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Discovering Beautiful Nepal: a 4-day trek in the Annapurna Region

Discovering Beautiful Nepal: a 4-day trek in the Annapurna Region

At the end of our stay in India we travelled to Nepal, where we have spent two weeks. Nepal is a beautiful country with many things to do and see, and therefore these two weeks were too short! You cannot visit Nepal without a trekking through the Himalayas, so we booked a 4-day trek in the Annapurna Region. In this blogpost we take you back on this beautiful (and tough) adventure!

Day 1: A bumpy ride, beautiful views and a bit of Nepali culture (Pokhara – Kimche – Ghandruk)

The first day is an easy one. Our guide picks us up from our hotel by jeep, and we drive out of Pokhara. Many people start their trekking from Nayapul, but as we are not very trained we have arranged a jeep to drive the first part up to Kimche instead of walking for 4 hours. The road from Nayapul to Kimche is not comfortable, as it is very bumpy and dusty, but after more than one hour we arrive at our place of departure: Kimche. The road from Kimche towards Ghandruk is good and quiet, and despite the climbing we enjoy the views, people and animals we encounter on the way. The “best part” of that day is kept for last however, as we have to climb many steep stairs to reach our guesthouse. The stairs are horrible, and little do we know that these are not the last stairs we will encounter during our trekking! 😉

After lunch our guide takes us on a small tour around the village of Ghandruk. It is a lovely place, with many traditional houses, guesthouses, and friendly people. Many trekkers stay in their guesthouse when they arrive here, but it is very nice to walk around and see the village. We first visit a place where we try on traditional Gurung clothing. The Gurung are an ethnic group, who mostly live in the mountain areas around Pokhara. Even though we have not seen many people wearing these clothes, it was very interesting to wear it and get some explanation about it.

After that we walk to a visitor centre where we watch a small documentary about the Annapurna Region. There is also a small Buddhist monastery in the village, which is not inhabited anymore by monks, where we look around. Finally, we visit a small museum where they show a traditional house and explain how everything is being used.

At the end of our tour around the village several big snowy peaks suddenly appear from behind the clouds. It is our first good view on these giants and it is amazing! The 7000m peaks look enormous and we suddenly feel very small. What a beautiful world we live in!

The Annapurna South slowly appears from behind the clouds

Day 2: Stairs, stairs, stairs… (Ghandruk – Landruk – Tolka)

We wake up at 5.10, and immediately open the curtains to see if the weather is in our favor. And it is! The snowy peaks are clearly visible, so we jump out of bed and walk upon the terrace to enjoy the sunrise. It is quiet around us, and with the sound of birds waking up we wait until the first sunbeams appear. Several minutes later we see a small golden spot on the Annapurna south. Slowly the sunbeam becomes larger and larger, like a ‘golden river’ that floats down the snowy peak. This is magical! We just sit and watch the mountains for an hour, and enjoy everything around us. What a place, what a beauty!

From Ghandruk you have a view on Annapurna South (7219m), Himchuli (6441m), Annapurna 3 (7555m), Gangapurna (7455m), and Machapuchare (also known as ‘Fish Tail’, 6993m).

After breakfast we prepare ourselves for the hike. The guide told us on beforehand that it will be a tough day, and he did not lie about that. To describe the hike in one word: stairs! We start in Ghandruk at 1900m, and the first 1.5 hours we walk down to the bottom of the mountain (1400m), where we cross a river and have to climb up the other mountain towards Landruk (1700m). The hike leads us through some beautiful nature, but we do not have much energy left to look around and we curse the stairs many times! At Landruk we finally have some time to relax, have lunch, and enjoy the nature around us. After lunch it is only an easy 30-minute walk to the guesthouse in Tolka, where we take a shower and relax. The guesthouse is simple and there is no internet connectivity, so it feels like going back to basic a little bit! We entertain ourselves with playing cards, reading a book, chatting with other guests, and enjoy the view.

Our lunch is waiting for us at the village on the other mountain! Still many stairs to go…

Day 3 – An easy day with a vengeful end (Tolka – Australian Camp)

We wake up with the sounds of heavy rain and thunder – this does not motivate us for our hike today. Thankfully the rain stops after breakfast, so we can walk to Australian Camp in dry clothes. To reach Australian Camp we can choose between a short but heavy route, or a longer but easier route.  As the stairs from yesterday gave us a lot of muscle pain, we choose for the latter 😉 The route is nice and relatively relaxing, and there is a cute dog accompanying us. After one hour we have a tea-break at Pothana, from where it is only 30 minutes to Australian Camp. These final 30 minutes are heavy, as it goes uphill again, but we cannot complain because we have the whole afternoon to relax! From Australian Camp you have a view on to several valleys and mountain ranges – a beautiful place to hang out!

We had a cute dog accompanying and guarding us for a while

Day 4 – Running through the leeches! (Australian Camp – Dhampus – Pokhara)

We wake up early, hoping to see a clear sky so we can witness the beautiful sunrise Australian Camp has to offer. Unfortunately, it is very foggy and we cannot even see more than 50m around us! It has also rained a lot during the night, and our guide warns us for the many leeches that we will encounter during the hike. He advises us to walk fast “so they don’t have much time to climb upon your shoes”, but even though we listen to his advice we have to beat a lot of leeches from our shoes. Because of the leeches, it is not the most comfortable path, but nevertheless the views are amazing! Most fog has disappeared and sometimes the sun shows itself as well. Slowly we descend from the mountain, and we can see the road approaching us. We pas small villages and walk through beautiful green rice fields. After 3 hours we arrive at the road, where a taxi is waiting for us and bring us back to Pokhara.

Information

Although the hike was relatively tough at some points, we  very much enjoyed this 4-day trek. It is amazing to walk around in such a beautiful and relatively remote area. Most villages are only accessible by foot or by bad unpaved roads, and most products are being carried here on the backs of people or animals. We cannot imagine living such a life, but the people are not used to anything else. Most money is being earned with agriculture, livestock, and tourism – though after the earthquake tourist numbers have been greatly reduced and are still not back on the old level. We can highly recommend to visit Nepal and explore the Himalayas. There are small treks (2-3 days), but also longer ones (up to 3 weeks). We booked a trip with Mister Happy Trekking in Pokhara, which we can definitely recommend! He arranged the guide, a porter, a car to bring us and pick us up, permits, TIMS cards, guesthouses, and food. However, this whole package is pricey and if you prefer to walk without a guide it is possible as well. Most villages are well indicated and guesthouses can be found everywhere! 

Goodbye India – Country of extremes and contradictions

Goodbye India – Country of extremes and contradictions

India… the country which smells like diesel, swirling dust, sweet chewing tobacco, and incense. Where everyone believes they are the king of the road, but in the end they are all overruled and stopped by the slowest creatures on earth: cows. Where everyone is eager to help you if you have a problem or need to arrange something. Where fortresses, built to defend against enemies, are nowadays a safe haven for young lovers who are unable to show their love outside the heavy brick walls. Where every empty plot is used by boys to play cricket, dreaming of once being able to play in an official team and stadium. Where school children are working hard, having high hopes and dreams, and are eager to practice their English with you. Where you’ll often be welcomed with a good cup of masala chai. Where people worship a mighty river, but destroy it at the same time by polluting it. Where spitting, burping, farting, pissing, and sometimes even pooing in public is not strange. Where making selfies is super hip, and you get bonus points when you take a (sneaky) selfie with a foreigner. Where small children are forced to sell balloons at traffic lights, while their parents are watching them from a distance. Where you literally see the cities expanding and developing every day. Where you’ll find complete families with small children on one motorbike, while the father drives on the wrong side of the road against all traffic. Where train stations are also used as pavement hotels, as you’ll find dozens of people sleeping comfortable on the concrete of the entrance halls and platforms. Where you’ll find many women working in harsh jobs, but always proud and dressed in beautiful bright saris. 

There is so much to say about India, but these are several things that characterizes the country for us. Tonight we leave India, where we stayed for more than 3 months. Our time here has been a special experience, as it is definitely a country of extremes. India has amazed us and it made us angry at the same time. We started to love it, but we cursed it as well. We sometimes found it harsh, loud, impatient, confronting, but also friendly, beautiful, and peaceful. We came to India having many questions, but we leave with many more. We found out that this is not the country where we would like to live and work for a longer time, but we will come back to discover the parts of India that we haven’t discovered yet and witness its beauty.

Heleen & Stephan

P.s.: the blogs about Nepal will come online soon!

A lovely weekend in Haridwar and Rishikesh!

A lovely weekend in Haridwar and Rishikesh!

After being in Delhi since February we were keen to go somewhere less busy and chaotic, and preferably with more nature. We were also very curious about visiting the Ganges river with its many rituals and spiritual people, so we therefore decided to go north to Haridwar and Rishikesh, where the Himalayas begin.

We boarded the train at Ghaziabad on a Thursday morning around 6.30am. The view from the train window was again different than on our other journeys: it was very green and we saw many fields with sugar canes and yellow-gold wheat which was being harvested in the early morning.

Haridwar

After 6.5 hours we arrived in Haridwar. Our first impression was that this city was not too big, relatively busy, but also colourful! Like Varanasi, Haridwar is one of the bigger pilgrimage destinations for Hindu’s, who come here to worship the holy Ganges river. After checking into our hotel and having a bit of rest, we went out to explore the city. We were – of course – most curious about the Ganges river! The Ganges is considered as the Divine Mother of India. It is believed that the water washes your sins away when you take a dip there, and that when the ashes of a deceased relative are offered to the Ganges this person gets ‘Moksha’, which means liberation of the cycle of death and rebirth.

In Haridwar the river has been split and a canal has been made where big ‘ghats’ (stairs leading to the river) are created where people can take their bath and perform rituals. We walked along the ‘boulevard’ of ghats and the atmosphere was very nice! Along these ghats many families and Sadhu’s were relaxing, taking a nap, or cooking food. In most touristic places people approach us often because we are foreigners, but probably because this city is not dependent on foreign tourists but on local tourists instead, this did not happen. There was only one man who approached us and asked if we wanted to buy marihuana – no thanks 😉

Walking along the ghats in Hardiwar, where many people spend their day under the shade of the trees.

Every morning and evening a ‘Ganga Aarti’ is organized at Har-Ki-Pauri, whereby the Goddess Ganga is being worshipped. We went early, as we knew it would be busy (approximately 3.000-30.000 people attend this Aarti every day!) and we wanted to have a good seat. There were indeed thousands of people (though not 30,000 thankfully) and we were glad to have found the perfect spot. It was a very impressive ritual to be part of, whereby thousands of people were singing Sanskrit chants for almost an hour, and performing rituals like praying, smoking incense, bathing, and lightning and offering candles and flowers. In the end the fires were lit and for another 15 minutes the people were chanting and clapping, while the fires lit their faces in the dark. Even though Hinduism is a difficult religion to understand as an outsider, it was very special to attend this ritual and see the devotion and the sense of harmony among all these people.

Rishikesh

The next day we headed towards Rishikesh. Our hotel arranged a taxi, who picked us up around noon. The drive was interesting. Apparently, the main road towards Rishikesh had turned into one big traffic jam, as many people wanted to visit Rishikesh for the weekend (it was Easter weekend). Therefore, we took the ‘bush’ road, which leads through Rajaji national park. We drove through the hills, whereby the driver had to be careful for the dozens of put holes and other cars who suddenly appeared on high speed from around the corner. We also drove through an empty riverbed of the Ganges (the monsoon starts in July, so nowadays the rivers are relatively dry), and we passed many monkeys which our taxi driver fed a hands full of biscuits from the car window.

After 1.5 hour, we arrived at our hotel in Rishikesh (or Tapovan to be precise), which was a very nice oasis in this small but busy town. Our room was on the top floor and we had a lovely view on the mountains! In the afternoon we explored the town a little bit. Tapovan is relatively small, but busy town. It is the place to practice yoga and meditation, take yoga (teacher) courses, and go rafting. Especially rafting is big business here, as every day more than 1,000 rafting boats go down the Ganges river! We did not go rafting, but sat down along the Ganges, with our feet in the cold water, and just enjoyed the view and our surroundings.

The next morning started with a yoga class. We never practiced yoga before, but we thought now that we are here – in a place which some even call the yoga capital of the world – we had to give it a try! And we liked it! The yoga class took place on the rooftop of our hotel, with our faces towards the sun, singing birds around us, and with a beautiful view on the mountains around us. The class was tough (especially since we didn’t exercise in the last couple of months) but relaxing at the same time.

During breakfast we were invited by two ladies to join them to a waterfall nearby. Even though it was busy over there, it was nice to visit. It is possible to climb all the way up the mountain, however due to the heat we didn’t do that but instead took a break somewhere halfway to cool down with our feet in the cold water.

One of the few natural pool – all of them were crowded with people!

In the afternoon we wandered around town, had nice food, and visited a small and quiet beach. From there we watched the hundreds of rafting boats passing by, whereby all Indians in these boats stopped rowing and stare at the beach where several other foreign people were swimming in their bathing suit. That’s something Indians are not used to, and they gazed at them like they saw something from another planet.

The following morning we got up at 4AM, because we had arranged a taxi for 4.30 who would bring us to the Kunjapur Devi Temple. This temple is located in the mountains and we planned to watch the sunrise there and walk back down to Rishikesh. Unfortunately, our driver didn’t show up, and after waiting for him for more than 30 minutes we decided to go back to bed. The hotel owner found out later in the morning that the driver overslept, and he arranged another taxi for us for the following morning.

After breakfast we decided to cross the bridge over the Ganges and walk towards Rishikesh. We found a small road which was relatively quiet as cars could not come there. We made a stop at a lovely beach, to cool down and watch some people swim in the water (swimming is officially not allowed here, because of the strong current). When we arrived at the centre of Rishikesh it became busy though, so after a drink with a beautiful view on the river, we headed back to Tapovan.

This is the only bridge in Tapovan which connects to the other side, and therefore it is crowded with people, motorbikes, cows, and monkeys!
Monkey enjoying the view from the bridge, while hoping to receive food from someone passing by 😉

Unfortunately, in the evening Heleen became ill. So ill, that we had to cancel the sunrise trip that we planned for the next morning. Instead, Stephan took his second yoga class that morning (addict!), and around noon we headed back to Haridwar as we had to go back to Delhi!

We have visited several busy and touristic cities in India, among which Rishikesh can be counted as well, but the place nevertheless felt very relaxed! We met a lot of friendly and open people who invited us to join them and vice versa, and we very much enjoyed walking along the beautiful Ganges. We had a nice weekend at Rishikesh, and we would have loved to stay longer!

Where to stay in Haridwar?

In Haridwar we stayed at Hotel Krishna Ji, which was very clean and had a good bed! It is centrally located, in between the train station and the Ganges.

Where to stay in Rishikesh?

In Rishikesh we stayed at hotel Seventh-Heaven Inn. It is one of the best places where we have stayed in India. The owners and staff are very friendly and caring, and they cooked good food! The room was big, clean, and had a great view. Very much recommended!

Love, Heleen & Stephan

Rajasthan roundtrip – Part 5: Jaipur

Rajasthan roundtrip – Part 5: Jaipur

This is the fifth and final blog of our roundtrip through Rajasthan. Please also read our stories about Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Pushkar!

The final destination of our roundtrip through Rajasthan was the pink city of Jaipur, which we reached after a short 2,5 hour trip by train from Pushkar. When we stepped out of the train we were immediately approached by “Raj, from Rajasthan”, who offered to bring us to our hotel with his tuktuk. He was a friendly young man, who spoke well English – something that most tuktuk drivers here don’t. Many of the drivers try to convince you to hire them for your trips throughout the city so that they can make a larger amount of money at once, and so did Raj. We were convinced, and so the next morning he picked us up from our hotel to bring us to Amer Fort.

Amer Fort has been built in 1592 and is one of the biggest attractions around Jaipur, which was obvious because – even though we arrived relatively early – it was already very busy! Being such a touristic place, it unfortunately brings some negative aspects as well, such as the dozens of elephants bringing the tourists up the hill towards the Fort. Some of the elephants we met at the Wildlife SOS elephant sanctuary (find our blog of that visit here) have been walking up and down this hot pavement for years, which gave them severe injuries. Others are still suffering from trauma caused by the owner itself who abused the elephant. We knew that many elephants are still working at Amer Fort, but we were shocked to see the actual amount!

If you ever visit the Amer Fort, please do not ride the elephants! Even though some elephants look like they are well-treated, the way they are tamed from a young age is often horrible. And the walk up the hill is really not that long, you can do it!

The elephants riding the tourists up the hill
The stairs towards the entrance – the climb is not exhausting, we promise!

The Amer Fort itself was nice, though we expected more of it. There were several beautiful parts, but perhaps we did not enjoy it to the fullest because it was so busy. However, there were also parts of the fort that felt like a labyrinth and we very much enjoyed exploring these almost deserted hallways and chambers. It was just unfortunate that most parts did not have explanation signs, and therefore we did not understand what the rooms were used for or what significance they had. Taking a guide or an audio-guide is therefore recommended when exploring the Amer Fort.

While walking towards the exit we saw a sign for a tunnel towards the Jaigarh Fort. This fort is situated higher on the hill above Amer Fort, and we were very excited to know that there was another passage as well! The tunnel is only partly underground (and full of bats), but it seemed that not many people knew of its’ existence as we were the only persons walking there (together with some monkeys!).

Little monkey watching us from above

Jaigarh Fort has been built in 1726 in order to protect the Amer Fort, but even though it is newer, it is not so well-maintained and besides the walls there is not much left from its’ interior. However, the view over the hills, valley and the Amer Fort makes the visit worth it!

After the two fortresses we visited the stepwell in Amer. We are a bit fascinated by these ancient structures, which can be found throughout India in all sorts and sizes. The one in Amer is very beautiful and was still filled with water as well – though carefulness is required as the stepwell is very steep!

The next day we headed towards the City Palace, where we arrived as one of the first visitors (that never happened before!). The City Palace complex has been built between 1729 and 1732, and was the place where the Maharaja of Jaipur lived and reigned. The biggest part is now a museum, though there is still a part used as royal residence (a part of this residence is still open for visitors, though you need to pay a relatively high amount of money to visit that, which we didn’t do).

Unfortunately, we did not like the city palace that much, which was mainly the result of intrusive and unpleasant guards, and because they were preparing a big feast for that evening. Due to these preparations, the square around the Diwan-i-Aam (the Hall of Public Audience) was crowded with people setting up tents, bringing in piles of chairs and tables, and unraveling the decorations. This really was a pity, as we could not witness and enjoy the City Palace as we hoped to. However, there were several beautiful places, of which the beautiful gates of Pritam Niwas Chowk were the highlights!

After the City Palace we walked to the Hawa Mahal, which is one of the most well-known buildings in Jaipur. It is also called the Palace of Winds, and from behind these windows women of the royal household could watch street parades while being unseen by the crowd. We did not go inside, as someone told us that it is not that interesting, but instead we had a drink at a rooftop terrace that is located on the opposite of the Hawa Mahal.

The final stop during our Jaipur tour was the Albert Hall Museum. The beautiful building was first designed to be a town hall, but later on they decided that it should become a museum. It opened in 1887 and is the oldest museum of Rajasthan. It has a rich collection of paintings, ivory, stone, instruments, carpets, and even an Egyptian mummy can be found there! Even though it was also busy there, we very much enjoyed walking around the beautiful building!

Interesting way to name things in a museum 😉

The rest of the afternoon and the day after we did not do much anymore, and we mostly enjoyed the swimming pool of our hotel before we headed back to Delhi!

Where to stay?

We stayed at Hotel Meghniwas. This hotel was the most expensive one we stayed in during our roundtrip, but we chose this one especially because of the swimming pool! However, another hotel where we peeked inside was the Pearl Palace Hotel, which looked very beautiful and clean! According to reviews on the internet it is very much recommended as well.

Where to eat?

We had dinner at the Peacock Rooftop restaurant, which is the restaurant on top of the just mentioned Hotel Pearl Palace. This is a very busy place though – so be early or make a reservation – but they have an extensive card and the food and drinks were very good.

Another restaurant where we enjoyed a nice lunch is called “Khandelwal Pavitra Bhojnalaya”. That’s a mouth full, but most tuktuk drivers will know it. It is a place where both local people eat, and where drivers take foreign guests to. We were appointed a table where another Indian was already having his food – it’s nice to go local! We both ordered a delicious and big Thali. Very much recommended!

Rajasthan Roundtrip – Part 4: Pushkar

Rajasthan Roundtrip – Part 4: Pushkar

This is the fourth blog of our Rajasthan Roundtrip. Please also read our stories about Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Jaipur!

We left Jodhpur at 7am, meaning that for the first time during our trip we could enjoy a train ride by day light! It was very nice to watch the world passing by and see the people of India waking up through our train window. From Jodhpur it only took us 5,5 hours to reach Ajmer, where we took a taxi to Pushkar.

Pushkar is a small city with a big significance for Hindu’s, as it is a pilgrimage site. The lake that lies in the centre of the city is considered sacred, as according to legends Lord Brahma (believed to be the creator of the universe) dropped a lotus to the ground from which the lake originated. Many Hindu’s believe that their life is not complete without taking a dip here or sacrifice offers. However, besides welcoming Hindu pilgrims the city is also crowded with foreign hippies, who visit the many temples, find inner peace during yoga courses, indulge in spiritual matters, eat good food, take cooking courses, and shop clothes and souvenirs in one of the many shops. But apparently there is more, because when we asked a shopkeeper why there are so many foreign tourists here, he answered immediately that they come here because of alcohol and drugs (even though that is officially forbidden in Pushkar).

The rules of Pushkar, which are definitely not respected by all guests.
Pushkar Lake

This blog about Pushkar will not be too extensive, as we have to admit that we did not do or see a lot here! Most honestly: we think Pushkar is a bit overrated. It is a nice small and calm town, but it is very much focused on all the tourists and between all those hippies we really felt like outsiders.

So, the first afternoon we mostly enjoyed our very spacious and beautiful hotel room! We took a shower, had some rest, and enjoyed a nice lunch on the rooftop restaurant, after which we headed into the small town. The lake is nice but small, and we were immediately attacked by touts, who wanted us to take flowers which we could sacrifice in the lake. Thankfully, we were well-prepared and after 10 times saying ‘no’ they slinked off. Before we came to Pushkar we read that these people are well-known for their scam, whereby in the end some will even take you to a priest who will ask for an outrageous amount of money as a donation, and if you don’t pay they even might curse you and your family…

After the lake, we wandered along the main street – which is one long bazaar with restaurants, guest houses and shops. As we already bought many souvenirs during our trip, it was not too interesting for us, so we decided to head back to our hotel where we relaxed, enjoyed our books, played cards, and had a very nice thali for dinner!

The next day we visited the Savitri Temple, which is located on a hill next to Pushkar. It was a 15-minute walk to the foot of the hill, where we decided that it was too hot to walk all the way up. Thankfully, there is cable cart nowadays! Even though Heleen didn’t feel too comfortable (the cable cart is relatively new, but it doesn’t look so), it probably was better than walking up in the hot sun. The temple was not open yet when we arrived, but there is a small shop which sells snacks and drinks, where we enjoyed sitting in the shade and watched the monkeys begging for cookies. The view from the top is stunning, and it actually would have been way better to visit this place with sunrise or sunset! The temple itself is small and not very special, even though it has a lot of significance to Hindu’s as it is dedicated to Lord Brahma’s wife.

Even though the cable cart was fast, we decided to walk down slowly and enjoy the view on Pushkar and its hills. The rest of the day and the day after we spend wandering around the Pushkar, relaxing in our hotel, drinking masala chai, playing cards and reading books. Not so spectacular, but we enjoyed it though. However, even though many people consider Pushkar as a ‘hidden gem’ and ‘place to go’, we would not, but it probably depends a lot on your interests and preferences as well!

The day after we took the afternoon train to Jaipur, about which you will read in our next blog!

Where to stay?

We stayed at a wonderful hotel named Inn-Seventh-Heaven. And just like the name, the hotel felt a bit like seventh heaven as well! It could be a bit noisy as the courtyard works like an echo-pit, but besides that it was very good. We had a spacious, clean and lovely decorated room (rose petals were spread in the bathroom when we arrived!), and the courtyard contains a lot of lovely benches, swing-chairs, books and – again – fresh rose petals were spread everywhere each morning. The rooftop restaurant was very good as well, serving both Indian as intercontinental food.

Hotel Inn-Seventh-Heaven
Rajasthan Roundtrip – Part 3: Jodhpur + tips for celebrating Holi!

Rajasthan Roundtrip – Part 3: Jodhpur + tips for celebrating Holi!

This is the third blog of our Rajasthan Roundtrip. Please also read our stories about Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Pushkar and Jaipur!

From Jaisalmer it only took us 5½ hours to reach Jodhpur by train, where we arrived late in the evening. The first impressions of Jodhpur were interesting. The streets were very narrow – so narrow that cars cannot drive there – but they were crowded with people, and after every few metres people had lightened bonfires. Was there a riot going on? Not at all! This all had to do with the Holi festival that was about to take place the next day. The evening before Holi people celebrate Holika Dahan, whereby demonic forces are destructed by fire. Unfortunately we arrived late, and many of the fires and ceremonies were already finished. So, we continued to our hotel where we enjoyed a good night of rest.

Sunset over the blue city of Jodhpur

The next day was a very important day for India: Holi! Holi is the festival of colours, and probably the best known Indian festival around the world. It is a day where Hindus celebrate the victory of good over evil and the arrival of spring, whereby people meet friends and family, eat and drink, and play with the colours! However, people warned us that it is also a festival where many people drink alcohol or bhang (a Marihuana drink), which can make them annoying or violent. So we went out, carefully and prepared!

We bought special (cheap) clothes for Holi, as we did not want to ruin our own clothes with the colours. What do you think of Stephan’s turban? He almost looks like a local!

We only had one day in Jodhpur, so besides celebrating Holi we also wanted to visit the beautiful Mehrangarh fort in the morning. From our hotel it was only a short walk to the fort, which cannot be missed as it rises up above the city. The climb towards the fort was steep and hot, but very impressive!

The impressive entrance road to Mehrangarh Fort
We were welcomed into the fort with lots of music

The fort has been built around 1460 and currently houses a palace museum which you can visit. The museum is big, contains many items, and the audio guide gives a lot of information, but for some reason it was not the most impressive palace that we have visited so far. Maybe the fact that Stephan was walking around while having a fever that day probably did no good either…

The outside of the fort is beautifully decorated.
But inside there are also very beautiful rooms to be found!

From the fort we took a steep road down towards the city. We stopped at a guesthouse to have some food, which was one of the least enjoyable experiences we had so far. Not only was the owner not very nice, but the food was also dirty with colours as the cook did not wash himself after having celebrated Holi that morning. But well.. that’s probably part of the Holi experience!

We headed towards the Clock Tower area, as we had read somewhere that that is the place where Holi is celebrated a lot. However, when we arrived there it was almost empty. In the meantime, we did get coloured by several people, but it was not as enjoyable as we hoped. The people we encountered were mostly young men, who were wandering around in groups. Even though some were nice, some were also a bit importunate – forcing us to take a selfie with them, and being a bit too eager to touch us with colours. At one point we were surrounded by a rather large group of guys on their motors which made us feel uncomfortable, so we decided to call a tuktuk and head back to our hotel. While driving through the narrow streets of the old city we still witnessed a lot of festivities with many people dancing and playing drums, but again there were mostly men involved – which shows how male-dominated this society is. When we arrived at our hotel, we found out that there was also party going on there, with – surprise – only men! They probably had enjoyed several beers already, and were forcing us to join us. We, however, slipped through them and headed towards the rooftop of the hotel, where we enjoyed the view on the city and listened to the sounds of people partying throughout the city.

This is what we looked like afterwards. Holi-experts will see that we didn’t celebrate it to the fullest as we are not coloured enough! For us it was enough 😉
Holi, the aftermath. Even after several days you will still see coloured streets or animals (yes, even animals are dyed with colours, which is not a good thing!)

Our first experience with Holi was probably not the best one, unfortunately. However, many Indians also have different meanings about the festival. Some are lyrical about it, while others are not enthusiastic and prefer to stay inside that day. It also depends where and with who you celebrate it. If you need any tips for celebrating Holi, check out the list we created below!

Also, because we only had one day in Jodhpur, we didn’t experience the city to the fullest and we didn’t get a good impression of it. Apparently it is a beautiful city with many nice places to visit, but unfortunately we didn’t have time for that as we traveled to Pushkar the next morning! You can read about our stay in Pushkar in our next blog!

Where to stay?

We stayed at hotel Singhvi Haveli, a beautiful old haveli converted into a hotel. We had booked a standard room though, which did not have any windows, was rather smelly and the bed was not comfortable either. They do have more expensive rooms which looked way better. They have a very large and nice rooftop terrace and the breakfast was good. It is located in the old city, and therefore not reachable by car as the streets are too small (tuktuks can reach there). The fort is only a 10-minute walk away.

Tips for celebrating Holi:

  • Protect your body, as you don’t know how the colours are manufactured. Some people use natural colours, but also chemical colours are used which can cause irritation, or it sticks to your hair and skin for several days (not kidding, we witnessed several people who were still slightly coloured after 3 days – although there is also a chance that they didn’t take a proper shower yet!). Also, protect your hair with a scarf or cap (Heleen’s hair was very dry and frizzy afterwards, and it took a while before it was recovered again), protect your eyes with sunglasses (and be careful when wearing lenses!), and try not to swallow the colours.
  • Wear cheap or old clothes that you can throw away afterwards. We managed to wash our clothes afterwards, but it depends on the amount and the quality of powder as well. We witnessed some tourists who were not prepared for this clothe-dyeing, and they did not seem too happy about it! However, as a woman try to avoid wearing white, as people will also throw water on you and everyone can see through your clothes.
  • If you go out, go early! Apparently, we missed the biggest celebrations while we were in the fort during the morning. Furthermore, in the afternoon people will be more influenced by alcohol or bhang, which can create a less pleasant atmosphere.
  • Try to celebrate it with an Indian family! They know the customs and places to go. Also, as Indians love food, they might have good food at home which they will share with you 😉
  • Or celebrate it with other tourists. We felt very exposed just walking around with the two of us, and because we were tourists we attracted more attention as well. In bigger cities Holi parties are also organized, which can be nice to attend.
  • As a woman: be careful as many places are male-dominated, and apparently men can take advantage of this festival. Be clear if someone does something you do not like. 

 

How do we experience living in Delhi, India?

How do we experience living in Delhi, India?

We are halfway into our India adventure, and therefore we believe it is time for an update! We are posting a lot of stories and pictures of our trips and beautiful hotspots, but we should be honest with you: that is not what our daily life looks like at all! So, why aren’t we posting more about our daily lives then? Simple answer: it is just not that interesting. The main reason why we are to India is because Stephan is conducting his thesis research here. So, unfortunately we are not full-time travelling and most of the time we spend working in Noida*. In this blog post we tell you more about how we experience living here and about our feelings of Delhi. Also, we included some pictures which are not very beautiful, but will instead give you a better impression of the city and our lives here!

*Noida is the city we live in and where Stephan’s office is located. It is part of the Delhi National Capital Region, and because Delhi is more well-known we prefer to use that name.

The view over Khora Colony in Noida

What do we think of Delhi?

We like it and we don’t like it at the same time. Delhi has many beautiful places to discover, way more than most tourists think. It’s nice that we have more time around here to explore all those places, which we often do in the weekends. There are several touristic places which are always very crowded, but there are also many which are not that well-known, and are thus very pleasant to explore.

There are several major touristic hotspots, like Delhi Gate, which are often crowded with tourists!

But on the other hand, the city is big, busy, chaotic, and dirty – an environment that is completely the opposite of where we both have grown up and where we prefer to live in. The city is very overpopulated, and has to process all the people commuting to work, school, family, or other places. These people all use bicycles, motors, rickshaws, horses, tuktuks, taxi’s, cars, busses or the metro, and the infrastructure is not really adapted to so many people yet. If we go to the centre of Delhi by taxi, it often takes an hour because the distances are quite large and because the roads are always crowded. Also, it’s never quiet! We live next to a busy street and you will always hear the horns of cars and motors. In our first blog (which you can find here) we already wrote about the crazy traffic in Delhi, and we are still amazed about this craziness. 

You will see many things while driving in Delhi, like these horses who were also stuck in an enormous traffic jam. Poor animals!
Delhi metro during rush hour is also very busy! Do you notice there are only women on this picture? Every first couch in the metro is reserved for women only!

Then there is the dirt. You don’t only experience this on the street (where you must watch out not stepping into cow dung, rotting waste, or dirty water from the sewer) but also inside the house. You’ll find dust and smog everywhere! We don’t live in a very luxurious apartment, so the windows don’t shut properly and there are cracks and holes in several places. Cleaning should therefore be a daily business; it is only too bad we don’t like cleaning that much. So instead our feet are always dirty when we walk bare feet. We always need to double check a plate when we take it from the cupboard in the kitchen, because most of the time there is some new dust on it. Also, for some reason we are not able to properly clean our kitchen table, as it stays greasy and dusty. And every now and then we have a sudden attack from a huge colony of small ants in our kitchen, of which we have no idea where they are coming from (and we live on the third floor, so they cannot come from our garden as we don’t have one).

This is what we found in our kitchen after we came back from our 2-week trip. So much dust!
These street views are very common here. People dump their waste on the streets, which street sweepers will sweep to one place, where waste pickers will collect everything that can be re-used and sold.
Many of these slums can be found throughout Delhi. The people who live here often come from the countryside, eager to earn money to sustain their families. They are often waste pickers – people who collect waste, segregate it, en sell everything that still has any value. They keep the collected waste near their houses, and therefore literally live on a dump.

In the meantime, we prefer not to think about the impact of this environment on our health. It sounds cliché, but when you are in a different place you always start to appreciate what you have at home. When we lived in Utrecht we complained many times about the bad air quality of that city (which feels like a village now), but that was nothing compared to Delhi! The air quality here is literally dangerous, which this interesting but also alarming YouTube video shows. Many people in Delhi also suffer from health problems which are caused by this pollution (check out this article if you want to know more).

Sunset from our rooftop. Do you notice that mountain in the distance? That is 1 of Delhi’s 3 landfills – the city literally produces mountains of waste!
The landfill from up close, the smoke was caused by a small fire. People often burn their waste in India, which does only reinforce pollution levels even more.

What are we doing, besides travelling?

Stephan is mostly at the office from 9-18h where he works on his thesis research. Besides writing and analyzing data, he needs to get in touch with people from businesses and government institutions to retrieve his data – a task that is not easy at all in India! Not only does he encounter communication problems, but often when you want to reach out to big companies or institutions you must know people who can introduce you to others. This takes a lot of time. For example, one day he took a taxi to a university where he would meet 2 people, with whom he would visit another company. One person worked at the university and was therefore present, but the other one did not show up until after 3 hours. Meanwhile, it was so late that there was no time anymore to visit the other company, and they decided to make a visit there some other day. So, it took Stephan 3 hours of travelling, and 3 hours of waiting to receive absolutely NOTHING! One other time he managed to get a meeting in a company, but only after the father of a colleague from Stephan – who is retired now but used to have a very important function within that company – managed to get an appointment. This all shows how difficult it is to get work done here!

A sewage treatment plant which Stephan visited for his research. 

Heleen is involved in the school we live next to. This is a private school, but only 5 minutes from here they have another location where they give free education to people who are not able to pay for good quality education themselves. At first, the school asked her to teach English, but as she is only here for several months and she is not qualified as a teacher, she denied that. Several other young ladies were already involved in researching and developing new projects for this school, so she joined them. However, almost similar to Stephan, it doesn’t always go as planned. There are a lot of communication problems, and just recently there was a rather big conflict between some of the ladies and the school, which lead to a halt of the project. Therefore, Heleen is now trying to conduct a small research herself for the school, but because of language- and cultural differences this is going slower than expected.

The school Heleen is involved with tries to reach out to people from the slums, such as this little girl whose parents are waste pickers. 

And what do we do when we don’t work?

Well, Noida is not a very interesting city to live in, as it is actually meant to be an industrial city and therefore contains many businesses and office buildings. The only nice things you can visit are big shopping malls, so that is what we do every now and then, to drink coffee, or have a haircut, or eat something, or just cool down (in the past weeks the temperature hits 40C degrees every day!). As mentioned before it takes us quite long to reach Delhi centre, so we don’t go there too often unfortunately. We are lucky to have a good hotel next to us where we can have a drink and nice food. And otherwise, we just enjoy ourselves with netflix series or reading books!

This all sounds a bit negative… Are there also positive things?

Sorry about that! We don’t want to be negative at all, and we are also enjoying this whole experience a lot. Concerning our work and projects we were rather disappointed in the beginning that it didn’t go as planned, but we soon accepted it and are now enjoying and appreciating every small step forward. However, concerning Delhi – we just need to admit that it is not the city where we could spend some more years. India in general is very beautiful though! We have seen many beautiful places, and we would have loved to travel around more as we believe that there are so much more amazing places to discover. In two weeks, we will go to the north for a weekend, where we will visit the holy Ganges. And in May, just before we fly back home, we will visit Nepal. Both trips are something that we are very much looking forward to, and we will of course share our stories and pictures of those trips here as well. Stay tuned!

Love, Heleen & Stephan

Be careful when walking around train stations, because it’s easy to trip over people! You may think that this is just a large package, but it’s actually a person sleeping on the platform.
You will find streetdogs everywhere in the city! At first we were a bit afraid of them, but these dogs are so used to people that they don’t bother anyone.
And we shouldn’t forget the holy cows… They are the kings of the road – everyone stops for them!

 

Rajasthan Roundtrip – Part 2: Jaisalmer

Rajasthan Roundtrip – Part 2: Jaisalmer

This is the second blog of our Rajasthan Roundtrip. Please also read our stories about Bikaner, Jodhpur, Pushkar and Jaipur!

We arrived in Jaisalmer at 5am in the morning, after a trip by night train from Bikaner whereby we did not catch much sleep. Despite our tiredness and the cold morning breeze, we enjoyed the short tuktuk-ride from the station to our hotel very much! The differences between Delhi and Bikaner were huge, but the differences between Bikaner and Jaisalmer were big as well! Jaisalmer is the most western city of Rajasthan, and is even further located into the big Thar desert, only 100 km away from the Pakistan border. The streets were deserted and every shop was closed with rolling shutters. Only few people were awake, but even more dogs were roaming around. The best part was the view on Jaisalmer’s fort which was beautifully lit by night, whereby the full moon behind it gave it an even more fairy-tale like feeling! 

Our hotel thankfully already had a room available for us, so we could immediately jump into bed and catch some hours sleep. Around noon we were ready to explore Jaisalmer!

View from the fort on Jaisalmer

Day 1 – Exploring the fort

The fort of Jaisalmer cannot be missed, as it is built on a hill and therefore stands out above the city. It is built in 1156 and has been used as a refuge and way-station for caravans and travellers along the Silk Road. You enter the fort through four massive gates, whereby the road is zigzagging upwards. It was especially designed like this so that enemies could not generate enough velocity to hit the gate while attacking! If you watch the gates from above you can still see massive stone balls lying on the walls (see the picture below), which the people from Jaisalmer would push down when enemies were attacking. Can you imagine if such a ball falls on you? We don’t think anyone has ever survived that.

You can see the balls used to defend the fort on the bottom left side.

Nowadays, Jaisalmer’s fort is said to be one of the largest fully preserved fortified cities in the world, and around 3000 people still live inside the walls. When you enter the fort, you will find the palace on the right side of the main square. We decided to visit it right away, so that we would have some more knowledge of the fort and its history. The palace is beautiful and the audio-guide which is included gives a lot of information. It was very nice to wander around all the different rooms and courtyards, which has a very rich history as well!

This room belonged to the king and has been beautifully decorated with Dutch blue tiles (‘Delfts Blauw’) – a result of the flourishing international trade that existed here.

In the afternoon we wandered throughout the fort. It is a labyrinth of narrow lanes, with many shops, guesthouses, temples, (rooftop)restaurants, locals, tourists, and animals.We very much enjoyed the fort, as it felt relaxed and it has a nice atmosphere. However, the beauty of this fort also has a dangerous downside. Jaisalmer is located in the arid Thar desert, and because of the high temperatures (in summers the maximum temperature can reach towards 50 degrees) and the low amounts of rainfall (the longest dry period had a duration of 7 years), the city suffers from water scarcity. This scarcity is already present since the fort was built, but now that the city becomes more densely populated and many tourists are staying inside the walls, this water scarcity becomes a bigger problem. Furthermore, because the fort uses more water, it also needs to process this water, while there is no sufficient drainage system built for that. Therefore, water seeps into the clay soil under the fort, which causes erosion and destabilization of the fort’s foundations. It is said that because of that six people were killed several years ago due to a wall collapse, and many other structures also collapsed already. The fact that Jaisalmer sometimes experiences earth quakes doesn’t help either. Although the government and other organizations are taking actions to improve the fort much more needs to be done, otherwise this unique ‘living fort’ might not exist anymore in the future. People are very much dependent on tourists, but they don’t seem to realize that they also depend on the fort.

Day 2 – Temples and Desert Safari

The next day we headed back to the fort, as we still wanted to visit the temples. There is a group of Jain temples located next to each other, which everyone recommended to visit. Jainism is an ancient Indian religion which has five basic principles: non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, not owning things, and chastity. The temples in Jaisalmer are besides a touristic place also a pilgrimage site, so therefore many Jain monks and nuns were present to perform their daily rituals. Jains do not worship any gods, but they offer worship to Tirthankaras, who are former saviours and spiritual teachers of Jainism. We don’t understand everything of this religion, but for what we witnessed in the temples it seemed like a very busy one. The monks and nuns performed a small ritual at every Tirthankara image – of which there were dozens to be found in each temple! We also don’t know if all the different temples had different meanings – as for us they all looked the same – but although they were not very colourful they were beautifully decorated with many images. The only thing we did not like was that in every temple the local priest was asking for money, while several signs clearly stated that they shouldn’t. Even when they briefly explained us something small about the temple they immediately pointed towards a plate with some money on it afterwards, hinting for a tip, and therefore we didn’t always feel very welcome nor comfortable walking around.

Jain adherents wear masks in front of their mouths because they do not want to swallow any living creatures – like flies – by accident.

For the afternoon we had booked another desert safari. As you could read in our blog about Bikaner we very much enjoyed our desert safari over there, but everyone told us that the desert near Jaisalmer is even more beautiful. And they were right! We first drove to the abandoned village of Kuldhara. This village has been abandoned in the early 19th century for still unknown reasons. It’s said that the community – the Paliwals – were upset with their ruler as he was treating them badly. One day the ruler suddenly announced that he wanted to marry one of the girls of the community, and that her family had one day to accept his proposal. The Paliwals – being very angry and disagreeing with the proposal – decided to leave the village overnight. Some say that they also put a curse on the village and that ghosts are wandering around there – which is the reason why nobody ever tried to live in the village again. 

When we continued our trip we noticed a lot of windmills – you can find hundreds of them around Jaisalmer! The government of India implements many of these projects, and although some people are also against it, we do believe that it has many benefits in terms of green energy and job opportunities. Besides working in the windmill industry, many people live from agriculture or keeping cattle. 

Impressions of the countryside around Jaisalmer

After a one hour drive we finally arrived at the sand dunes. Many tourists are brought to the ‘Sam sand dunes’, as it is believed that these are most beautiful, but our guides brought us to some dunes where no one else comes. And it was perfect! They have their own ‘camp’ over there, which is actually just a small hut and shelter made of plastic and branches. The toilet was free to choose – there were enough small bushes to be found 😉 It was very basic, but therefore a wonderful experience!

While our 2 guides cooked delicious food on a small fire, we enjoyed wandering around the sand dunes and the view of the sunset! It was truly amazing. You didn’t hear any sounds, except for some goats walking in the distance. The only other people we saw were two herders on their camels. When it got dark, we could not see any lights around us. It was almost full moon, and therefore we could view the sand dunes beautifully lit by the moonlight. Unfortunately, because of the bright moon we could not see any stars – but we cannot complain, right?! 😉

After dinner with plenty of very nice and freshly cooked food we headed back to Jaisalmer. We were dirty and exhausted, but it was a wonderful experience. If we could, we would do it again but then we would love to spent a night in the desert. It must be an amazing experience to sleep under the stars!

Day 3 –Bada Bagh & train to Jodhpur

On our final day in Jaisalmer we took it easy. After breakfast we visited the Art Gallery in our hotel, where we finally spent a long time searching among the beautiful rugs and products made by women from villages. After that we visited Bada Bagh, where cenotaphs for the royal family of Jaisalmer are placed. Nowadays, many of these cenotaphs unfortunately have collapsed, but the ones that remained are beautiful. We didn’t take a guide, but we think it would have been useful to get more information while walking around there. The main thing we didn’t understand was the fact that around 12 young adults were playing hide and seek on that spot – something we found very inappropriate given the fact that it’s a memorial place. But that’s probably a cultural difference – something we’re getting used to here 😉

In the afternoon we packed our bags and took the train to Jodhpur, about which you can read in our next blog!

Where to stay?

We stayed at hotel Pleasant Haveli, which as the name suggests was pleasant! It was no problem for them to pick us up from the station very early in the morning and they even gave us our room key hours before the normal check-in time, and they also let us use the room after check-out time on the day we left – all without charging us more. It has a very nice rooftop terrace and restaurant, and in the basement is a good art gallery located where you can find many beautiful souvenirs for a very reasonable price. Also, they organize very pleasant desert safari’s!

If you want to spent a night in the desert, be sure that you find a camp that is worth your money and that suits your preferences. We had the intention to spent a night in the desert, but while searching the internet beforehand we couldn’t find what we were looking for as many of these desert camps are not located on a very remote place and are more like resorts. If you want a very basic safari where you can avoid the hordes of tourists, we would recommend our hotel, but there are many similar tour operators as well.

Love, Heleen & Stephan

Rajasthan roundtrip – Part 1: Bikaner

Rajasthan roundtrip – Part 1: Bikaner

This is the first blog of our Rajasthan Roundtrip. Please also read our stories about Jaisalmer, JodhpurPushkar and Jaipur!

Our roundtrip through Rajasthan started off very late on a Tuesday evening, when we boarded the night train to Bikaner. It was our first experience travelling by night train, and although we didn’t sleep much it was not bad either! It was clean, quiet, and the train was perfectly on time. At 6am in the morning, and about 400 kilometers further, we jumped out of our bunk beds and looked out of the window, and we were amazed how the landscape had changed in the meantime! It was clear we arrived in a desert state, with much sand, rocks, only few trees, and many camels! 

 

Camels are still used everywhere in Rajasthan

Day 1 – Junagarh Fort, Lalgarh Palace, and camels

We arrived at Bikaner early in the morning, so we decided to first enjoy some rest and a nice breakfast at our hotel, after which we went to explore the city. The most well-known place in Bikaner is Junagarh Fort, which has been built in 1594 and has been used as a residence until 1902. We thoroughly enjoyed this fort, as it is big and there are many beautifully decorated rooms! There is also a small museum that you can visit, but some parts of the fort are still privately owned and cannot be visited.

After the fortress we headed to Lalgarh Palace, which is the place where the Bikaner royal family moved after they left Junagarh Fort. It is a big and beautiful building, with a quiet garden around it. Currently, one part of the palace is still used by the royal family, another small part is converted into a museum, and there are also two luxurious hotels situated in it, the Lalgarh Palace Hotel and Laxmi Niwas Palace. For a small entrance fee you can visit the museum and look around the hotels as well, but we didn’t do that as the outside was already pretty enough and we enjoyed sitting in the shade of a tree in the garden.

After lunch we headed to the National Research Centre on Camels, because many people told us that it is a nice place that we should visit. We went there thinking that it is an interesting place to learn more about camels, but what we saw was not so good…

The centre has hundreds of camels, and while walking around we saw a group of men busy with 8 camels. It seemed like they were taking them for a walk, however, when we looked closer we noticed that they were treating the camels in a very abusive way. The men were yelling at the camels, trying to tie some of their legs together so they couldn’t run away, they were beating them with sticks or throwing rocks at them to force them to walk, and many of the camels had bleeding noses because of the ring/rope that is attached to their nose. When the men and camels finally succeeded to walk 20 metres, they decided to brutally force one camel on the ground, by using ropes, sticks and stones. We didn’t understand why they did that, and we didn’t want to know anymore either. We were shocked and disgusted. We went back to the entrance to find someone who could explain us what the exact purpose of this so-called ‘research centre’ was. One man explained briefly that there is small research centre, but that the main goal is to breed, tame and sell camels. When we mentioned the animal abuse we just witnessed, he became angry and walked away – which said enough for us… 

Rajasthan is one of the two provinces in India where camels are native to. Camels have been domesticated for decades, even the Border Security Forces still use camels nowadays for transportation and patrolling. Many families own camels and use them for daily and work-related tasks, which we understand as camels are suited to the dry desert climate and can go for long periods without drinking water, and they are fairly cheap in subsistence. However, the way they are tamed and trained is very cruel and they suffer under great stress. Unfortunately, this story is not new to us, as it resembles what we heard during our visit to the Wildlife SOS elephant sanctuary (about which you can read here). 

 

Day 2 – temples, old city, and desert safari!

The second day in Bikaner we decided to explore the old city. We asked a tuktuk-driver to bring us to the Lakshminath Temple, but instead he brought us to the fortress where we had been the day before. It turned out this driver didn’t understand any English and he must only have thought ‘Oh tourists! They want to visit the fort, here you go’. After some discussion (which is difficult is you don’t speak the same language), the help of another tuktuk-driver who did speak English, a very bumpy ride, and another discussion about the money (the driver was thinking that we would pay him more because of the mistake and detour he made), we finally arrived at the temple.

The Lakshminath Temple is a Hindu temple built around 1526. When we entered the courtyard we felt unsure if we were allowed to walk around there, as there was a ritual going on whereby people were repeating chants and a big crowd was waiting in line for the small temple. However, someone told us that it would only take five more minutes, and asked us to sit and wait. After 5 minutes the crowd indeed started moving and people gestured us to follow them. We walked into the small temple, which was full with people right now! Several men were sitting on the floor and still singing the same chants we heard all the time. All the other people were giving offers to the Hindu god worshiped there, and in return for their offer they received a small gift, like a flower garland or some sweets. A man walked towards us, offering us some of his sweets. Stephan also offered some money, for which he received a flower garland in return. Although we didn’t understand everything, it was interesting to see the dedication of these people!

The sweets people receive in return for their offer

We knew that there was another temple next to Lakshminath, and the man who offered us his sweets walked with us to show it. The Bhandasar Jain Temple was under maintenance, but nevertheless it was way more beautiful than all the other temples we had visited so far! It was beautifully decorated, with many colours and engraved Gods and stories. And the best part of it: we were the only visitors! That has never happened before in India, so we loved to roam around the temple without bothering others and without being bothered ourselves as well.

We decided to walk back to our hotel through the old city. The old city has very narrow streets, and with the tuktuk’s, motors and people roaming around there it is quite a challenge to move around freely and safely. However, when we found the more quiet streets we thoroughly enjoyed walking there. The houses all look old and a bit run out as well, but when you look good you can see that the houses must have had much grandeur in the old days! Most houses are built in the typically ‘haveli’ style and contain much details. Also, the people we met on the way were super friendly and we felt very comfortable.

In the afternoon we had booked a desert safari. Our driver picked us up in a very old 4WD jeep, from which only the most essential parts needed for driving were present 😉 We felt comfortable though, and enjoyed the views from the back of the car. In a small village we picked up our guide, and we visited a family which still lives in a relatively traditional way. They had many children, even more goats and sheep, a camel, and a traditional house made from clay. We continued into the desert, which should by no means be compared to the Sahara or Sinai desert, as there are not as much sand dunes and it’s also not that big, but nevertheless it was very nice to drive around there!

We also visited a nomadic family, who live in tents and move from place to place depending on the availability of work. This family was currently living next to a field of mustard seeds which they were harvesting. We can’t imagine how life looks like for those people. Even though they are not far away from several villages, they live in a primitive way and don’t have easy access to proper facilities like education, healthcare and sanitation. 

When we continued, the driver asked us to drive the jeep as well, which was pretty cool! We drove toward their ‘camp’, where four Dutch girls just arrived as well – what a small world we live in 😉 We drank chai with them, where after we went back to Bikaner, while they would spent the night in the desert in two tents!

 

In the late evening we took our bags again and boarded the night train to Jaisalmer, about which we will tell you in our next blog!

Where to stay?

We stayed at a very nice hotel: Jaswant Bhawan. It is run by a friendly family, who will help you with everything that you need. They also helped us arrange the desert safari. Also, they serve very nice Indian food! The rooms are very clean, spacious, well-maintained, and there is a nice garden and small courtyards. The hotel is next to the relatively busy train station, and although you don’t hear much of the everyday hustle and bustle of taxi’s, buses and trains during the day, you will hear the trains horn in the night.

However, Bikaner has many nice hotels. If you have some more budget and would love to experience how an Indian royal family lives, consider staying at the above mentioned Lalgarh Palace Hotel or Laxmi Niwas Palace!

Love, Heleen & Stephan

 

 

Our weekend in Agra (incl. many pictures!)

Our weekend in Agra (incl. many pictures!)

Having spent two weeks in Delhi and Noida, it was time for us to escape the big city for a moment – hoping to find some rest in the slightly smaller city of Agra. We booked a train for Friday at 6am, and after a short trip of only 2 hours we arrived in Agra. We were curious about travelling by train in India, but the first experience was very good! For 750 rupees p.p. (bit more than 10 euros), we spent 2 hours in a relatively clean train, and we received a big bottle of water, cookies, tea, and a light breakfast.

Very casually travelling with your goat
Indians trying to board an already moving train which seemed overcrowded already!

When we arrived at Agra the tuktuk driver from the homestay we had booked beforehand was already waiting for us. It was a small drive to the guesthouse, but the differences between Delhi and Agra were immediately visible. First of all, it was colder in the morning! Secondly, it felt much smaller, as there are no big high ways in the city at all. Furthermore, we noticed that Agra is more agricultural. We saw less cars, but even more tractors, motors, rickshaws, horses and donkeys. Also, it seemed like Agra is the potato capital! We have seen dozens of tractors and trucks with potatoes. While driving outside of the city you will find many people working hard these days to harvest all the potatoes.

We slept in a homestay which is run by a very friendly family. After having checked-in and a bit of rest, our driver of that day was waiting for us. We arranged a driver because our destination for the afternoon – the elephant sanctuary – was a bit far. However, as we would be passing Akbar’s tomb on the way going there, he proposed to make a touristy stop there as well! And we did not regret that. Akbar’s tomb truly is a very beautiful place. The big entrance gate is one of the most beautiful we have seen so far. It’s made from red sandstone, beautifully decorated with white marble decorations, and four minarets towering into the sky. It was impressive, and that was only just the entrance gate! 😉 The place inside was very big and green, with a large field where deer are grazing. In the middle of that the actual mausoleum of Akbar is located.

The entrance gate to Akbar’s Tomb

Akbar – also known as Abu’l-Fath Jalal ud-din Muhammad Akbar– is said to have been one of the greatest Mughal emperors. During his rule, the Mughal empire tripled in size and wealth, and he established many political, social, cultural and economic institutions and laid the foundation for a multicultural empire. He died in 1605.

The entrance of his mausoleum is literally breath taking. Although the walls and ceilings are not in the best condition anymore, you can still see the beautiful coloured decorations. Can you imagine how this looked like when they just built it, it must have been extremely beautiful! The tomb of Akbar is located a bit deeper into the mausoleum, however this is not so special as there are no decorations there at all. Also, Akbar’s tomb is actually empty now, as it has been plundered by Hindu rebels in 1691. However, you still notice that Akbar has a very special meaning to the people. All men – including Stephan – have to bow for his tomb and some leave money as an offer.

Inside Akbar’s Tomb

After having wandered around Akbar’s Tomb, we continued our journey towards the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre of Wildlife SOS. Our blog of that visit can you read here.

When we arrived back in Agra we visited a nice rooftop terrace from which you have a view on the Taj Mahal. Not bad to have such a view while enjoying a nice cup of Masala Chai! 😉

The monkey also enjoys the view… and all the food guests were serving him.

The next morning, we were going to see the Taj Mahal from close-by. We arrived there at 6.45am, hoping that it would not be busy yet, but unfortunately we were not alone! Our patience was tested as it took very long before we could get in and we got a bit annoyed by that (tip for anyone who wants to visit the Taj: apparently it is not that busy during the week! So, avoid Saturdays and Sundays, but be there some other day early in the morning. On Fridays the Taj is closed though.), but after 45 minutes we were finally ‘free’ and walked towards the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal. You can see we were not alone 😉

The Taj Mahal truly is a beautiful building. It is very big, all built up from white marble, and has beautiful engravings. The gardens are well maintained and there is actually water in the pond (at other places the ponds were empty). You cannot enter the mausoleum with your shoes, so therefore you need to wear shoe covers. Inside the mausoleum you will find the tombs of both Shah Jahan and his most favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj Mahal is built. This part is very busy, so we must admit that we did not observe it very well. Though the beautifully decorated marble screen around the tombs definitely was the eye-catcher.

Fun fact: did you know that the dome of the Taj Mahal will soon be receiving a special mud-pack treatment? Although it still looks relatively white, apparently it slowly turns yellow and black by – not a big surprise – the severe air pollution India is suffering from. At this moment they are restoring the minarets.

After breakfast, we still had an extensive planning for that day. First we visited Agra Fort, which has been the main residence for the Mughal emperors until 1638 – when the Mughal capital was shifted to the Red Fort in Delhi. We liked Agra Fort much more than the Red Fort in Delhi though, as it is way better preserved and the gardens are well-maintained. The site is relatively big and it was a bit of a labyrinth for us while walking through it, but nevertheless it was beautiful and worth the visit!

Next we visited the ‘Baby Taj’, ‘Jewel Box’, or Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, which we would definitely recommend to visit! As the name says, this tomb is way smaller than the Taj Mahal, but we believe the engravings and decorations are much more extensive and beautiful. Also, it was not so busy when we were there, which was nice for a moment!

Afterwards, we visited a garden at the other side of the river from which we could also see the Taj Mahal. However, for that garden you have to pay (ofcourse, for tourist nothing free in India!), but if you take the small road next to that garden it will also lead you to the river with the same view (for free!). Although we came there to have a view on the Taj, our attention was mostly attracted by the ruins in the ground. We also saw some guys doing…. something. (We honestly don’t know. They were just sitting there.) One of the guys spoke a bit of English and explained us that those ruins are the foundations of the Black Taj Mahal. It is said that Shah Jahan (the man who built the white Taj) planned a mausoleum for himself in black marble across the Yamuna river, so that both a white and black Taj Mahal would be facing each other. However, he has not completed this black Taj as the Yamuna river flooded twice while building, and afterwards Shah Jahan was overthrown by his son Aurangzeb. Many people say that the story of the Black Taj is a myth though, so we are not sure if these foundations really belong to the Black Taj, but we like the story anyway!

Our final day in Agra we used to visit Fatehpur Sikri. This old city has been established bij Akbar – the one who’s beautiful tomb we visited the first day – and served as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1571 – 1585. The place was actually abandoned afterwards, due to a lack of water and because it was too close to a city with whom they were often at war. Right now, you can visit the palaces and pavilions (not free), and the big mosque (free) which is still in use! The palaces and pavilions were beautiful, however we have to admit that after visiting the Red Fort and Agra Fort it all started to look a bit similar… There were many buildings, all made of Red Sandstone and the gardens were also nice.

  

Personally, we liked the mosque the most. You can enter the mosque at all time and there is no entrance fee, but be aware of the scammers walking around! We were immediately approached by a very young boy (probably 12 years old) who provided a sari to Stephan to cover his legs, and then ordered us to follow him. “I am not a guide, I don’t ask for money, I work here.” He was very convincing, but a bit forcing as well. We decided to follow him though, and he did tell a lot of interesting things about the mosque. However, afterwards he brought us to the small marble-souvenir shop, which belonged to his family! He asked us to buy something from them, and we – not so good at saying no – of course bought something! :’) Well, nice souvenir though. We need to bring something for the family as well, right?


So, that was our weekend in Agra whereby we have seen all the big tourist spots. It was a bit too busy afterwards, but at least we have seen it all! As we are still in Delhi until May, maybe we can go back another time to spent a relaxed weekend at Agra, as it’s not that far away! But first, we will visit Rajasthan! Tomorrow evening we will take the night train to Bikaner, and from there we will continue to Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Pushkar & Jaipur. Very much looking forward to it as it’s said that Rajasthan is one of the most beautiful provinces of India. In our next blogs we will tell you if we think that’s true!

 

Love, Heleen & Stephan