vehicles despite the hour.  It was only about a 15 minute ride to the entrance of the national park, and once we got there were accosted by the usual hawkers selling Ranthambhore- and tiger-related merchandise, from t-shirts to baseball caps to fleeces and bags.  I was wearing the t-shirt I’d purchased in the hotel shop last night, and many people in our group admired it and decided they would buy one too.

Once we got the go ahead, the canter took off and rattled, lurched and jolted its way over the winding, bumpy terrain, as it ventured deeper into the forest.  We kept our eyes peeled and our cameras at the ready as we scanned the ground, trees and bushes for native wildlife. We saw plenty of monkeys in the trees, swinging through the branches like Olympic gymnasts and chattering excitedly at the approach of our vehicle.  We also saw lots of brightly-coloured birds including peacock, kingfishers and white egrets.

The first tentative rays of the sun pushed through the trees and bushes and, as well as giving us warmth, created a dappled glow within the vegetation.  We saw groups of spotted deer, the big males with their majestic antlers as they foraged in the bush.  Every now and then our driver would stop the vehicle and turn off the engine, allowing us to enjoy the sounds of the forest and take any photos.

As we slowly made our way through the trees on the dirt track, a lady sitting directly in front of us (I think her name was Chris) suddenly exclaimed “what’s that?”  She had seen some movement in the trees.  The driver reversed the canter a few yards and we could not believe our eyes when a leopard strolled nonchalantly out from behind a tree.  Wow!  Oh wow!

He was not in any hurry and the sunlight shone on his beautiful spotted coat as he padded across the road, looking back at us with his noble amber eyes as he did so.  I was completely mesmerised, seeing this gorgeous animal wild and free in his jungle home.  Whatever else we would see, it made it totally worth it just to see the leopard alone, and we watched him until he was completely out of sight.

Our wildlife expert told us we were indeed privileged. Whilst there are about 60 tigers in Ranthambhore and 70 leopards, leopards are fairly shy and elusive, and also spend a lot of their time up in trees, so unless you’re looking up you wouldn’t spot them, so to speak.  He told us that, generally, there are only a couple of leopard sightings a month, so we were definitely in the right place at the right time.

As we continued on our way, everyone was excitedly looking at the photos and video footage they’d taken.  How completely amazing.  🙂

A short while later, we came across a clearing containing restrooms and a small area where we could get out of the canter and stretch our legs.  Just then, the other vehicle containing Group 1 pulled up.  “Have you seen anything?” we asked excitedly.  “No”, they said.  “Not yet.”  “We’ve seen a leopard!” we announced gleefully.  Someone else in our group said that we’d seen three tigers as well, just for a bit of banter.  🙂

Once we were on our way again, we bumped and rattled up hills and down again; it was like being on the Big Dipper at the fair and we had to hang on tight to the metal bars and we were bounced around in our seats.  Our guide pointed out a herd of samber deer as well as more monkeys and some wild boar.  The placid nature of the deer and the fact that the monkeys were playing, quite unperturbed, on the ground indicated there were no tigers, leopards or other predators around, and the guide told us how to recognise the alarm calls of various birds and creatures if danger, e.g. a tiger, was near.

We ventured further into the park until we arrived at a lake.  Tigers love water and will often be spotted bathing or drinking at the water’s edge; however none were in evidence this time.  We did, however, see some crocodiles gliding along in the green water, as well as more egrets and other water birds.

After about four hours we decided to return to the hotel for a late breakfast/brunch.  We were due to come back our for another safari at 2.00pm this afternoon, as different animals can be seen at different times of the day.

On arrival back at the Ranthambhore Regency, we met up with Group 1 who were pleased to tell us that they had spotted a tiger; it crossed the road in front of them.  Everyone was on a high and there was plenty of banter and laughter as we made our way hungrily to the dining room for our breakfast.  We enjoyed hot porridge, croissants and toast washed down with strong hot coffee, then we decided to go back to our room and catch up with some shut-eye before this afternoon’s adventure back into the jungle.

At around 1.00pm we woke up and went along to the hotel bar for a cold Kingfisher each.  Then we pottered around a bit and I went to the shop and bought a lovely maxi-length skirt, it was black with gold embroidery and lots of sequins on and was only 600 rupees, or £6.00.  Everything is very cheap in India apart from alcohol; the prices the hotels charged for a glass for wine were extortionate, often over a tenner for one glass!

At 2.00pm we assembled into our respective groups and boarded our canters for the next safari.  The sun was high in a steel-blue sky and it was very hot; we made sure to spray ourselves with Jungle Formula mosquito repellent as we didn’t want to get bitten by the little blighters.  🙂

This afternoon we took a different route from this morning; the dirt tracks were a bit more even so it was less of a bumpy ride.  We drove slowly through the trees, enjoying the pleasant shade and the sights, sounds and smells of the forest before we came across another vehicle, a jeep, coming the other way.  The two drivers had a brief conversation in their own language, the gist of which was whether any tigers had been sighted in our area.  Eventually we continued, and drove to the places where tigers were usually spotted (or should that be striped?).   🙂

After seeing plenty of spotted deer, samber deer, wild boar, antelopes, monkeys and many birds our driver, having spoken to the driver of another vehicle, suddenly asked us to hold on tight and put his foot down.  Tigers!

It was like something out of the A-team and our vehicle bounced and flew over the road in our haste to get to where the tiger had been sighted near a lake.  There was only so far we could go into the forest but, after scanning the area thoroughly with his binoculars, he advised that he could indeed see a tiger at rest in the distance.  It was then a case of getting everyone looking in the right direction (“Find the white bird, he’s behind the white bird!” came the cry) and eventually I could see him – a real live tiger.  🙂

This wasn’t enough for me, however; unless I could see one up close with the naked eye, a speck in the distance with binoculars wasn’t going to count.

As the park closed at 5.30pm, we started to make our way back, slowly scanning the bushes and grasses all the time.  As we neared the entrance to the park, a couple of rangers coming the other way told us that a tiger was on the road.  Off we went at all speed, and everyone stood up on their seats to get a better view.  This was no good for me as I am only 5′ tall; all I could see was people’s heads and cameras being waved in the air.  Trevor did see the tiger, but by he time I managed to get a view I was just in time to see a striped tail disappearing behind a bush.  😦  Nonetheless it showed that tigers were around, and we might be lucky enough to spot some on our morning safari tomorrow.

Back in the hotel we all had a hearty appetite and enjoyed, as usual, a selection of traditional Indian dishes washed down with cold beer before deciding to turn in fairly early.  Once again we had to be up at 5.45am tomorrow, and who knows what delights awaited us?

 

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This morning our wake-up call came at 7.30am so that we’d be packed up and ready to go after breakfast by nine o’clock. We were on the move again today, but our first stop this morning was to Fatehpur Sikri.

As ever we battled our way through the frenetic streets, marvelling at the diversity of the sights and sounds. We saw decorated camels as the main beasts of burden, making their way through the streets crowded with rusting vehicles as well as stray cows, pigs, dogs and people. Lorry drivers also liked to personalise their rigs with flowers, braid and hand painted decals. Among them all were the ubiquitous green-and-yellow tuk-tuks, their drivers doing a roaring trade.

Once we arrived at Fatehpur Sikri, we alighted from the bus and followed Vikram through the main gates into the interior, a lot of which seemed to be taken up with a large courtyard. As the political capital of the Mughal Empire for a little over a decade in the 16th century, Fatehpur Sikri must have been a breathtaking sight to behold, an architecturally harmonious wonderland of palaces, pavilions, public residences, mosques and parks. But, superseded by a new capital at Lahore, better located for waging war on the Afghan tribes Fatehpur Sikri remained abandoned and virtually unknown for hundreds of years until it became a popular ‘must see’ among visitors to India.

We spent a couple of hours here, fighting off the persistent hawkers until we once more boarded the bus and Peter opened the “shop”, that is, he allowed one or two of the vendors to sell their wares on the bus and people in our group purchased embroidered mirrored compacts, postcards, trinket boxes, handmade ethnic jewellery and decorated pens. The pens were good value for money – 10 for 100 rupees. Then once more were on our way, and the potholed roads and urban decay gave way to dual carriageway and cultivated fields. I was idly looking out of the window in the late afternoon sunshine at a flock of blue-backed pigeons pecking away in a field; as I watched, they suddenly took to the air as one in a flash of grey and blue, a contrast of natural beauty amidst the insalubrious surroundings of the towns and villages.

Eventually the bus dropped us off at the railway station at Bharatpur Junction; it would be continuing to the Ranthambhore Regency Hotel with all our luggage, so all we needed was our carry-on bags. We found it exciting to be going by train; India’s railways are famous (or infamous, depending how you look at it) the world over. Peter had assured us we wouldn’t be packed into the carriages with only bars across the windows and sharing with chickens and goats as well as people, but we’d be in the Indian equivalent to First Class carriages. 🙂

The first thing we noticed was how incredibly long the platforms were, as indeed were any trains we saw passing through the station. Trevor and I were allocated seats 32 and 33 in coach C1, so we walked along the platform to the place with which coach C1 would be aligned when the train arrived.

We were quite amazed by the things we saw. Despite there being a footbridge which you accessed by means of a long ramp, Indian passengers were just dropping down onto the tracks and walking over them to get to the other side! We saw a one-legged man crutching his way over the tracks as well as some teenagers who showed complete sang froid as they crossed, despite the approaching lights of a slow goods train. But we had to rub our eyes when we saw a cow placidly sauntering along, udder swinging, on the opposite platform. She was completely unconcerned at the passing of the trains and the babbling crowds of people, punctuated every so often by the announcements from the loudspeaker.

Instead of the bing-bong we hear in Britain, there was a loud Ta-daa! preceding each announcement and, around 3.15pm, we heard the announcement for our train, destination Sawai Madhopur. A few seconds later the train rumbled slowly into the station, giving a resounding whoooooonk! as it did so.

We boarded the spacious carriage and made our way to our reserved seats. The carriage was wider than the ones we’re used to in Britain; there were three seats, then the aisle, then two seats. The seats themselves were wide and had lots of leg room, and they had airline-style pull-down tables attached to the seatbacks in front. The large windows had tinted glass in them.

At a blast from the train’s horn we started to move slowly out of the station and I settled down to enjoy the views from the window. The train actually went faster than we’d thought and was a comfortable journey. Several blokes walked up and down the carriages, selling crisps, snacks, sweets, soft drinks and tea (no beer!) and looking around us we saw that our fellow passengers were either reading, napping or looking out of the window – we had a journey of just over two hours.

As the train sped along, we commented how the tracks just ran through streets of dimly-lit dwellings or through cultivated fields. Several times we saw more cows alongside, or even on, the track, as well as dogs, people, and on one occasion, a large pig. My daily commute to work in Newcastle will never seem quite the same after this! 🙂

At around 5.45pm, as dusk was descending, the train pulled slowly into Sawai Madhopur station and we gathered together our stuff and disembarked into the balmy air, rich with the thrilling smell of woodsmoke and incense, as small lights twinkled in the nearby dwellings and shops to welcome the coming night.

We walked over the footbridge and out of the station and there to meet us were a couple of canters, or open-topped single-decker buses. They reminded me a bit of the old-fashioned charabancs of decades gone by. Each canter carried 20 passengers plus guide and driver and these would ultimately be the vehicles in which we would go off on safari in Ranthambhore National Park, with the first safari being tomorrow morning at 7.00am.

It was only a short hop to Ranthambhore Regency Hotel, about 10 minutes. The hotel was more rustic than the Trident at Agra, but was nevertheless picturesque and charming. We were allocated room 118, which was near to the pool and small pool bar.

As the coach carrying our luggage had not yet arrived, we had a quick wash and brush-up before making our way to the hotel bar for a cold Kingfisher each. 🙂 We then had a look around, calling at the small souvenir shop which sold all sorts of stuff from clothing, to hand-painted tiger wall-hangings to jewellery and lots of other tempting wares. Their prices were very reasonable too, and I did the touristy thing and bought a Ranthambhore National Park t-shirt featuring a picture of a tiger. It was only 300 rupees, or three quid, so a bargain. 🙂

Then it was time to go to the dining room where, once again, we enjoyed a delicious Indian meal. There were other tour groups there, from Germany and the USA, so the dining room was busy with everyone looking forward to the next couple of days.

After we’d had our dinner we went back to our room to see if the cases had arrived, but they hadn’t. So we had to go along to the bar again and have another beer, whether we wanted to or not. 😉

Eventually the bus pulled up and all the cases were offloaded and reunited with their respective owners. We went to bed fairly early tonight as we had to be up at 5.45am for the first of three safaris. With any luck, tomorrow we would have the immense pleasure of seeing that most magnificent of animals, a tiger in its own natural habitat, wild and free.

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We had always heard that the best time to view the inimitable, world-famous Taj Mahal was at dawn, just as the sun was rising. However, our guide Peter told us that he’d seen the Taj at different times of the day and it didn’t look any different. Therefore our wake-up call this morning came at a more civilised 7.00am. 🙂

We enjoyed a substantial breakfast in the airy dining room washed down with good strong coffee to set us up for the day. Then we gathered together sun cream, camera and everything we’d need for today, as we had a lot to pack in.

Off we went into the manic traffic on the crowded streets, several times with our hearts in our mouths as our bus pulled out at junctions, forcing other traffic to brake amid the usual cacophony of blaring car horns. It was the same with overtaking; it didn’t matter if something was coming the other way; whichever vehicle was the biggest invariably won! It didn’t make for a very relaxing journey, however. 😦

Luckily it was only a short ride until the bus parked up, and we were split into groups of eight or nine for the next short part of the journey, a ride in an electric buggy-type vehicle with open sides, similar to golf buggies but larger. It was only a half-mile or so before we all alighted and waited for Peter and Vikram to lead the way into the manicured lawns and garden which formed a picturesque backdrop for the Taj Mahal.

While we stood in the shade of a tree, I suddenly felt something wet on my left hand and found, to my disgust, that a bird had crapped on me! The sh*t was down the side of my top and on the pocket of my cropped jeans, as well as being all over my water bottle and my hand. Yuk! A couple of our fellow travellers luckily had some wet wipes which they gave me, and I tried to get the worst of the mess off me while Trevor thought it was all hilariously funny. 😦

After cleaning myself up somewhat, we walked under an archway, through a short tunnel and out into the sunshine; there before us was the magnificent Taj Mahal, its white façade gleaming in the morning sunlight. Wow!

The Taj Mahal is a white marble mausoleum located on the southern bank of the Yamuna River in the Indian city of Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife of three, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth after her 14th child.

The marble with which the Taj is built was mined from local quarries and was painstakingly chiselled and shaped to form intricate minarets, cornices and trellis work. The marble is inlaid with semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, malachite and pyrite and has a gorgeous translucence which causes it almost to glow in the light. We were told that viewing the Taj Mahal during a full moon is special because the tiny sparkles in the marble reflect the moonlight and appear to glitter.

Our group were introduced to a professional photographer who said he would take a photo of us standing with the Taj Mahal in the background; each photo would only cost 100 rupees, or one pound. Can’t complain about that!

We walked down the terraces towards the building; a waterway with fountains and lined with small trees leading the way right to the front. As expected, there were quite a few tourists (we were some of them!) but it wasn’t too crowded. At the entrance to the building we had to put shoe-covers on before entering.

It was cool and dim inside the building, and we marvelled at the lavishly-decorated walls and ceilings. The workmanship was magnificent, and we said that in this day and age a building such as this could never be achieved as the cost would be prohibitive, using the materials such that they had, not to mention the decades of manual work. It was an amazing privilege to be here and to experience this, and another famous world landmark that we can tick off our list. 🙂

Once we’d spent about two and a half hours looking round, we reassembled and walked outside to board the electric buggy once again for the short ride back to the coach park, fighting off the persistent hawkers on the way. I did end up purchasing a couple of ankle bracelets with jingly-jangly small bells on them; 100 rupees for both.

When we arrived back at the bus, the photographer had our packets of photos ready; ten 7”x 5” photos cost 1000 rupees, or 10 quid, so we bought all of them. It wasn’t a bad price; the cruise ships charge about a tenner each for professional shots.

The bus set off and soon we arrived at our next destination, which was to a marble and stone workshop in which items were created using the same sort of white marble, from quarries in the same area, as that from which the Taj Mahal was built.

When we arrived, we were offered a hot or cold drink (Trevor and I chose a Kingfisher each!) and watched a short film showing how the marble was laboriously dug out of the quarries, lifted in huge blocks, then cut, chiselled and shaped to form exquisite items from furniture (benches, tables and chairs) to chess boards and pieces to plant holders and lampshades all the way to tiny jewellery and trinket boxes.

Once the marble was cut and shaped, a fine chisel was used by the craftsman to cut out intricate designs to the depth of one millimetre before semi-precious stones were shaped and cut to the exact thickness and size to form the inlay.

After the film we visited the workshops to watch the artisans shaping the stones on a hand-driven millstone to a fraction of a millimetre; it was a skill that was passed from father to son and it took many years to perfect the craft.

We then went into the emporium to look at the array of finished products. Of course, the whole point of our visit was for them to try to tempt us to buy something, but in actual fact the prices were lower than what I had thought. For a example, a solid marble table top about two feet in diameter, inlaid with semi-precious stones was only about £180.00 – less than I’d imagined considering the materials and amount of work that had gone into it.

What I found fascinating about the marble and some of the stones (e.g. carnelian) was that they were translucent; I thought how they would make a lovely tealight candle holder so I made it my quest to see if I could find one.

After having a good browse around, I saw an oval-shaped tealight holder with an intricate lattice work around the edge and an inlay of carnelian and lapis lazuli in the lid. It was less than 42 quid so I just had to buy it. Fantastic – what a great souvenir of India and the Taj Mahal. To think it is made out of the same type of pure white marble from the same area of India! 🙂

Once we were all rounded up it was back on the bus and time to return to our hotel for lunch. We had an hour and a half before our next visit for the day. One thing about these ‘escorted tour’ holidays – they certainly pack a lot in!

Lunch was delicious – I ordered an Indonesian nasi goreng but it was preceded by a yummy onion soup which was included as part of the overall meal. Nasi goreng is a savoury rice dish and includes prawns and chicken as well as egg and vegetables. It was accompanied by a couple of skewers of chicken and a dish of satay sauce. It was totally scrumptious – I used to enjoy eating nasi goreng as a child, when I lived in Singapore.

Afterwards we all assembled outside again for our next destination, another UNESCO World Heritage site – this time, the Agra Fort.

The Agra Fort is about 2.5km northwest of its more famous sister monument, the Taj Mahal. I suppose it could be more accurately described as a walled city.

The present-day structure was built by the Mughals, though a fort had stood there since at least the 11th century. Agra Fort was originally a brick fort known as Badalgarh, held by Raja Badal Singh Hindu Sikarwar Rajput king (c. 1475). It was mentioned for the first time in 1080 AD when a Ghaznavide force captured it. Sikandar Lodi (1488–1517) was the first Sultan of Delhi who shifted to Agra and lived in the fort. He governed the country from here and Agra assumed the importance of the second capital. He died in the fort at 1517 and his son, Ibrahim Lodi, held it for nine years until he was defeated and killed at Panipat in 1526. Several palaces, wells and a mosque were built by him in the fort during his period.

The fort and its many buildings were certainly spread out over a large area and, being an elevated site, afforded a fantastic view over the countryside towards the Taj Mahal in the distance. The afternoon sun beat down on us and we sought refuge in the cool interior of the buildings whenever we could. Brightly coloured birds flew around; we saw lime-green parakeets and a darker green pigeon, as well as some pigeon-like birds with dusky-blue backs and wings.

Once we left the fort our final stop for the day was to a jewellery emporium that specialised in rubies and emeralds. But it wasn’t just the jewellery that was worth seeing; it was also famous for housing some of the finest works of the textile artist Padmashri Shams.

Shams invented a unique three dimensional embroidery technique. He first of all made sketches of his subjects, then used coloured cotton and silk threads to embroider them over and over until he achieved the correct thickness and movement. His works are completely original and unparalleled and it was an absolutely amazing experience to see them first hand. One of them had taken over 10 years to complete and they had received an offer from the USA for three million dollars, which they turned down.

Although Shams was a Muslim, he had produced an overwhelming piece called “The Good Shepherd” which depicted Jesus and a flock of sheep; in the tableau he is holding a tiny lamb while the ewe looks up trustingly at him. The work measures 99”x75” and took 18 years to complete and, even though I am not at all religious, the sheer detail of the piece took my breath away. The sheep looked 3D and almost ready to walk out of the scene, while the serene expression on Jesus’s face as he looked at his flock was beyond words. It truly was amazing.

After we’d looked at the masterpieces in embroidery we then went to the floor where the jewellery was housed. Some was in precious stones (e.g. emeralds, sapphires, rubies) while other was in semi-precious (e.g. amethyst, citrine, rose quartz etc.). As I make jewellery for a hobby, I didn’t buy anything as I felt I could make some of the stuff I saw.

When we came out of the jewellery place, we only had a fairly short ride back to the hotel, where we arrived fairly tired but happy. We had an hour or so to get washed and changed for dinner.

Dinner was, as ever, an Indian feast and we tried various different dishes whilst enjoying the convivial company of our fellow travellers.

Afterwards we decided to go along to the hotel bar, but before we did so we noticed that there was some sort of ‘entertainment’ on around the pool area. A magician had set up and there were half a dozen or so chairs arranged in front of him; we joined another two couples and watched. He did one or two sleight-of-hand tricks before the main part of the show which was, basically, to show us how to do the tricks and sell us the props to do so!

Likewise with a puppet show (a sort of Indian “Punch and Judy”) where the show was followed by the puppeteer trying to sell us similar puppets to the ones he’d used.

In the bar we had a drink before tiredness started catching up with us. We had certainly seen and done a lot today, so we decided to go back to room 114 and settle down for the night.

We slept soundly.

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