Monday, 27 October 2008

Jaipur


From Agra we drove to Jaipur, stopping first at Fatepur Sikri. Fatepur Sikri was one of Akbar’s greatest projects, to design a perfect town. However he didn’t properly consider the location and a lack of water meant that it was abandoned only a few years after it was completed. The beauty and inspiration of the place has been very well preserved however and some of the design is breathtaking. After an hour or so of exploration we drove on to Jaipur. The hotel was lovely with a pool, plenty of outdoor seating areas, the occasional visiting peacock and a serenity unexpected in its location, and very rare in the busy city of Jaipur. The staff were very friendly too and quite a bit of fun.


The next day I was met by my guide and we did a tour of the palaces of Jaipur - the Wind Palace, effectively just a façade that was built so the royal Rajput women could view the comings and goings of the street, the Water Palace, now permanently flooded. From there we visited the Amber Fort, high up on the hill and we arrived, very royally on elephant back!

After the Amber Fort we drove to the spectacular city palace and the even more extraordinary Jantar Mantar, an observatory built in 1728 by Jai Singh that houses all kinds of incredible instruments including the world’s largest sundial and instruments to measure everything from the height of the North star, local time and various measurements of the heavenly bodies that were used to predict fortunes but also, more usefully effectively predict when the monsoon would start. It was a busy day but a very enjoyable one.

The following day I did my tour of the gem shops and the block print workshop, getting demonstrations of how the famous crafts of Jaipur are created and I was happy to see that there was again no sales pressure, and some beautiful souvenir options.

In the evening I headed to Galta on a whim and was very happy I did. The temple is dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god and it is considered auspicious to feed the monkeys here. So I bought myself some nuts at the entrance and handfed the monkeys throughout the temple. Some three or four hundred gather at sunset awaiting the feeding, and despite this wonderful spectacle, there were very few tourists around, unlike the main city. On walking back to the entrance there was quite a bit of excitement and as I drew closer I saw why. Perched up on the side of the mountain in the disappearing light was a tiger, surveying the scene. Apparently there had been two of them a few minutes before but I missed one. Still it was the first tiger I had ever seen and was quite exciting. The next day we drove back to Delhi and then it was time to fly back to London. Time up on this trip but as I write Rahul is out exploring the temples of the holiest city of Varanasi before heading to Khajuraho to check out the temples and their saucy carvings from the Kama Sutra. Expect to hear more from him soon.

- Dave

Agra and the Taj Mahal

So my trip in the more touristy part of India had arrived. Quite different from the North East, in fact I saw single groups larger than all the foreigners I had seen in the North East in 3 months! But it was also interesting though in a different way. So I arrived into Agra on the early train, was dropped to my very comfortable hotel, and my guide picked me up to bring me to the Taj Mahal. We were dropped off short of the monument and had to take a rickshaw the last part.


It had been almost ten years since I’d last visited the Taj Mahal but still it took my breath away when I caught my first glimpse. The colour of the stone, the beautiful symmetry of the building, the incredible marble inlay work and the story of Shah Jahan’s love for his wife Mumtaz that inspired its creation make it a truly unique building. We spent a couple of hours taking in the Taj before driving across town to the Agra Fort where Shah Jahan was eventually imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb after overthrowing his father.

The room in the fort where his father was imprisoned has some of the best views of the Taj Mahal, scant consolation for Shah Jahan I’m sure. I also visited a workshop where the families of the creators of the Taj Mahal still ply their trade in marble-inlay work, and was very impressed with the quality of the produce but also the easy, laid-back approach to sales, unlike the street hawkers who are quite a pain in Agra specifically.



On my second day in Agra we drove out to Akbar’s mausoleum, about 10km from Agra. The building was built by Akbar, the third and greatest Mughal emperor and contains elements of Christian, Islamic and Hindu architecture in line with Akbar’s beliefs (and his wives, having one from each of the three faiths). The gardens were lovely and full of deer, monkeys and birds.

After that we drove to Itimad-ud-Daulah (better known as the Baby Taj). This beautiful building was effectively the precursor of the Taj, and many of the design elements were copied from this building. In the afternoon I went hotel hunting and checked out a load of hotels in Agra, varying from the adequate to the grandiose. I spent the evening listening to live music in a small restaurant and being amused by the local kids playing air guitar and trying to learn U2 songs.

Monday, 13 October 2008

The tribal circuit - Part 2


After the match we went on to Kabu, a small nearby village of the Adi-Galo tribe where we were greeted by the family, as well as some of their friends. We were served up rice beer and brought various dished, all eaten from a leaf that is commonly used in the tribe. The food was very tasty and plentiful. The women tried to teach Karla and Myrka some local dances and in return were taught the chicken song, which was the source of much amusement, especially as it sped up. We elected to sleep outside the main house on the balcony and used the camping mattresses. The next day was a lazy one. After breakfast in Along the girls went shopping and myself and Stephen played poker for matchsticks.


After a few hours chilling out we ordered take-away pakoras and chips for lunch and then drove back to the village. C.K. arranged for two local boys to accompany us on our afternoon walk. We walked down to the river, to the fantastic bamboo and cane hanging bridge. We all managed to traverse the bridge, getting braver as we walked on. When we finally made it across the local boys showed off by running across it, making us feel less brave than we had!


We stopped on the side of the river and had our lunch, watching the locals cross the hanging bridge without a second's thought. After lunch we walked through the valley and up to Paia, another Adi-Galo village and then on to Pobdi before returning to Kabu for dinner. We asked our hosts to give us smaller portions as we didn't want to seem ungrateful by not finishing the four hundred tonnes of rice they allocated for us.


The local women were still humming the chicken song! After dinner the women did a few local dances and they made my two left feet participate as well! The girls taught them the Macarena and even C.K. joined in after a few rice beers! The local women were so impressed they gave each of the girls a traditional handmade Adi-Galo skirt they had woven themselves.

The next morning we said goodbye to our hosts and soon after to Arunachal Pradesh and came back into Assam, to the village of Likabali. It was the main day of the Durga Festival and people's faces were painted bright red and there was plenty of singing and music throughout the village. We had some lunch and went to meet our host family. They were very welcoming and curious, not having had foreign guests before and the home was a beautiful bamboo construction with tale and chairs made of bamboo and cane. After the introductions we climbed up to the ancient ruins of Malinithan where the remains of a 10th to 12th century temple had been uncovered. We were given some sweets at the temple and then came back to our hosts, washed and the rice beer was brought out. I think I'm going to have withdrawal when I leave the North East! Conversation was a little awkward at first, but after a few rice beers things got a bit more lively. Again the food was excellent and very plentiful. We had a few more rice beers after dinner and our beds were put out for us, as well as mosquito nets.

The next morning we said goodbye to our hosts and drove to the ghat (river port) abou an hour away. Our intended route to Majuli was impassable so we were taking a slightly longer way around. We jumped on the crowded ferry along with our jeep and moved slowly down the mighty Brahmaputra river. We arrived on the Southern Ghat after about 2 hours and drove on to Namati Ghat to catch the ferry to Majuli, stopping for a superb lunch in a remote little roadside restaurant. At the Ghat I said goodbye to the group, sorry I wasn't able to continue to Majuli as well. They would be using a local jeep on the island so I borrowed the vehicle and trusty Das (our driver) to drive on to Guwahati. It was a long drive and I arrived in around 9.30 in the evening and crashed out for the night.

Today I have been catching up on some work and looking at some ways to improve our route and facilities for future groups. Tomorrow I fly to Delhi, where I will spend a couple of nights before testing the add-on tour to Agra and Jaipur that we will start to offer shortly. It's been almost ten years since I first (and last) went to Agra and Jaipur as a backpacker so I'm quite looking forward to it. This whole trip just seems to be rushing by!

- Dave

The tribal circuit - Part 1

Ok so it's been a while since I updated the blog. The first tour had to change their plan somewhat en route due to a strike that meant certain road closures so they arrived into Itanagar a day early. As they arrived in quite late we had food delivered to the hotel from E&K's, my favourite restaurant in the North East. It was a hit. Everyone enjoyed it, with the crispy fried pork a particular favourite. The first group consisted of Karla from Canada, Stephen from Ireland and Myrka from Slovakia.


The next morning after a lie-in I joined the group and we set off for Ziro, the homeland of the Apatani tribe. The weather was misty and the dense jungle shrouded in mist had an otherworldly quality. We stopped in a couple of tribal villages and arrived into Ziro as it got dark. We spent the evening relaxing in the hotel, having dinner and watching movies.
The following morning we got up early to do a hike around Ziro, and we hiked through the forest and the Paddy fields (where harvesting was in full flow) to Hong, the largest tribal village in Asia. Everyone enjoyed the walk and the village. We stopped off for tea on a hilltop lodge and enjoyed the views of Ziro valley. From there we walked a little more and C.K., our guide brought us to a new lodge where we were given O (also known as Apong), the local rice beer. It was very tasty, and was followed by an excellent lunch. We were apparently the first ever guests, and the lodge itself is expected to open in about a month.

A curious local dropped in and we chatted via the lodge owner (who also doubles as the museum curator!) with him. He said he had only ever seen white people on TV or in the movies and seemed to think I was a wrestler! WWF is apparently generally understood in Apatani! After watching some locals fishing we were brought to the museum that had a lot of traditional textiles, implements and jewelery including a suspiciously small penis shield! We wandered around Ziro for a little while before going back to the hotel for dinner. After dinner we were treated to a short dance recital by a group of Apatani and a group of Hill-Miri women, each in their traditional dress. Our museum curator friend also arrived with a special delivery of fresh rice beer, which we soon polished off.


The next morning we drove on to Daporijo through the jungle. We stopped in the town for lunch and drve on to our camping spot. As our tents were pitched we wandered down by the river and had a wash. C.K. left us to do the permit formalities and we relaxed. Das, our driver, lit a fire and we sat around, trading stories and telling jokes in the refreshing cool of the evening. C.K. arrived back with dinner and we set up makeshift place mats in the kitchen tent and tucked in. The obligatory rice beer washed down our meal, and soon after we went to bed.

The following morning we drove on to Dumporijo, a small mixed tribe village for breakfast and then set off for Along. The scenery was every bit as lush and the winding roads opened up stunning vistas for a few seconds, before another valley would emerge into view. When we arrived in Along we all used the Internet quickly and then saw there was something happening in the stadium next door as there were lots of women dressed up in traditional festival attire. I inquired and was told that the local football final was on and would be preceded by a dance show. We were also invited t be VIP guests, so in we went. The stadium was jam-packed as were the balconies that had views of the pitch. The dance show was very colourful and elaborate involving around sixty or seventy dancers. The match that followed wasn't premiership quality but it was certainly keenly contested.

More to follow...

- Dave

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

First Tour Arrives in the North East!


The first tour arrived in Delhi on Friday. On Sunday they flew to Guwahati and drove on to the Eco-camp, where I met them on Sunday evening. The trip has been going well so far, everyone's in good health and all enjoyed the tour of Delhi as well as the Delhi guesthouse. The eco-camp however was a particular favourite at this point, a contrast to the hustle and bustle of Delhi and a lovely comfortable place to relax and takes walks in the countryside, everyone agreed.


I accompanied the group on the first stage of their drive towards Tawang and had the satisfaction of seeing their expressions and hearing their gasps of astonishment at the spectacular beauty of the jungle of lower Himalayas of Arunachal Pradesh. The lush thick greenery and the clouds nestled in amongst them, I had forgotten myself just how spectacular they were. I left the group as they headed on to Dirang in the very capable hands of C.K., their guide for the next few weeks. Bon voyage!


- Dave