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Travelling in India in April and May

sunny 47 °C

One of the things I was looking forward to most about visiting India was travelling around Rajastan. Beautiful forts and palaces telling tales of India's rich and colourful past, home to the Rajputs, warrior clans from the sun, moon and fire, who have ruled this part of India for 1000 years.

Sadly, it was not to be. It was just too darn hot. 47 degrees in the desert is not ideal and after a dutch guy we met told us how he passed out on a camel, our minds were made up. Rajastan would have to wait for another time, perhaps for a shorter trip and a romantic splurge in some of its beautiful hotels.

Indian Summer - travelling in April, May and beyond

Travelling in India during the summer season is not a breezy experience, especially when India is experience on if its biggest heatwaves in decades. Delhi, Rajastan and the north are dry and seriously hot, whilst south India (Goa, Kerala and the like) become open air steam rooms with humidity at unbearable levels.

My advice for anyone wishing to travel in April or May is to spend as much time as possible in the Himalayan foothills and beyond where the altitude cools the air and the nature is stunning. From mid May onwards, when the rest of India prepares for the monsoons, the passes open to Ladakh and Leh to the far north. This area is supposed to be breathtaking, with snow capped mountains, cool mountain air and Buddhist monastries.

If the political situation allows, Kashmir in the northwest is also supposed to be beautiful. As the disputed territory between India and Pakistan (well, disputed by Pakistan as it falls within India) it really is essential to check up to date official advice. The UK foriegn office advised against travel there, so we didn't take the risk.

Another route worth thinking about, especially for those who like a good trek is Nepal, although check the visa situation, as currently, you are required to stay out of India for two months before re-entering, even if you have a multiple entry tourist visa. How incredible would it be to reach Everest's basecamp or beyond though? Now that would be a story for the grandkids!

Visas aside, we didn't have time to visit Nepal and having spent a fair bit of time in the hills, we decided to endure the heat through Agra, Varanasi and Kolkata, before catching a flight to the incredible Andaman islands off the east coast of India. We had run into a few travellers who told of an undeveloped tropical paradise, with white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters... cue the soundtrack from 'The Beach'.

Posted by Jules79 23:49 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Agra and the Taj Mahal

A glittering diamond in the rough

sunny 42 °C

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Like many before me, I came to Agra for one reason and one reason only - to see what is widely considered to be the most beautiful building in the world, the Taj Mahal.

I was not disappointed. It truly is an exquisite and breathtaking piece of architecture. Imposing yet delicate, its intricate carvings are meticulously carved into milky white marble, set against the picture perfect Indian blue sky. Perfect for budding photographers, although I'm not sure whether I took more photos of the Taj Mahal or had more photos taken of me!

What struck me most was the incredible contrast between this magnificent monument and the abject poverty and squalor within which it lies. Depending on which way you look at it, backpacking on a budget in India is both a curse and a blessing. Had I been staying at the Oberoi down the road, shuttled on my air conditioned bus to the Taj Mahal's very gates, I'm sure my impression of Agra would have been very different. However, I wasn't and we stayed right in the thick of it, and by the thick of it, I mean in the narrow streets lined by open sewers and brimming with rubbish, surrounded by beggers and touts - you've seen Slumdog Millionaire, I'm sure you get the picture. Whilst this wasn't new to me, it was magnified to a level I hadn't experienced until then, and made the Taj Mahal feel like a gleaming diamond in the rough.

Where we stayed:
Saniya Palace Hotel - 500 rs/night. Down a very smelly alleyway, this budget hotel isn't anything towrite home about but it has great views of the Taj Mahal from the roof top restaurant. Perfect for watching the sun go down over a cold beer.

Where to eat:
Agra is not the nicest of places to go wondering around in, especially after dark. The maze of streets where the budget accomodation is unamed and the touts are in frenetic competition to you take you round the block a few times. Having said that, the Taj Cafe isa stone's throw away frommost of the budget hotel and it's a real gem. Amazing value for money, this family run place offers delicious north Indian classics and a pretty special Thali.

When to see the Taj Mahal:
Early! Get up at the crack of dawn (5ish) to avoid the crowds and heat. Many tourists visit the Taj on a day trip from Delhi and get in around 9am. Sunset is also spectacular and moonlight tours can also be organised. Entrance fee 750 rs for non Indian tourists.

And so the story goes:
Created by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631 as a shrine to second favourite wife who died giving birth to their 14th child, the Taj Mahal was completed in 1653. Soon after he was overthrown and imprisoned by his son and had to spend his final years gazing at his beloved monument from his cell in Agra fort!

What elso to do in Agra:
Visit the Agra fort and the Baby Taj.

Escape the heat and squalor by paying to use a swimming pool for the afternoon. Especially in summer it will make your trip much more bearable - We went to the hotel Amar - for 300rs, we got to hang out by the pool for the afternoon and even use the slide!

Even if your budget doesn't allow you to stay there, treat yourself to a gin and tonic at the Oberoi, often cited as the finest hotel in India. just try not to get too jealous of the guests sunning themselves by the magnificent pool.

Posted by Jules79 23:35 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Rishikesh

The power of Omm

sunny 38 °C

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Perched on the banks of the river Ganga, ‎still fresh from it's glacial origins, Rishikesh has been famous for yoga since the Beatles visited an ‎Ashram here in the 60s. I've tried quite a few yoga classes back home and have never really been ‎able to get into it but the classes we tried here were amazing. Whether it's the teaching, the setting, or ‎if we just got lucky, I'm note sure but I'll definitely be buying a yoga mat when I return.‎

Rishikesh isn't just about yoga though: it's a popular place to try rafting and an important pilgrimage for ‎many Hindus for whom the Ganga river has an important spiritual significance. Sunset is a magical time ‎here, when you can watch worshippers set burning wildflowers adrift down the Ganga amidst ‎traditional chanting and bell-clanging.‎

Oh, and if you're a westerner. be prepared to have your photo taken, a lot! Since we've been here we have had literally dozens of Indian families request a photo with us, a car slow down to take video footage of us, and another car stop so that the Indian ladies inside could shake our hands! A lovely reminder that I stick out like a big, pink. yellow haired thumb.

Where we stayed: [/b]
Swiss Bhandari Cottage - 250rs/night. Perched high up on the hill, a good twenty ‎minute walk from town, this is a great budget option. The staff may be mono syllabic and sure, it's a ‎walk to the action but with a cool breeze and wide verandas is a perfect spot to chill out and get away ‎from it all - and it's dirt cheap. ‎

Where to eat:
There are plenty of places to choose from. Nearly every restaurant here has a 'German ‎bakery' near identical menus offering a combination of Indian and western fare. The Little Buddha ‎Cafe has a roof terrace overlooking the Ganga. The food's hit and miss but it's worth it for ambience ‎and location alone.‎

What to do:
There are literally dozens of yoga centres here, from beginner drop-in classes, to teacher ‎training courses and month long retreats at one of the many Ashrams. Our favourite was actually the ‎one organised at Swiss Bhandari cottage - a combination of Hatha and Ashtanga yoga, the class lasts an ‎hour and a half.Reiki and Ayurverdic massage are also available and rafting is hugely popular.‎

Posted by Jules79 03:58 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Food, Glorious Food

Nisha's North Indian Vegetarian Cooking School, Mcleod Ganj, India

all seasons in one day 24 °C

Nisha's cookery school, Mcleod Ganj, India

Nisha's cookery school, Mcleod Ganj, India

One of the favourite things I've done in India so far is attend the lovely Nisha's cooking school in ‎Mcleod Ganj. The course runs for six hours from 3-6pm over two days and you get to eat all the ‎yummy food that Nisha prepares for dinner.‎

At first I was a little disappointed as I was looking forward to rolling my sleeves up and my own cooking ‎station only to find that the class was more of a demonstration and lecture by Nisha. However, this ‎was short lived as Nisha is a skilled teacher as well as cook and we learned so much: from how to ‎make malay koftas to dahl, palak paneer to chapatis, we were taught 8 dishes in all and I can't wait to ‎cook them for friends at home. Here's one of the simpler recipes:‎

Aloo Ghobi (Potatoes and Cauliflower in curry sauce)‎

Ingredients (serves 5-6):‎

• ‎1kg cauliflower‎
• ‎250g potatoes
• ‎2 heaped tsp chopped ginger‎
• ‎2 heaped tsp chopped garlic‎
• ‎4 tbsp vegetable oil‎
• ‎1/2 tsp cumin seeds‎
• ‎1/4 tsp turmeric powder‎
• ‎1 tsp salt‎
• ‎1/2 tsp garam masala‎
• ‎1 glass water‎
• fresh chopped coriander to garnish

Cooking Instructions:‎

• Chop the potato and cauliflower into bitesized pieces
• Heat the oil in a pan
• sprinkle the cumin into the hot oil and when it starts to spit add the garlic and ginger and cook ‎for 1 min
• Add the veg and cook for 1 min
• Add the remaining spices, stir well and cook for a further minute
• Add the water and stir
• Cover and cook for 20 mins

Try it with aubergine, peas, cabbage, carrots or mushrooms or even tofu instead of potato and ‎cauliflower

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Posted by Jules79 03:34 Archived in India Tagged food Comments (0)

Dharamsala, India

Mcleod Ganj

all seasons in one day 24 °C

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Our next stop was McLeod Ganj near Dharamsala,the headquarters of the Tibetan government in ‎exile and the official residence of the Dalai Lama. Home to a large Tibetan community, there is plenty ‎to do here such as trekking, cookery courses, volunteering and learning about the plight of Tibet and ‎its refugees. ‎

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I am somewhat ashamed to admit that before coming here, my knowledge about Tibet was limited. ‎Nestled in the magical heights of of the Himalayan 'snow country', Tibet has an incredibly rich heritage ‎and culture centring on a deep Buddhist philosophy. Since China 'liberated' Tibet in 1959, one can only ‎describe China's actions as tantamount to cultural and religious genocide. Not only have countless ‎Tibetans been tortured and killed, China's primary goal seems to have been to totally erase every ‎element of Tibetan culture. I won't bang on about it now but if anyone is interested in learning more, ‎visit the official Tibetan government in exile's website at: www.tibet.net There are also many ‎organisations out there dedicated to helping the people of Tibet, including the Tibet Earthquake Relief ‎Fund www.yushuearthquakerelief.org or www.tibetanvillageproject.org/yer.html (reported as the ‎Chinese earthquake in the media but in former Tibet). ‎

In light of the above, Dharamsala offers a very different cultural experience to the rest of India and it ‎has been both fascinating and emotional to learn about the plight of the Tibetans. ‎

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Where we stayed:
Akash Guesthouse - run by Fyaz and his German wife, it's a great place. Friendly ‎staff and a balcony overlooking the Himalayan foothills - what more can you ask for for 800 ‎rupees/night

Where to eat:
Eat while learning at Nisha's Cooking School - six hours over two days, and you get to eat ‎it all for dinner! There are also several good Tibetan cooking schools and plenty of good Indian and ‎Tibetan restaurants

Things to do in Dharamsala:

  • Walk to nearby Bagsu and Daramkot or join an organised trek
  • Immerse ‎yourself in Tibetan culture and help a good cause by volunteering,
  • Listen to Tibetan refugees and ex ‎political prisoners tell their stories and watch documentaries at one of the many *evening organised by ‎Tibetan groups (we payed 100rs and were given more delicious savoury and chocolate momos than we ‎could eat).
  • Attend Buddhist philososphy, meditation or yoga classes, visit the temple and Tibetan ‎museum ‎

Posted by Jules79 03:21 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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