India 30: Varanasi

Varanasi. Wow. What a wonderful place to visit as my final stop in India after 3 months travelling the country. I feel emotional even typing that. I had heard so much about Varanasi before I got there, people saying they loved it and people saying they really didn’t like it, but both parties insisting I had to go; that it is something you simply have to experience. And I couldn’t agree more – it is so cultural and spiritual and chaotic, so “India” – but I also happened to love it. I was surprised by how peaceful I found Varanasi amongst the chaos, and it is easily one of my favourite places in India.

What wasn’t so enjoyable for me was the journey there, although that also falls into a classic Indian experience and one that was sort of apt for my last journey across the country. First I had booked a night train from Agra to Varanasi, in 3rd class, which is a way to travel across India that I really enjoy and have slept relatively well on. But the morning of it was cancelled, due to the severe smog sweeping across from Delhi, so I had to book a last minute night bus for 1,400 rupees (£17) that didn’t depart until midnight. It was a bumpy journey where I didn’t get much sleep and then, at around 8am, the bus suddenly brakes and swerves and we crash into the truck in front of us that we were attempting to overtake, destroying the front right of the bus and smashing the window along the side.

Needless to say we couldn’t continue on the bus, so we – being me, a French guy called Ben and 3 Spanish people – got off and waited in the heat on the side of the highway for a local bus to come past, paying 65 rupees (80p) to get to Allehebad. On the bus we met two Indians – a father and son – who also wanted to get to Varanasi so we group up with them to order a cab from Allehebad to Varanasi, wanting to get their as quickly and smoothly as possible. Unfortunately there wasn’t room for our luggage as well so we had to squish in with our bags on top of us, we had to wait for a while for the cab to arrive as there was traffic, and, following some confusion, we still weren’t dropped off at our hostel. So we paid around double the cost of a bus at 250 rupees each (£3.25) and didn’t get much more convenience, with the whole journey costing me £38 while I still didn’t have a refund for my train ticket.

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But I was captivated by Varanasi as soon as we arrived. Walking along the market streets with Ben to our hostel, Stay Inn, near Assi Ghat, I fell into step easily amongst the familiar parts of a country I had spent so much time in; the uneven paving slabs, the smell of chai, the noise of street vendors, the colour of fruit stalls and saris and clothing shops, the lack of space, the heaving traffic. And it had character; something you can’t describe or define or seek to achieve, it just either does or it doesn’t.

Varanasi draws pilgrims from around the world to worship, meditate and bathe along the sacred river Ganges (Ganga). At dusk, poojas (pujas) – religious ceremonies – are performed at the numerous ghats, with the most popular being at Dasasvamedha Ghat (the main ghat)and at Mir Ghat, with a more peaceful one at Assi Ghat. So on my first evening in the city I took a walk at about 5pm from Assi Ghat near my hostel all the way to Dasavamedha Ghat, arriving just in time for the evening pooja.

Similar to the one I witnessed in Rishikesh, men dressed in robes perform a choreographed movement with a stacked plate that is alive with flames. With hundreds of people sat around the Ghat and hoards of boats filled with people lining the Ghat in the river, it was busy and energetic and colourful.

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It is really nice just to walk along the ghats, crossing from one to the next alongside the river and watching the hive of activity that goes on at each Ghat as well as the boats out on the river. Depending on the time of day you visit, you catch locals bathing in the river, washing their clothes in the river, pouring tea and sitting to watch the river, boat touts hassling passers by to go on a boat trip, homeless people begging for money and/or rice, vendors selling drinks and snacks, and locals surrounding the funeral ceremony at the burning ghats.

This is one of the most famous things about Varanasi – Hindus come from all over to have a dead body cremated at the ghats, for the public to see, and for the body to then be put into the sacred River Ganga. My first experience of the burning ghats was my very first morning in Varanasi when I went on a sunrise boat trip along the river Ganges. Paying 300 rupees (£3.75) each for two hours, Ben and I went with Babu from our hostel on a rowing boat from Assi Ghat, all the way to Manikarni Ghat and back.

Starting while it was still dark, we saw the beginnings of the day and absorbed the stillness before all the activity began. The sun rise was slightly lost in the clouds but once it was up it was big and bright, and absolutely gorgeous as it reflected on the water. Watching other boats nearby and in the distance – with locals travelling to the island across the way and other travellers snapping photographs – was absolutely beautiful.

Many boats full of tourists passed us by, as well as smaller boats with vendors selling flowers and tea lights as part of pooja worship. Babu also let me have a go at rowing the boat, but it was harder than it looks and, even after getting in th swing of it a bit, we didn’t make it very far (or in the right direction) under my control.

Babu told us about the different ghats and temples as we passed and, once we approached Manikarni Ghat, we sat still in the boat, a little bit away from the Ghat, to watch the burning ghats. It’s strange that I found the whole experience of the burning ghats – and the hive of activity along the river – peaceful, but there is something so spiritual and spectacular about Varanasi and the river Ganges that I felt peaceful.

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So much so that I returned to Manikarni Ghat the following day to absorb more of this Hindu ceremony. I sat and watched for about an hour, during which I had two local men approach me to tell me more about the ceremony I was witnessing. Apparently approximately 150 bodies PER DAY are burned at the ghats of Varanasi, their bodies being cremated before being put into the river Ganges as then their souls will go straight to heaven. The exceptions for cremation are pregnant women, children under 10, cows, death by small pox and death by leprosy. Only men were present – apparently women are not allowed as they cry, or in the past they have thrown themselves onto the burning body or into the river, all of which means their souls won’t be pure.

 

The bodies arrive tied onto a “bed” made of wood and covered in an array of colourful silk, apparently given by members of the family. I watched as around 8 bodies were brought over to the Ghat by boat and then carried up the steps by a group of men to be burnt. The burning is done using sacred fire from inside the temple and takes around 3 hours, before the bodies are then put into the sacred river Ganga. I was told that only the pelvis of the woman – sacred due to child bearing – and the torso of the men – sacred because of his strength and labour – are thrown into the river. Hindus come to Varanasi from afar to have a dead body be cremated and “buried” in the river in this way.

It is forbidden to take photography of the burning ghats and if you do you can receive a fine. Apparently that morning a Korean had taken a photo to the have the family lunge at him and smash his camera. I don’t know if that’s true or not but, knowing how seriously Hindus take their religious processes and ceremonies, I wouldn’t be surprised. On my boat trip I had taken a photo from afar before getting closer and being informed by Babu that it was forbidden; I would never want to offend or disrespect a religion, yet it’s hard to convey the beauty I saw while witnessing this ceremony.

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The colour, the smoke, the organised chaos, the people involved, the brown stone temples behind, the river running parallel. I understand why people find it morbid, but that’s a very British or western perspective; that death is morbid and should be covered up, for no one to see. We almost pretend death doesn’t exist and do not wish to therefore witness the details or the process. And it did very much feel like a process, but a spiritual and fascinating one. I was captivated.

Aside from the ghats I also, of course, spent my time eating. This time more than ever, knowing it was my final couple of days in India and that I therefore had to eat EVERYTHING before I left. During these days I ate idly with coconut chutney from a stall, an idly fry (broken up pieces of idly cooked on a griddle with mushed paneer, peas, onion and tomato) at a hole-in-the-wall joint, paneer spring roll (amazing) and Gobi Manchurian (one of my all time faves) at Rijit’s rooftop, sev puri and aloo tikka at a street stall, sweet curd from a small shop and Veg Shahi Kurma (with extra spice) at Shiva Cafe & German Bakery.

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I also consumed a ridiculous number of cups of chai at the best chai stall I have ever been to after 3 months in India. Amazing. He also did a very decent cup of coffee, foam-topped and everything

I also spent quite a bit of time wandering around the narrow, winding and insanely busy streets of the city, which are especially busy the closer you get to the Golden Temple. Imagine one of the narrowest streets that you can, filled with shops and outlets and vendors, with cyclists, motorists (motorbikes), locals, tourists and vendors all trying to navigate and occupy the space in between. Every 5 seconds I would go from being “this is so chaotically colourful, I love India” to “for goodness sakes can you get out of my way or move a bit faster, I hate India”. Negotiating the number of vendors trying to draw you into their shop is another fun game, one even chasing me down the street, as though I had dropped something, to then beckon me into his silk shop.

As with a lot of places in India, the poverty is heartbreaking to witness, and I felt it stronger than ever in Varanasi. I’m unsure if the situation is worse here than other parts of India or if I just noticed it more, but it wasn’t just in the backed streets or a few areas; it was EVERYWHERE. Beggars and homeless people were in the back streets, the main streets, the market streets, the ghats, the temples and the shop fronts. I noticed a line of poor, elderly Indians sat on the floor by the side of the market with tin plates in front of them that wealthier Indians were pouring grains of rice into. So I found a nearby shop outlet and purchased 2.5kg of rice, spread into separate plastic bags, and distributed it as best as I could amongst the poor. It wasn’t much – nor nearly as much as I could have given – and you never want it to become more about your giving than their receiving, but I found the whole thing very emotional.

I spent my last evening sat at Assi Ghat from 4pm onwards, when the temperature cools and locals emerge and it feels like complete, total, unapologetic India; there are chai men, bel puri vendors, cows, boat touts, boats, locals, beggars, and so much colour and life.

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I have absolutely loved Varanasi and feel sad to be leaving, and I feel emotional about leaving India itself after 3 crazy, overwhelming and wonderful months, but I also feel ready to explore another country. Nepal, here we come…

LS

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India 29: Agra (Taj Mahal)

I spent very little time in Agra, partly out of choice as I have heard by many other travellers that there isn’t too much worth seeing except the Taj Mahal, but also because my train from Amritsar arrived 5 hours late. It left on time at 11:45pm but, because of the serious smog surrounding Delhi, it was almost impossible for the driver to see the signals, so I arrived into Agra Cantt at 4:30pm instead of 11:30am.

I caught a Tuk Tuk from the station to my hostel – Moustache – for 150 rupees (£2) and after taking a rest (I know, I know, I had just come off a train where I was doing nothing, but travel is seriously exhausting) before heading next door to Bamboo Cafe for tomato and onion fried rice with veg curry and honey lemon ginger tea for 175 rupees (£2.25). I’m not ashamed to admit that I went back to the hostel, had a shower and went to bed before 9pm so I could rest properly before getting up bright and early to head to the Taj Mahal.

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India’s most famous building, the Taj Mahal, was built in the 1600s in honour of the emperor’s deceased wife, a promise he made to her to show the world how much they loved one another. To preserve the sheer white exterior that it is infamous for, polluting vehicles are not permitted within 2km of the building. This means you either have to walk the road leading up to the entrance of you can take a cycle rickshaw, but the entrance was only 20 minutes from my hostel at a walking pace so I woke at 5:15am, left at 5:45am, arrived at the booking office at 5:50am, purchased my 1,000 rupee foreigner ticket (£12.50) and collected my fee water bottle and show covers before walking the final 15 minutes. I arrived at around 6:20am, 10 minutes before the gates opened, and made it through the entrance at around 6:40am.

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I’m also not ashamed to admit that as soon as I saw even the brick Gateway to the Taj I felt emotions bubble up inside me, spilling over into tears that pushed their way out of my eyes as I first sighted the tip of the Taj Mahal in the distance beyond the Gateway. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I found so powerful – the buildup, the expectation, the romance, the grandeur, or the reality of finally being there and seeing it after two and a half months in India – but it was wonderfully overwhelming.

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Then you are hit with the touts just outside the Gateway and it kind of pulls you out of your reverie a little bit, but then you are walking through the Gateway and seeing the misty covered Taj in the distance.

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Because of the smog issue, it was much hazier than normal at sunrise, especially from a distance, so I passed by the hoards of tourists snapping selfies from afar and made my way straight to the Taj Mahal to wander around the base and take it in up close. From the sides I could see the sun rising up from behind, illuminating the Taj in mystical wonder.

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It was actually really wonderful to just walk around on my own at my own pace, somehow barely even noticing the other people around me, as the rising sun cast the Taj in various different shades and hues as it slowly made its way higher into the sky.

As more and more tourists made their way to the Taj I began to move away, finding a spot on a bench halfway between the Gateway and the Taj to just sit and look up at it. With the sun risen and the blue sky above, it really resembled the pure white spectacle it is known as. For me, it was just as magical as I had hoped.

 

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I wish I could say I then made the most of the rest of my time in Agra by visiting the Fort or Mehetab Bagh or heading to Fatehpur Sikri, but all of these things would cost and demand for me to go via Tuk Tuk or public transport, which would also end up costing me quite a bit on my own, and to be honest I just didn’t have the energy or desire in me. I walked back via the local narrow streets towards the hostel, passing by run-down homes and heaps of litter in the streets but heaps of smiling faces.

I did also wander back down towards the Taj in the afternoon and pay 100 rupees (£1.35) to enter the Taj Nature Walk, which offered views of the Taj Mahal and was a peaceful break from the noisy and hassle-ridden city roads, but was also apparently a popular spot for young, smooching Indian couples.

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With the stress over my booked night train from Agra to Varanasi being cancelled that morning and therefore having to book a last-minute sleeper bus, I decided to spend the rest of the day updating my blog and eating. I had breakfast/lunch at a cafe next door, being delighted to find a Masala Dosa (South Indian food) that was surprisingly tasty but then later having some very chewy, salty “Gobi” manchurian, that just tasted like old, stiff batter. The problem is, when I have bad food I then have a desire to make up for it by eating something else, and then something else, until my taste buds are satisfied, but this very rarely happens.

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So I also the had street “potato chaat”, which was basically fried potato with salt and spices and could have done with some ketchup if I’m honest, and then a pot of sugar free chocolate ice cream in an attempt to satisfy my sugar craving. Considering it was fatless and therefore tasteless it didn’t hit the spot at all and just made me want to continue on my quest for tastebud satisfaction, which may well carry on into the night(bus). See you on the other side (Varanasi).

LS

India 28: Amritsar

After 5 days in Dharamshala, where I slowed down and could breathe properly, it was a slight shock to the system to arrive in busy, noisy, heavily-polluted Amritsar after almost 7 hours on buses (having to change at Pathankot). I caught a rickshaw to my hostel – Jugaadus – and ordered takeaway food from Chawla’s, my cast now making it incredible painful for me to walk around, and opted for a classic Punjabi dish of half tandoori chicken on the bone. Amritsar consists of the old city – which is holy and therefore prohibits meat, alcohol and cigarettes – and the new city, which is far more liberal over these matters.

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I spent my first morning in Amritsar at the hospital, fortunately having a few to choose from and being lucky enough to be treated by the orthopaedic expert owner of Hargun Hospital. After seeing the state of my cast he agreed it needed to come off regardless and he would then assess what needed to be done to complete the healing of my ankle. It was quite daunting having the electric saw drill into my cast and so close to my skin, but I felt incredible having it taken off and I wanted to hug the doctor when he said I would only need to wear a bandage. It was tender and stiff to walk on – and he gave me calcium tablets, emergency painkillers and a gel to apply to it twice a day – but it felt incredible to walk freely again and felt so much easier to move.

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In the afternoon I headed out to Wagah border with a group from my hostel, something they organised for us with their in-house Tuk Tuk driver, Vicky. Every single day, at this border of India and Pakistan, there is a 2 hour ceremonial process of lowering the flags and changing the guards. Both sides take part in this ceremony that is almost a satirical competition of leg kicking and foot stomping as they march towards the gate at the border, the crowds cheering their country with unashamed patriarchy and rivalry.

The cheering, chanting, singing and shouting was passionate and real but with good humour, almost reminiscent of a football game complete with mascots. Vendors weave around the stands – which are basically steps that the audience sit on – selling crisps, drinks, ice cream, hats and flags. You can take vehicles up to 1km away and then walk the rest of the way, surrounded by an energetic crowd, to then show your passport at the entrance; there is a VIP section open to all foreigners. It was entirely absurd and surreal but definitely something worth seeing, although I doubt I would go again. It all felt a bit self-indulgent and self-inflated, although absolutely a cultural experience!

I decided to head to the Golden Temple during the middle of the day on my last day, as opposed to visiting in the morning of after sunset, as per the most popular tourist time. The Golden Temple is the holiest of Sikh sites and, like the one in Delhi, is open to all. You have to dress appropriately, which means shoulders and knees must be covered as well as your head when inside the temple; there are garments available to cover your head as you enter. Making my way inside and down to the holy water pool, where Sikhs come to bathe, I felt the power and spirituality of this place immediately.

Being on my own as a white female – especially on a Saturday when hoards of Indian tourists visit – I was a bit of a spectacle myself inside the complex and ended up agreeing to many selfies with excited locals, including holding the baby of an Indian lad for him to get a photo of us.

But I tried my best to blend in and do as they were doing as I wandered round, being swept along with the huge crowd as I made my way to the community kitchen for the free food they offer all day.

Apparently they feed up to 10,000 people a day, which wasn’t at all surprising once I was in the queue collecting my silver tray and bowl and once I was inside and sat on the mat on the floor in lines with everyone else. Volunteers walk in between the lines of people, scooping up ladles of food from inside the bucket they are carrying and plonking it into your tray in front of you.

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On the day I visited we had Dahl makhani, veg curry, chapati and rice pudding. It was a very humbling, communal and generous experience to be a part of.

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I then decided to enter Harmindar – the actual Golden Temple – which is in the centre of the lake, connected to the main land by a causeway. I continued the clockwise walk around the lake (which all pilgrims do) after eating at the community kitchen and then joined in the ridiculously long line from outside the entrance, along the causeway and into the temple.

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I realised two things too late; that I could have bypassed this half hour long queue as a tourist, and that having my flip flops inside my bag in case of emergency for my ankle would actually be forbidden and heavily offensive inside the temple itself. So, after queuing with all the Indian locals and tourists, with the sound of the 24 hour chanting and locals around me singing along enveloping me in a musical hug, I dipped out of the human pig-sty, gold-barriered queue at the last minute.

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I had heard lots of wonderful things about Punjabi food and was therefore especially excited to sample the local cuisine in Amritsar. Chicken was really popular, with butter chicken originating from Punjab and a few of us also sampling another favourite of highly-indulgent cream chicken. After the border tour a group of us went to a popular restaurant in the old city for some canteen-style, local vegetarian dishes; Sarson Da Saag, which is made with spinach but also with a lot of mustard seed and has far much more flavours than our interpretation of saag, and Makki Di Roti, which is a dense yet surprisingly tasty corn roti.

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One morning for breakfast a few of us wandered into the old city and to the popular Bhai Kulwat Singh Kulchian Wale for a famous local breakfast of Kulcha. Almost like a stuffed paratha, you can have it with paneer, aloo, Gobi, Pathi or all four, so we naturally went for the Four Mix Kulcha, served with a spicy onion salsa and chickpea makhani for only 75 rupees (just less than £1). The kulcha was topped with two lumps of butter, and it was absolutely delicious.

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I also finally got round to trying Jalebi, the deep-fried, syrup-soaked spiral sweet that you can buy from practically every street food place, from popular Gurdasram Jalebian Wale. Served to me warm it actually had far more taste and appeal than I had expected, but still like a heart attack in a bowl.

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Then, on my last evening just before I got a night train to Agra, a group of us went to Barrel’s Microbrewery inside a shopping mall to order a Triton (5lr) of Red Ale – to then later order yet another one – to wash down with our food.

Fried fish is another popular dish in Amritsar due to the number of rivers that run through so Michelle and I shared Amritsari fried cat fish and also had a main each, me doing what I do best by picking the most obscure dish to try and ordering the Brain Curry. Apparently it was mutton brain – which in India always means goat – and the mushy texture meant it was more like curried brain than big lumps of brain inside a curry sauce, and due to the texture it really needs a crispy roti or naan, but it was spicy and tasty and something else to add to my weird-foods list.

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Amritsar was a bit of a bazaar experience for me, feeling like so many varying things are shoved in together in this slightly mid-matched, eclectic mix than somehow works. If we’re talking about stand-outs, though, it would be the food and the people for me.

LS

India 27: Dharamshala

I had possibly one of the worst bus journeys of my life from Rishikesh to Dharamshala. My hostel insisted it would be comfortable for me, and after paying 950 rupees (£12) I expected it to be a fairly decent bus, but when I arrived at the depot at 4pm I discovered I would be taking a minibus for the 14 hour journey, through the middle of the night. With my knees squashed up against the seat in front of me and barely any recline in my own seat, I dozed on and off throughout the cold night, feeling disorientated and tired when we stopped for “dinner” at 11pm and arriving into Dharamshala less than well rested.

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Plus, the bus stops in Dharamshala but it is the town of McLeodganj, at 1768m, that draws visitors with its markets, cafes, restaurants, temples and street food, and I had opted to book accommodation in upper Dharamkot, which was a further 4km away from McLeodganj up in the mountains. So I had to pay around 350 rupees (£4.35) to be taken by taxi up the winding, Rocky Mountain roads with my ears popping on the way and then dropped off a couple of hundred feet from my hostel as it was impossible for vehicles to go any further – it is far to steep, rocky and crumbly, which was less than ideal for me to walk up with my leg in a cast.

So perhaps booking to stay at Bunker Hostel up in the mountains of Dharamkot wasn’t my most sensible choice for my mobility but it was also one of the best decisions I have made; having originally only booked 2 nights I ended up staying for 5, which was due to a combination of the wonderful peace of the mountains, the atmosphere of the hostel, the people I met while staying in the hostel, and the charm of McLeod.

So a large part of the reason I kept on extending my stay was because of what the hostel itself offered me, and that’s despite the limitations imposed on me due to its location. I felt I could breathe and relax here, and it was wonderful.

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So, after arriving at my hostel just after 6am, completely shattered, I was off out again at 6:30am to join a group of guys from my hostel that were heading into Dharamshala for the wonderful and rare opportunity to hear the Dalai Lama speak at a conference on Science, Religion and World Peace. 3,000 rupees (£37.50) for foreigners (only 250 rupees for Indians!) to attend a full day conference, including lunch, with various speakers exploring how we need to merge the ideas and attitudes of religion with those of science for a peaceful, war-free future, I knew his would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I couldn’t miss out on, despite feeling like death and not having yet showered.

It was pretty surreal to see the Dalai Lama in person and even more so to hear him speak and witness his personality; with a cheeky, mutely-esque laugh, he was personable and engaging.

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There were a few key messages within the conference that stood out for me:
The wondrous potentialities of science and technology, if not integrated with sanity, can result in a social, economic, nuclear or environmental catastrophe.
Science and religion in the wrong hands has created havoc.
Nothing exists independently.
Human beings created violence so it is our responsibility to reduce it.
Emotion combined with anger is dangerous, whereas emotion combined with compassion is a positive energy.
With a more compassionate mind, anger will reduce.

So that was how I spent my first day, with my evening – and pretty much every evening after that – being spent inside the tent style formation on the rooftop of the hostel, drinking, eating and smoking with other travellers.

Dharamshala has been home to the 14th Dalai Lama since he fled Tibet in 1959, with many other Tibetans following in his footsteps and India turning Dharamshala into a place of exile for a Tibetans. Because of this there is an enormous Tibetan influence on the food in Dharamshala; many Tibetan restaurants offer various soup, rice, noodle and thukpa dishes, a couple of street vendors offer the cold flour-based thick noodle type dish of Laping and you are never short of options for street food momos along the main bazaar roads, having a choice of veg, paneer and mutton.

One night a group of us went to eat at Tibetan kitchen, sharing several dishes including fried momos and thukpa fry, and it was quick and tasty.

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There are also a lot of cafes offering more westernised and nutritious superfoods including Common Ground Cafe – where I indulged in a thick fluffy pancake with fried eggs and fried potatoes with a white hot chocolate – Lhamo’s Croissant and a place I can’t remember where I had a beetroot, banana and seed smoothie bowl.

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Along with the Tibetan meals on offer you can also find typical North Indian food, including a lot of meat options, so I had a delicious Butter Chicken and Malai Kofta from Zostel.

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And other street food options, besides momos, includes samosas with chole, deep fried boiled eggs and fried chicken dishes.

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There are also many Indian pastry and western cake shops, but the ultimate sweet treat has to be the local Bhagsu Cake, first established in the nearby hill-side area of Bhagsu, which is basically like a millionaire shortbread but possibly even more of a buttery, crumbly base than what is available in the U.K.

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While I loved being in Dharamshala I also struggled emotionally as I watched people come back from trekking in the mountains or talking about their amazing experiences. You can climb up to a huge waterfall about an hour away, hike up to Triund for incredible views over the valley or even go on 3-5 day hikes to villages higher up in the mountains. I had to make do with a hobble-climb to Bhagsu Waterfall and merely exploring on foot in and around McLeodganj, but even that amount of walking around ended up causing the sole of my cast to crack and crumble away, putting more pressure on my heel and causing it to rub incredibly painfully against my foot.

Fed up and sore, I got an idea in my head about having it removed early and went on a pointless and emotional trip to a hospital that promised they could remove it to then discover their machine didn’t work. After having felt I had coped pretty well over the last 9 days, this was my difficult day.

What did help was the drop-in meditation sessions at nearby Tushita that were held every day (except Sunday’s) at 9:30am for an hour. I struggle with being still – physically and mentally – and I certainly found it a challenge, but I felt more able to accept the difficulties I encountered with it and my own “lacking” than I had previously, one of the hardest parts being dealing with the pins and needles in my injured foot. What I found interesting was noting the types of things that consumed my mind whilst I was trying to still it, with common thoughts and images of love, food and physical activity darting in and out of my mind.

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On another day I battled with whether or not to extend my time in Dharamshala, wondering what I wanted to stay for and if I was looking for something or someone to make me – or ask me – to stay. Needless to say I ended up staying for another 2 nights.

As well as enjoying wandering around the bazaar streets of McLeod and eating in various cafes, I also spent a couple of hours in the Tsuglagkhang Complex, which is home to the Dalai Lama. Inside is a Buddhist temple with gorgeous gold prayer wheels around the periphery, a book shop and the Tibetan Museum.

This was the most fascinating and moving for me, preferring museums that provide information and insight than those that present artefacts or artwork, and I learnt so much about the history of Tibet that I was relatively clueless about. I knew little about the invasion from China and their stripping of Tibetan culture, religion and freedom, and had only had some awareness of the self-immolation conducted by many locals in protest over the Chinese rule. Now a minority in their own country, it is absolutely devastating.

On my last day in Dharamshala I headed to Kangra Valley, 18km south of Dharamshala, with Matthew and Giles from my hostel. I’d taken a taxi with a really lovely and reasonably-priced cab driver, Anu, the day before so we used him for the hour journey from our hostel to Kangra Railway station, paying 800 rupees (£10) between us for the ride. Kangra is a small town known for its towering Fort but from here you can also take the toy train towards Joginder Nagar, weaving through some of northern India’s loveliest landscapes and climbing to almost 4,000ft.

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It cost us 15 rupees each to take the local train and we were lucky enough for the train not be be so packed that we couldn’t get window seats, although I spent most of the journey there sitting in the doorway and watching the train wind around the mountains, with local lads hanging out the other doorways and waving to me.

The entire train ride from Pathankot to Joginder Nagar goes through two tunnels, plunging you into pitch darkness, and also crosses 970 bridges. We only went as far as Bajinth, which was just over 2 hours away, but still had amazing views of the surrounding fields and mountains while we drank Tuborg beer and watched the world speed by.

At Bajinth we stopped at a local hole-in-the-wall joint for samosa with chole, aloo tikka, veggie burger and vadav with curd, delighting the owner so much that he asked for a photo with us. We then took the train back from Bajinth at 4pm, this time having the late-afternoon sun casting orange hues and shards of light over the landscape, before arriving back into Kangra at 6pm and hopping back into Anu’s cab for our return journey to our hostel.

A tiring trip but a fun day out for all the family, I spent my last evening in the hostel just like all others – eating and drinking and smoking with fellow travellers from all over the world – before leaving in the morning to head to Amritsar.

Having spent a full 5 days here, longer than I have anywhere else in India, I actually felt really sad to be leaving this peaceful, hospitable and colourful place.

LS

India 27: Rishikesh

So I changed my plans after injuring my leg and having the joy of it being in a cast for 3 weeks, choosing to take a “luxury” a/c bus from Delhi to Rishikesh for 820 rupees (£10), leaving Kashmiri Gate bus depot at 9am and arriving into Rishikesh main bus station at 3pm. Fortunately I had two seats to myself so I could keep my leg elevated the entire time, but unfortunately I then had to negotiate with rickshaw drivers at Rishikesh bus station as I was staying at Live Free Hostel in the nearby town of Tapovan. I think I did quite well to get it down from 250 rupees to 150 rupees but, still, I’m pretty sure typical tourist tax was added.

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Arriving at just before 4pm to lovely, friendly and helpful staff at Live Free Hostel, I checked into my room and sat on the terrace before having some free chai and then heading out for the evening tour. Rishikesh is surrounded by mountains and situated on the banks of the River Ganga. The sacred Ganga river originates in the mountains but passes through many pilgrimage destinations, with the Ganga (or the Ganges) being a religious icon in Hindu belief systems and the source of much spiritualism in India.

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We therefore headed down to Triveni Ghat – everyone else by rickshaw but me on the back of the hostel motorbike as I would struggle to walk along the narrow streets that were inaccessible to rickshaws) – as it is a popular spot for the sacred ritual of aarti at sundown.

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We arrived at around 5:30pm and took a seat on the steps leading down to the river where men were lined up in robes with tables in front of them. We watched, as we progressively became more and more surrounded by locals and tourists crowding on the steps, as they each circled their silver trays atop with fire in a choreographed movement of worship.

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There was chanting and music throughout, with some locals singing along and me swaying on the concrete step to the now-familiar beat of the chants. It was incredible how many people had come to watch and partake, and the flames and smoke from the ritual were beautiful against the night sky. Once the aarti had finished, local women gathered around the group of men playing music and chanting to dance freely together.

 

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Back at our hostel at around 7pm we then had a communal dinner in the hostel cafe, for free; something they offer every Tuesday night and was a lovely gesture as well as a great way to get everyone together. I extended my stay in Rishikesh, partly because I needed to rest but largely because of the kindness and generosity of the hostel; carrying my bags up the stairs for me, taking me to the bus stop on their motorbike on my last day as I would have to walk uphill with my bags to locate a rickshaw, plus daily free chai and cheap tours.

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I’m not great at being physically restricted, especially when one of my favourite things about travelling is being able to explore on foot and get around freely and independently. I also really love to hike, which is a draw in Rishikesh along with rafting down the River Ganga and all the yoga that is going on – not only could I not go on the hikes or do water sports, but it also seemed pointless to pay for a yoga class where I would be unable to do many of the postures due to the requirement of two functioning ankles. I did, however, do daily self-yoga in my hostel, conducting the few poses and stretches that don’t put a lot of pressure the ankles.

 

I did manage to hobble around the main town on a daily basis, passing the many cafes, shops and stalls along the way as I stumbled down the winding steps and out towards Laxman Jhula Bridge. A suspension bridge that connects Tapovan to the Ganga beach side of the river, it isn’t the easiest to cross with pedestrians, motorcyclists and monkeys all trying to navigate the narrow bouncy bridge, especially with the hoards of locals stopping to take photos and ask me for selfies.

It’s a beautiful bridge to cross, though, with the turquoise river below and the the bright orange temple opposite and the gorgeous mountains in the distance.

There is another, similar but bigger, bridge – Ram Jula – connecting both sides that is further out towards the main town of Rishikesh, so one morning I hobbled down towards it and sat along the side of the river to watch people cross this bridge, also painted in orange, white and green stripes in homage to the Indian flag.

Although it feels busier here and less able to relax, whereas I managed to find a spot alongside the River Ganga at the very first ghat on the left just after you have crossed Laxman Jhula Bridge. It’s a great spot to watch the late-afternoon sun as the locals come to bathe in the holy water and, more importantly, ask for photos with me – a western tourist.

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I was sat chatting to Pooja – an 18 year old Indian girl whom is from near Delhi but currently studying in Rishikesh to become a doctor – on two separate occasions, both days her having to become photographer for the locals wanting to snap a picture with me.

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Anyway, selfies aside it is a very peaceful spot and a great place for the two of us to sit and chat about our lives and her opinion on various aspects of the Indian “culture”; she hates the littering, especially in the Ganga River, and wishes they would ban spitting everywhere, plus she found it strange that locals were so keen to have photos with me as a complete stranger – “I think they’re crazy!” Studying to become a doctor as it was her late Grandad’s dream (“it’s my dream, too, but more his”), I found her fascinating to talk to.

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On my second afternoon with her she went and purchased Mehandi paint from the shop to decorate my left palm and inner arm, similar to henna but apparently different as it is used more for celebrations. A pleasant sensation and really moving to have it done by a local girl whom just wanted to share her talent and her culture with me.

The food in Rishikesh is a mixed bag of local canteens serving Thalis, parathas and South Indian dosas; street stalls selling classic Indian snacks such as samosas, pakoras, pain puri and chai; coffee shops and “German” bakeries enticing you with cakes and pastries; plus a number of westernised cafes, many with terrace views out over the River Ganga, selling Indian, Israeli, Italian and Tibetan food.

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I spent a good chunk of my first day at Shambala Cafe, writing my blog and reading my book while consuming a fruit salad with curd, milk coffee and a veg sizzler throughout the course of the day.

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On my second full day I enjoyed a thali at one of the local canteens down by the bridge and one morning had a delicious laccha paratha (basically plain butter paratha) and the canteen next door. I indulged in a blueberry crumble cake from Honey Nut cafe, had a vegan and gluten free energy ball from the local shop, a watermelon juice and latte at Little Buddha Cafe, plus a banana lassi and numerous cups of honey, ginger, lemon tea at my hostel’s cafe.

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It was also while sat in here that I watched the Indian vs New Zealand cricket match and had deep conversations about serious things such as religion, culture and, well, food (obviously) with Jon and Pete from Australia, whom always seemed to find me in exactly the same spot every single evening. Well, it’s not like I could get very far.

So, I somehow managed to enjoy my time in Rishikesh despite not being able to engage in many of the activities people come here for, although I am aware that relaxing, eating, reading and writing may wear thin very soon, as will this damn cast (physically as well as emotionally). I’m hoping the change of scenery in Dharamshala will provide enough stimulation.

LS

India 25: Delhi

Despite being told by many travellers that they hated Delhi and Delhi was “too much” I was really looking forward to exploring it. As a city girl whom loved Mumbai and has generally found Indian cities to have more character and appeal than smaller towns, I was aware that Delhi would be intense and overwhelming but I was also excited to explore this chaotic capital city (as established under British rule 100 or so years ago). Unfortunately, as the case often seems to be for me, my time in Delhi didn’t exactly go as planned and I sadly didn’t get to see as much as I would have liked to. On my final full day in Delhi, where I had planned to explore Old Delhi and the village of Hauz Khas, I managed to spectacularly injure myself on the streets of Delhi.

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Walking towards Jama Masjid, I stepped out of the way of a Tuk Tuk that suddenly pulled out at the same time as being distracted by a homeless man sat on the ground asking for money that I didn’t notice a big pothole in the road; my right foot bent to the side into the pothole and I fell over on top of it, my ankle crushing under my weight and my entire body crashing into the very homeless man whom wanted money from me. Other than a cow completing the scene by trampling over me while on the floor, I’m not sure there could have been more of a classic Indian scenario; Tuk Tuk, beggar and a pothole.

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I knew straight away that it was more than a normal sprain by how agonising it was, needing to breathe through the pain before I could even begin to move and having lovely locals rush to see if I was ok and instruct me to sit down while the homeless man was still asking me for money. I perched inside the van I collapsed beside and the kind Indian driving it took me a short distance down the market to a street “doctor”. When I asked what they mean they replied with “you know, like sort of a doctor but not a proper doctor.” Great. All I knew was that I couldn’t walk on it and needed some sort of bandage to protect it for now and, never one to shy away from local experiences, I sat on the low platform in front of him as he started to vigorously and agonisingly massage my ankle and toes. A white British girl sat on the floor crying out “owwww” every second with tears falling down her cheeks as local Indian men stood around watching must have some comedy value in their somewhere. After he had finished his massage “treatment” he applied some black coloured cream and then a bandage, telling me it wasn’t fractured but to walk carefully.

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Some lovely locals then ordered an Ola (like Uber) for me to take me to my hostel, Joey’s Hostel near Laxmi Nagar (whom, by the way, were absolutely wonderful and kind and accommodating following my injury) where I was advised to get it checked out properly at a nearby hospital. A fellow guest at the hostel – Navanj from Chennai – was going as he had the flu so I hopped (literally) into a cycle rickshaw with him; he was also an absolute star and went way beyond what I would ever expect for me, saying “you’re a guest in my country, it’s the least I can do.” Amongst all of the emotional and physical upset, the amazing humanity I experienced warmed my heart. Anyway, at the private hospital I was examined by an Orthopaedic doctor whom told me it wasn’t broken but the sprain was unusual in that it happened under and not above my ankle and I had damaged the ligament; if I continued to walk unprotected then it would get worse and I could do permanent damage. So, 7,000 rupees (£90) later I have my leg in a plaster cast – from mid calf to my toes – and a shoe boot to wear for THREE weeks so that I am able to walk without doing damage. I was supposed to be on a 12 hour night train in sleeper class – in an upper bunk – that night to Amritsar but, feeling completely emotionally and physically exhausted and unable to handle that journey, I stayed an extra night in the hostel and lost the money I paid for the train, cancelling my accommodation in Amritsar and deciding to head to Rishikesh next instead. Delhi is just not somewhere you can spend time in whist being immobile.

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Fortunately I did have a day and a half in Delhi prior to the incident and I did get to explore, both on my own and as part of free tours with the hostel. On my first afternoon we went to visit the Stepwell that has apparently been used in some Bollywood films, and the stone structure was actually more aesthetically appealing than I expected.

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Afterwards we went to Gurudwara Bangladesh Sahib, a gorgeous Sikh temple with a large pool that reflects the temple when it is lit up at night. We removed our shoes and covered our heads before entering to watch locals sitting and listening to the reciting of the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) before wandering around the periphery of the pool.

Afterwards we headed to volunteer at the community kitchen in the temple where they make food that they offer to all visitors for free. We watched the process of making chapatis through the various stages before helping out with both cooking the chapatis over a charcoal grill and then sitting down around a bench to roll out the chapati dough. It’s actually a lot harder than it looks to achieve a chapati circle but after. A few attempts I was getting better, although at a fraction of the speed of the locals. We were then able to be served some of the food – chapati, dhal makhani, sambar – and sit on the floor to eat with the locals. It was a really humbling experience.

We finished off the evening by heading to the street food stalls just outside of the temple and gorging on mixed veg pakoda, with deep-fried deliciousness of Gobi, potato, spinach and lentil.

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The following day I headed out to explore New Delhi on my own, using the pre paid metro card I had already purchased to get around this huge city. You have to pay 150 rupees (£2) upfront with 50 of it being held back, 30 of which you get as a refund at the end, and you can then top up in 100/200 rupee increments depending on the top-up stand. The metro is relatively new, I believe being built for the housing of the 2010 commonwealth games, and it is a pretty clean, modern and efficient metro system. However it is still India so overcrowding is still imminent, with even the women’s-only carriages being full to the brim, especially on weekdays.

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Anyway, I started off by exploring the main bazaar of Paharganj as it is located just outside New Delhi Station and I had spent over an hour at this main railway station booking my ticket out of Delhi to Amritsar using the Foreign Tourist Quota (a wasted hour considering my later injury). I was surprised by how un-busy it was by India standards – maybe this was due to it being a Sunday – and I made my way through it relatively quickly and with only intermittent hassling.

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I then walked all the way from there to Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, an incredibly beautiful and enchanting Hindu Temple. Sadly you weren’t allowed phones or cameras inside so I didn’t get to picture the gorgeous architectural colours and shapes, nor the wonderful phrases and scripture dotted around, but it is absolutely worth visiting.

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I then weaved up towards Connaught Place and Connaught Circus – the commercial and tourist hub of Delhi with a huge Indian flag at its centre – picking up a Kalluda Lassi on my way.

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Connaught is filled with tourists locals and touts so there’s a mass of activity going on, and not wanting to be drawn into either shopping or tours I made my way through quickly, heading back down south to reach India Gate.

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A stone arch war memorial that commemorates 70,000 Indian soldiers whom dies in the First World War, also with names of those killed in the 1919 Afghan war and 1971 Indo-Pakistan war later inscribed, it was incredibly busy with Indian tourists. Set inside a huge circular park that sits within busy main roads and almost comprising of an enormous roundabout, I passed groups of Indian men playing cricket, families devouring picnics, vendors selling ice creams and gadgets, and even a group of young army lads conducting a march.

I made it back to the hostel in time for the daily tour at 3pm where we first set out to the Baha’i Lotus Temple. Baha’i is a religion established in Iran based around the idea of all castes, races and religions being united and establishing universal peace. The lack of any shrine, imagery or deity to worship inside this temple centred around meditation and prayer, it does feel like a calm space where anyone is welcome.

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The temple itself is striking – especially from a distance as the sun begins to set – and it was fascinating to witness so many people literally lining up around the periphery of the temple to get in. Oh and when we took a group photo outside at the end we were suddenly swarmed by Indian tourists also snapping a picture of us.

Afterwards we headed for more street food, devouring delicious and popular tandoori momos (chicken, paneer or veg) whilst perched on the central reservation in the middle of the road. There were also Egg roti rolls, the egg whipped on top of the chapati wrap so it was almost like a thin and crispy omelette within the chapati itself, and shawarma to devour, all of which were lip-smackingly good. Finally we made our way to a huge Hindu temple complex with various tall tower buildings that almost resembled a theme park or futuristic hotel. The exterior felt a bit OTT and not at all spiritual, yet once inside – where we took part in the ritual of lighting string inside a clay dish and circling it up towards the deities – you were surrounded by spirituality and faith.

It was an odd dichotomy, later being shown how to meditate using beads and chanting the Hare Rama/Hare Krishna script but then feeling like it was part of an institution that was very stern and strict as to your commitment.

Back at the hostel a few of us popped out to buy beers from the local hole-in-the-wall, me once again being gawped at for being the only woman there, to play card games and chat about Nepal with some guys I had met in my hostel, cementing my recent decision to head there for some trekking in the next couple of weeks. Plans that were then scuppered by my ankle injury the following day, which also made me miss out on seeing other parts of Delhi. Maybe I will return on my way back down towards Agra but, for now, it’s onto Rishikesh.

LS

India 24: Jaipur

Jaipur is the fifth location I have visited in Rajasthan, and the fourth of those to have a Fort to explore, so I think that impacted my experience of Jaipur, the sandy desert streets and scorching dry heat and busy streets perhaps taking their toll on my energy levels while the Rajasthani Forts and bazaars were losing some of their initial uniqueness and appeal. Plus I found Jaipur to lack the beauty and peace of Udaipur and Pushkar, the charm of Jaiselmer and the slightly more compact ease of Jodhpur. It is impossible to get around entirely on foot – something I aim for – and difficult even to get around via transport with speed, especially around the insanely busy Bazaar roads.

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The cultural highlight for me was the Amber Fort, despite me feeling somewhat forted-out by this point, and actually this is just outside of Jaipur in the town of Amber. I caught a local bus for 10 rupees (13p) from the roundabout near Hawa Mahal and walked the zig zag stepping stone pathway up to the gate entrance instead of paying 1,000 rupees (£12.50) to take the popular elephant rides.

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The impressive aspects of this Fort are its grandeur, its sandstone dusky pink hue in the afternoon sun, the shimmering lake at its base and the views offered across Amber and the mountains beyond from various points inside the palace.

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You have to pay a fee to enter Amber Fort but I had already paid 1,000 rupees (£12.50) for a combined ticket that included entry into Amber Fort, the Albert Hall Museum, Janta Manta, Hawa Mahal, Nahargarh Fort and a few other places. Once you enter the main gate of Amber Fort you reach an open, spacious courtyard surrounded by the various palace buildings, which you can enter and explore through the narrow, ascending tunnels to reach the different levels, rooms and terraces.

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The day I visited there also happened to be a film crew taking up a section of the Palace and hundreds of tourists all trying to squeeze through and weave round together. I don’t think I made as much of my time here as I could have done, or maybe would have liked to, but I went towards the end of the day and perhaps didn’t recognise this highlight of Jaipur while I was there.

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I had also spent my day having a coffee on the small balcony of Anokhi Cafe, paying 110 rupees (£1.37) for the best coffee I have had in India in 2 months, before taking my first cycle rickshaw through the wide main roads and being massively impressed by his strength and determination in the ridiculous heat that I tipped him 30 rupees for a 70 rupee ride (where I was already probably paying more then locals).

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He took me to Birla Mandir temple, a gorgeous white temple just to the side of the main road that was less busy than the other tourist attractions and had beautiful Marble picture carvings inside.

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From here I took a local bus for 10 rupees to just down the road from the Albert Hall Musuem, where I first gorged on street food; 3 pieces of oval bread that were toasted on a griddle with some oil and coriander, served on a silver tray with a thick chickpea curry and pickle on the side for a lip-smacking 30 rupees (38p).

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The Albert Hall Museum houses antiques, ornaments, weapons, coins and statues, and was put really my kind of Museum – I prefer information and knowledge around history rather than artefacts from the time, but the views down the busy main road of Jaipur were pretty cool.

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From here I walked down towards the “Pink City”, entering this old city through a pinky-hued sandstone archway and opting to wander down the narrow side streets lined with box-sized workshops and sweet vendors instead of the main roads, stopping to sample some deep fried crisps and milky sweets to keep my energy levels up. I eventually reached the main bazaar road, Tripolia Bazaar, where the streets are literally lined with box shaped shops that literally and physically spill out onto the pavements, leaving you having to choose between navigating the vendors, locals and goods of the walkway or navigating the traffic and offers of Tuk Tuk rides on the roads. During my attempt at avoiding the intensity on either side I ended up falling in step with a local whom started talking to me about the noise, eventually getting into a discussion about all things he felt were corrupt with India due to his sociology studies. He was particularly upset about the lack of clean drinking water available and the number of people whom die in hospitals due to lack of oxygen available. It can be hard as an outsider to feel you have a right to judge or condemn another culture but it was interesting to hear his thoughts and in a way learn more about the country.

I skipped City Palace, which incurs a separate cost to the ticket I had already paid for and I didn’t feel a draw to go in at the time, and instead headed into Hawa Mahal, which forms part of one of the walls of city palace that was built for the ladies of the harem so they could watch the processions below without being seen. Funnily enough, to me it almost had similarities to how we might depict a princess tower but in Indian style, made out of dusty pink sandstone with balconies and a podium, with zig-zag tunnels inside to reach the terraces and lookout points with intricate and detailed archways.

It was from here that I went to Amber Fort, which I rushed to make it back in time to then make it to Surya Mandir – or Monkey Temple – in time for sunset as I had heard it was unmissable. But for me the wonder of sunset and the dynamic, bright colours it can produce was lost by the pollution or dust from the desert as soon as it made its way towards the horizon.

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While it was interesting taking the zigzag stone pathway up to the top with hoards of locals taking the same route, passing by beggars on the way up, it was one of the only places where I actually didn’t feel that safe as a solo female. The number of men compared to women was startling, and the number that appeared to pay me special attention left me feeling unnerved so when local males did try to talk to me and laugh together – only teenagers, really – I didn’t feel all that comfortable.

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I also went to Nahargarh Fort for sunrise and had a similar experience with the sun getting lost along the horizon and creating a fuzzy hue rather than anything distinctive, until it reached a decent point in the sky above us, that is.

It was really cool to sit atop the Fort walls and watch the city below as the early morning breeze blew through my hair, especially before the sun had risen and the city was lit up below us, slowly coming to life with activity. And, in fairness, my experience was probably marred by having had absolutely no sleep after going clubbing with some guys from my hostel and then heading straight out to watch sunrise at the Fort.

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There was me, Julian from Germany, Anissa from Sweden, Sonia from Finland and Rowl, the owner of our hostel; at just after midnight we caught an uber to local nightclub Blackout, where very serious, stone-faced guards let us through after agreeing to 1,000 rupees each (£12.50) instead of the normal 3,000 for men and free for women fee. 4,900 of this went onto a bar tab card that we carried, so really it was only 20 rupees each to enter as long as we then spent 900 on alcohol – not a problem. I was delighted to find wine on the menu – and good wine at that – and pleasantly surprised by the club itself. There was the indoor room for sweaty, mad Indian dancing with the more wealthy and well-dressed of locals, there was an outdoor terrace where you could stand and drink and watch the city below, and a rooftop with low sofas and high tables for eating and drinking.

I was also surprised by how much fun I had, it not normally being the type of music I would dance to – with less words and more music it sounded like pop Indian music – but happily embracing the beat of the music and the energy of the dancing, doing my best to join in with the Indian dance moves and throw myself into the experience. Ok, so I completely suffered the next day and missed on going to the Raj Mandir cinema to see a Bollywood film, pretty much losing an entire day to a hangover, but it was a great night and another experience of India that I have yet to have and will never forget.

LS

India 23: Pushkar

I caught the 3pm bus from Jodhpur to Ajmer with Chelsea from my hostel, paying 150 rupees (£2) for the 5 hour journey through the scorching heat of the afternoon and getting stuck in roadwork traffic along the way. Once at Ajmer we caught a local bus to Pushkar, paying 16 rupees (20p) to chug round the winding mountain roads. Arriving into Pushkar just after 9pm we took the short walk to our hostel – Moustache – and after dumping our bags went out for something to eat at the rooftop Tibetan restaurant with a guy from our room.

Pushkar is an important Hindu pilgrimage town and as such certain things are banned; meat, fish, eggs, kissing and alcohol, although the latter is possible to find in a few restaurants within the town and one Wine Shop just on the edge of the camel mela. Pushkar lake – a man made square lake surrounded by marble – is believed to mark the spot where Brahma threw a lotus so many pilgrims bathe in this holy water; head down to the lake at any time of day and you will see endless colour as locals wash, receive blessings and gather with their families in and around the lake. I visited during the day at around 1pm when it was a hive of activity and there was colour everywhere.

But it is also good to visit early morning, before sunrise, when a sort of ceremony seems to take place, candles lit and sent floating in the lake.

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It is also a great place to come to for sunset. The first night I came I walked around the entire perimeter of the lake and watched as the colours of the buildings surrounding the lake changed as the sun was going down and then ended at sunset point to witness the orange glow lining the horizon as the sun made its final decent and the crescent moon was illuminated in the sky.

The second night I came I headed straight to sunset point just after 5pm and sat for over an hour as I was surrounded by activity; groups of locals playing drums, women selling bunches of grass for you to feed the camels, men offering to fix your sandals for a fee and children coming to sit with you to beg for money or food. The lake is simply stunning; peaceful but with an energy from the local activity, and a sight to behold at any time of day.

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I arrived into Pushkar on the evening of 22nd October, the day before the annual Camel Fair was due to start. However, despite starting on 23rd most of the activities weren’t commencing until 26th/27th so I was sadly going to miss a lot of the camel trading, races and Festival atmosphere that I had tried to time my trip for. However during my few days in Pushkar the town became progressively busier, with many Indian as well as foreign tourists navigating the busy Bazaar streets and temples.

The main, narrow bazaar roads are not accessible to Tuk Tuks, but that doesn’t stop them becoming crowded with pedestrians, motorbikes, cows and street vendors. I had menus from street cafes shoved in my face and a constant stream of “hello, yes?” as I was unable to walk past any shop without being hassled to go in; “looking is free. Well, I should hope so.

For the most part I avoided the insane number of clothing, jewellery, soap stone, textile and antique shops, opting more for the street food stalls and cafes to sample the local delights of sweet pancake (a chapati that is first deep dried and then soaked in syrup, it is insanely sweet with a weird chewy texture) and masala corn, but I did succumb on my final day and splurge 600 rupees (£7.50) on two, apparently sterling silver, rings.

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Aside from the main bazaar streets running along the north side of the lake and beyond to the camel ground, there are lovely little side streets behind that you can weave around with much more peace and quiet; not completely, it is India, but you stumble across local homes and corner shops, negotiate children coming home from school rather than market vendors, and are much more free to explore without interruption.

Anyway, the camel fair. While the activities didn’t commence until I left there was still a lot to see as you wander around. Heading down the main bazaar and past the Brahma Temple – which was also heaving with Indians, local and tourist, as a particularly holy shrine that enticed pilgrims throughout the year – you eventually make it to the large mela ground.

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Wandering around the desert pathways with sand beneath my feet, I passed by a fun fair that was being built, shacks selling camel rides, tent cafes and restaurants, stalls selling crafts and camel milk (which is rather sour and not particularly to my tastes) and a constant stream of dressed-up camels pulling carts of people behind them.

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One area was dedicated to camels for trading and buying, the owners seemingly una fraud to literally whip their camels into shape. I struggle with the treatment of the animals, knowing it’s a cultural thing but finding it hard to witness nonetheless.

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It is on this side of town that the Savitri Temple is located, up a steep hill that you can either climb or ascend via cable car. Known for views across the town and surrounding desert, the best time to visit being for sunrise and sunset, I headed up the hill early on my second morning.

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After watching the morning ceremony at the lake, I walked along to the base of the hill and then took the steep, tough climb to the top, stopping regularly for breathers and view-gazing. Quite a number of people were taking the steps up or down – locals and tourists – and despite being tough physically the air was clear and fresh at that time of the morning out in the desert.

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Whilst most tourists only pass through Ajmer to get to Pushkar, I took the local bus into Ajmer one afternoon just to check it out. Due to the Dargah of Kawasaki Mu’Inuddin Chishti, it has many Muslim visitors and pilgrims, differing to Pushkar in religion, people and culture; the bazaar roads leading up to the Dargah within this city are filled with roast chicken, the roads completely crammed and deafeningly noisy, and the familiar face of Tuk Tuks navigate the streets.

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The Dargah was literally heaving, even more so than the Brahma temple in Pushkar, and the main similarity between the two places were the number of Indian tourists whom asked for a selfie with me. The Dargah was more like a small village community, with courtyards and tombs and shops and a school, with families sitting eating together or individuals sleeping on the marble floor. The streets of Ajmer felt quite intense and overwhelming whereas the Dargah – whilst heaving and noisy – felt enchanting and spiritual.

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I definitely preferred Pushkar, though, and found the lake ridiculously peaceful and the streets full of characters. Popular with tourists for many years now, there are heaps of rooftop restaurants, western joints and Israeli street food stalls as opposed to local, Indian canteens, but as my stomach had felt dodgy during Jodhpur I decided to embrace the more continental dishes during my time here.

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I ate at Shivam with Julie – an older Australian women I met while having a coffee at Honey & Spice – and joyously tucked into their delicious aubergine lasagne for 190 rupees (£2.40). I had a disappointing banana crumble for 50 rupees (65p) and chocolate spiral bread for 50 rupees, both from street stalls and both reminding me not to even bother with European sweet items.

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I had dinner with Chelsea at Om Shiva, sitting in their garden on the sand and consuming two cocktails (Mojito and White Russian for 300 rupees – £3.75 – each) while we shared an olive, feta and pepper spicy pizza that was deliciously crispy and tomatoey for 240 rupees (£3). We then popped to Baba rooftop restaurant to sink two beers while looking out over the market streets below. And I tucked into a very tasty falafel, avocado, aubergine, garlic cheese and salad wrap from one of the many Israeli street stalls for 140 rupees (£1.70) as my late lunch before I left for Jaipur.

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Pushkar has been relaxing and enchanting, and it made a change to visit somewhere in Rajasthan that isn’t dominated by a Fort; let’s see what Jaipur has to offer.

LS

India 22: Jodhpur

Diwali celebrations were still continuing the day I travelled from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur, with many shops shut and the streets eerily quiet (by Indian standards, not at all quiet by British standards) as families spent time together in their homes, so I paid 280 rupees (£3.50) for a private AC bus that left at 1pm and arrived into Jodhpur at 6pm. After a fun 15 minutes of negotiating rickshaw prices, I jumped in one with a fellow traveller and paid 60 rupees (80p) to be driven to my accommodation, Stops Hostel, where I was paying 400 rupees (£5) a night for an AC dorm including breakfast. A large, sociable and comfortable hostel, I would highly recommend.

As Rajasthan’s second largest city, Jodhpur is bigger than Udaipur and Jaiselmer and is dominated by it’s Mehrangarh Fort. Joining up with 3 other females from my hostel we walked through the market streets and up the winding road to the Fort, where we paid 600 rupees (£8) each to be able to enter the Palace Museum. You can explore the periphery of the Fort and the canon-lined ramparts without paying, capturing the grandeur of the Fort and and the views of the city below without needing to enter the museum, but we chose to explore the centre of the Fort with an audio guide to aid us.

It’s still Diwali season so it was very busy with Indian tourists, most of whom weren’t ashamed to approach us while our audio guide headphones were on to poke us and ask for a selfie, and at times it was hard to hear the audio guide due to the constant din of loud chatter that seems inherent to any Indian family expedition. But it was really interesting to see inside the Palace walls – the mahogany coloured stone – and understand more about the lifestyle of the rich.

Where Jaiselmer is known as the Golden City, Jodhpur is known as the Blue City due to the crazy number of blue houses surrounding the north section of the Fort. There are various theories as to why these houses are painted blue. Some say it is to do with caste, where the Brahmin castes painted their houses blue to differentiate themselves. Others say they are painted blue to keep the houses cool in the summer months. The final theory is that a white limewash was applied to the outside in an attempt to keep out termites and when that didn’t work they added further chemicals that resulted in turning the white wash into a blue wash.

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Either way, from a high-up view the city doesn’t look as blue as you might expect, only every few home painted in this colour and from afar it having more of a general tint than being full-on blue. But as you wander around the streets and view the houses up close, at points all you can see is blue, and it definitely felt cooler when surrounded by only blue homes. It added character to the homes, and almost Indian-vintage feel, and it was a wonderful escape from the busy, noisy main roads.

Speaking of which, we then looped round into the narrow market streets, being caught in a rickshaw-jam that took a bunch of locals to help dissolve, and were very soon having our eardrums burst by the incessant honking of horns. We navigated the heaving, local Sadar Market, colour bursting from every stall, and made our way to the central point of the famous Clocktower. I took this as an opportunity to head into Sree Mishrilal for a Makhania lassi; I had already fallen in love with these thick saffron and cardamom lassis in Jaiselmer but apparently Mishrilal do the best, and at 35 rupees (45p) for a creamy, smooth and sweet treat I wasn’t disappointed. We then wandered over to the Stepwell before having a break at Om rooftop restaurant.

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All of this is housed in the old city inside the ruined city walls, but there is also parts of the new city beyond the walls that you can explore. On my second morning I went for a walk outside of the walls and up Chittar Hill to Umaid Bhawan Palace at the top.

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It consists of a Palace Museum, a hotel and a Government Museum, with various security points on your way up. It looks more beautiful the closer you get, but my favourite part was sitting beside Umaid Talab lake at the bottom of the hill, enjoying a complete isolation, peace and quiet that is extremely rare to find in India.

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Stops Hostel have 3 activities a day that you can take part in, most of which cost around 300 rupees (£3.75) and on my final evening they were hosting a brand new activity; a trip to nearby Salavas village to eat at a local home. As it was being trialled we only paid 200 rupees each (£2.50) to be driven the 30k by jeep and arrive at around 8pm to the home of a lovely Indian family.

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They are soon opening up a homestay, the buildings made of a mahogany clay made using camel dung (!) and showed us their local weaving business. We then sat on rugs they had weaved outside and ate chapati with curry, desert beans and a chutney pickle before heading back to our hostel in the jeep. It was really nice to escape the city for a bit and experience a village of Jodhpur, and as always to spend time with the locals.

I’ve enjoyed Jodhpur but it hasn’t been my favourite place in Rajasthan, so I’m looking forward to heading to Pushkar…

LS

India 21: Jaisalmer

If you are travelling from Udaipur to Jaisalmer, where your only option for public transport is currently via nightbus, be warned that you are unlikely to get much sleep on this speedy, bumpy journey; I spent most of the night airborne from my sleeper pod and muttering “shut the hell up” at the hoards of Indian monkey sprawled out on the aisle outside of my pod chattering away until 2am. It may have only cost 700 rupees (£8.50) for the 12 hour journey but arriving into Jaiselmer, the hottest place I have been so far, at 8am on only a few hours sleep felt like torture. I checked into my hostel – Golden Marigold for 120 rupees (£1.50) a night – to shower and change before heading out to explore the city.

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Jasialmer is known as the Golden City due to its sandstone walls, buildings and central, circular Fort that rises up over the surrounding Thar Desert. The cities of Rajasthan are known for their forts, but the standout thing about the one in Jaisalmer is that it houses it’s own little village inside. Heaving with coffee shops, food carts, market stalls, restaurants and tourist agencies, you stumble across the homes of locals living inside the Fort as you meander through the narrow, maze-like streets. It is easy to get lost, or distracted, as you weave inside this fascinating and gorgeous Fort.

Inside the Fort you will find many panoramic views of the surrounding city from various “Cannon Point” viewing decks, as well as on the rooftops of cafes and restaurants that line the perimeter of the Fort.

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A favourite spot of mine was at Kuku Cafe, both for a cold coffee during the day as a break from the busy, market-stall vibe of the Fort and surrounding streets, and for an ice-cold beer as you watch the sunset and later watch the city light up below you. The Palace Museum is supposed to offer the best rooftop views form inside the Fort but you have to pay 500 rupees (£6) to enter the museum and it just wasn’t something I fancied doing, so instead I hopped to various other rooftop points instead.

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It was after purchasing earrings for Diwali at a local shop that I headed to their rooftop cafe for views across the Fort and realised it was right adjacent to the Jain Temples. I didn’t actually go inside the Temples but instead wandered around the base and then managed to get eye-level views of the top of the temples at this cafe – the sandstone carved buildings are absolutely beautiful.

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There are also various viewpoints of the Fort from the rooftops of cafes, restaurants and hostels, plus a Sunset Viewpoint that takes in the Fort and surrounding city. I went here on my first evening in the city, jumping on the back of Hermant’s moped and zooming down the sandy roads to reach the viewpoint just before the sun was vanishing.

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Luckily, once the sun has set, the views are still pretty decent if you wait for darkness to envelop the town and the Fort to be lit up from below.

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I met Hermant at Shahi Palace Hotel when I was enquiring about their Camel Safari; as the manager he kindly invited me up to the rooftop to sample some typical Rajasthani food including Kadi Pakoda – a surprisingly sweet and sharp turmeric and yogurt curry with deep fried pakoda bites – and Kej Sangari, which are desert beans supposedly filled with sand (although I’m not sure these were) and were actually delicious.

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I also picked up a small box of various Indian sweets from one of the many sweet stalls that were lining the markets due to Diwali, and had two Makhania lassis for 40 rupees (53p) each from a popular sweet joint just opposite the Fort entrance as they were absolutely delicious; thick, sweet and creamy, flavoured with saffron and cardamom and topped with raisins and cashews, it was more like a dessert than a drink.

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Oh and if you are into lassis then I would recommend checking out Bhang Shop, a government-authorised cafe selling marijuana lassis, cookies and juices. The lassis will set you back 150 rupees (£2) at minimum for a medium strength sweet lassi served in a traditional and small clay cup, but you can pay up to 350 rupees (£4.75) for the strongest strength of marijuana with the fanciest lassi flavour (Makhania). I went twice; once in the middle of the day for the medium sweet lassi, which was delicious and hit me about an hour later when I was chatting to a fellow traveller over a coffee and literally had a mind blank right in the middle of my sentence, and once at the end of the night to finish the day on a medium coconut lassi, this one not hitting me quite as hard as I was wiser this time and made sure I ate beforehand.

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I spent an afternoon wandering around the streets surrounding the Fort, weaving around the narrow, market-lined alleys and stumbling across the various Havelis of Jaiselmer. A Haveli is a traditional townhouse or mansion in India built by the rich merchants of Jaislemer using yellow sandstone, all featuring different types of stunning architecture. The most popular and accessible are Nathumal-Ki Haveli and Pawton-Ki Haveli, the latter of which you enter through a stone archway into a central courtyard, with almost apartment-style buildings stretching up above you. They are absolutely stunning and rich in colour, almost looking like something that has been painted. You can tell they carry weight and status by the number of wealthy Indians having paid photo shoots carried out around the external balconies.

You can’t really head to Jaisalmer and not head into the desert on a camel safari. I mean, you can, but it was definitely a highlight of my trip. There are many – MANY – tour agencies to choose from and then a few options in terms of duration, which can make it overwhelming. You can never be really sure you are going to get as promised and not be swindled, but I would recommend going with a tripadvisor or lonely planet rated agency. I booked with Real Desert Man Safari, paying 1,500 rupees (£19) for an overnight stay, leaving at 2pm in the afternoon and arriving back at 10:30am the following day. On our way into the desert in jeeps we stopped off at a lake and at Kuldhara Village, a “ghost city” that was abandoned 400 years ago after the prime minister took a shining to a local girl there. A few buildings are in tact with some ruins surrounding it.

We arrived at our entry point to Thar Desert at around 3:30pm and jumped out of the jeeps to greet our camels, which were sitting patiently waiting for us. I’ve been on a camel before in the outback of Oz for a very short and speedy camel jaunt, but this would be my first proper ride through the desert.

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Topped with pillows and blankets I swung my leg over to sit atop my camel called Michael – ah, that classic camel name – with my backpack hung over the small wooden pole you could hold onto.

There were 13 of us on the trip and 14 camels, with 3 guides leading the camels in groups of 4 and 5. The hardest part was staying balanced as the camel stood up with you sat on top, and trying to keep the feeling in your thighs and buttocks as you sit straddled for 1.5 hours, bouncing up and down in time of the steps of the camel.

 

It was a pretty surreal experience, trotting through the open flat desert with a surprising amount of shrubbery atop a camel, with the soaring heat beating down on you even at 5pm, the sun casting camel shadows into the bright yellow sand below us. The most amazing part was coming up over a hill to the sand dunes above us as the afternoon sun began to fall behind the dunes.

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We arrived at our camping spot on the sand dunes at around 5:15pm where we set up on our beds raised from the sand while the guides made us chai and deep fried pakoda treats on the man-made fire. We watched the sun set over the rolling dunes before sitting down for our dinner of aloo and vegetable curry, chapati, Dahl and white rice.

I then got myself into bed, lying down as I stared up at the star-filled sky above us. Now I saw some pretty spectacular starry skies in the Atacama Desert in Chile and in the Salt Flats in Bolivia but this was something else; it was literally like the sky was covered in glitter. The air was so fresh and the sky so clear I fell asleep relatively early and slept pretty easily, waking up naturally as the sun began to rise, casting an orange glow along the horizon.

It was well worth spending a night in the desert, waking up at sunrise to watch our camels trot back down to us for our ride back. Michael looked pretty pleased to see me. We rode for 1 hour on the camels – a great way to start the day, plus it felt easier and quicker than on our way in – and then hopped back into our jeeps. I would highly recommend this experience.

On my first night in Jasialmer I also somehow ended up going to a resort somewhere out in the desert, having met some locals and foreigners at sunset point and jumping into a car together at around 9pm. We drove for about 40 minutes into the desert and stepped into a resort on the sand, where we were given free food by the manager and allowed to bring our own beers with us as we sat out under the star-lit sky listening to music. It was a bit bizarre and – with our photos being taken by a professional photographer – I think they liked having westerners there for their advertisement and status, but I was in the middle of the desert so i wasn’t complaining.

And, as I mentioned, it was Diwali while I was in Jaisalmer. Diwali is the Festival of Lights celebrated by Hindus, most notably in north India. Lanterns, fireworks and firecrackers – pieces of paper that are lit on fire on the street floor and then explode with a loud bang that makes you jump pit of your skin, and actually feel pretty dangerous yet are used freely and carelessly by local kids whom scatter them everywhere and are not always visible to the naked eye at night time – have become integral to Diwali celebrations and are hard to avoid during this period.

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Diwali, like Christmas, is celebrated with family, in homes, where daily poojas are conducted and food is consumed before celebrations commence. Therefore the streets themselves were not that busy in Jas, so I joined a group of 7 from my camel Safari who were going for food with their hostel (Moustache) at a newly-opened restaurant inside the Fort with a terrace that overlooked the city below. So we spent the evening on this rooftop, watching the lights and fireworks below, as we drank beer and ate free food.

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While 19th October was the official Diwali date, the following day was almost like the day of rest at the end of Diwali – perhaps like Boxing Day, where everyone stays inside and things shut down – so there was little to do in Jaisalmer, or probably anywhere in Rajasthan, so I used this as a travelling day, leaving the rich city of Jaisalmer after 3 full days and heading to Jodhpur.

LS