India

INDIA 2013-2014

BORDER NEPAL to JAIPUR

“Namaste India”. After the bombing at the border it was dark before we could leave Nepal. Welcome to the Heartland of India, Utter Pradesh. Overlanding never goes to plan. Due to the bombing in Mahendarar and lots of snow in the northern Indian mountains we decided to work our way to Fatehpur Sikri enroute to Rajasthan. Our first and second night in India were at local petrol stations in the towns of Khatima and Dibay. Driving the last hour in the dark was a case of cat and mouse with other road users, which included Rickshaws, bikes, cows, motorbikes, ox and cart, pedestrians, trucks and cars all with or without lights. Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of India, is known for its Heritage, Culture and bounties of Nature. It is home to some of the greatest monuments in the world. Area wise Uttar Pradesh is the fourth largest State of India. In sheer magnitude it is half of the area of France, three times of Portugal, four times of Ireland, seven times of Switzerland, ten times of Belgium and a little bigger than England. Population, 177 million people. No doubt the star attraction here is the Taj Mahal. Our timing was wrong and arriving on a Friday means the Taj Mahal is closed (only open for prayer). Not to worry we will be back in this area in the months to come.

We decided to drive to Fatehpur Sikri perched atop a rocky ridge 37 km west of Agra. Fatehpur Sikri is built in red sandstone, and is a beautiful blend of Hindu and Islamic architectural elements. The sandstone is richly ornamented with carving and fretwork. This magnificent fortified ancient city requires a visit. By now we learned that Bush Camping is not easy in India. (Or at least in Utter Prades with a population of 177 million.)

So, carparks or next to a guesthouse was the best we could hope for. Jaipur the gateway to Rajasthan, is the capital and largest city of the Indian state of Rajasthan in Northern India. A few highlights here. The City Palace situated in the heart of the old City occupies about one seventh of the old city area. The palace is a blend of Rajput and Mughal architecture; it houses a Seven storied Chandra Mahal in the centre, which affords a fine view of the gardens and the city. Hawa Mahal is also known as Palace of Wind or Palace of Breeze. The unique five-story structure with 953 small windows called harokhas decorated with intricate lattice work, is a fine piece of Rajput architecture, built in 1799, by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, and is the most recognizable monument of Jaipur. Jal Mahal was built to be a pleasure palace for the royal family in 1799. Jal Mahal Palace (translated as Water Palace) of Jaipur is an extremely romantic place for the locals to visit. Its red sandstone intricate architecture casts beautiful reflections in the calm waters of the Man Sagar Lake, full of hyacinths. However, we found the smell of the sewer more overpowering. The first four floors of Jal Mahal are under water and only the top floor is above the water level. The most impressive site for us was Amber Fort located on top of a hill 11 Km away from Jaipur. Amber Fort is known for its unique artistic style, blending both Hindu and Muslim elements. The solemn dignity of its red sandstone and white marble pavilions, when reflected in the lake at the foot hill, is a sight to be remembered. After a bad night in Jaipur, we had trouble with the local youths who demanded money and wanted to have a look inside our truck. When we refused we had rocks thrown at our truck at 2AM in the morning. Hence, we decided to leave and find another spot 10KM up the road just outside of Jaipur. I suppose parking in the middle of town among poor homeless Indian people was not the best decision.

 

RAHAJASTAN

Pushkar (the ‘Pilgrim City’) is a picturesque town 14 km from Ajmer, known for its temples and lake. The road from Ajmer to Pushkar is a very interesting drive as the road winds through the Nag Pahar, leading to the ancient lake. No pilgrimage to Badri Nath (Himalayas), Jagannath (Orissa), Rameshwaram (Tamil Nadu) and Dwarka (Gujarat), the four principal places of pilgrimage for the Hindus is complete till the pilgrims bath in the sacred waters of Lake Pushkar.

Our next destination Jodhpur a bustling desert city, is the second largest in Rajasthan after Jaipur. The mammoth, imposing fortress (Meherangarh) has a landscape dominating a rocky ridge with the eight gates leading out of the fortress. It is a massive fort located on a hill 400 feet above the city. Its walls are up to 36 meters high and 21 meters wide. Inside these imposing thick walls there are gardens, courthouses, several palaces known for their intricate carvings and expansive courtyards, elaborate balconies, arched galleries and heavily ornamented private residences.

Looking straight down a perpendicular cliff, the famously impregnable fort is an imposing landmark, especially at night, when it’s bathed in yellow light. That night we stayed in the car park of Guesthouse Devi Bhawan an 80-year-old house what has a real old-world charm and it took us back in time. For 5 USD we could park and stay, enjoy wireless internet and a swimming pool. Next and last stop for the week was the city of Jaisalmer or popularly called the golden city of Rajasthan. One of the biggest attractions is Jaisalmer fort that is the largest fort internationally.

Jaisalmer is close to the border with Pakistan, the city is known for its proximity to the Thar Desert. Unlike Jaipur and Jodhpur, with populations in the millions, Jaisalmer is very much a tourist town, with a population of about 80,000. In fact, a significant portion of the population is only there in the tourist season, 4 months out of the year. The rest of the time they go off to find work in larger towns in Rajasthan. Jaisalmer and surrounding sand hills very much reminded us of touristy Morocco. As anywhere in India, begging, selling and being your guide is the biggest issue.

We are told to stay calm by seasoned overlanders/hippies etc. etc., but trust me it is hard to do. Having said this, we also have met some extremely friendly, chatty, and genuinely helpful people. Jaisalmer fort is also known as the Sonar Quila. Colourful shades of the setting sun and golden hues of the desert ambience give a fairy tale look to this mega structured fort. The interior of this fort is amazing. It is a ‘working fort’ meaning that unlike every other fort in India, there are people living and working within its walls. Jaisalmer is medieval with narrow streets and intricately carved buildings. Jaisalmer is the land of desert and of the camel safaris. The area of Rajasthan is colourful and chaotic, mysterious and exotic.

 

RAHAJASTAN to UDAIPUR

 

This week our first stop was Ranakpur, it was a recommendation from a fellow overlander and what a gem it was. Today we drove from the fringes of the Thar desert to the foothills of the Aravali mountain range. We stopped just before Ranakpur and found a camp spot without a lot of noise. This is one of the region’s most important religious sites set in the Aravalli Hills. The beautiful sculptured Jain Temple is considered as one of the five holy places for the Jain community. The temple is an astounding creation of architectural splendor with 29 halls and 1,444 pillars all distinctly carved, no two pillars being alike. Every hall of the temple has an inconceivable surface carved with equal delicacy.

The other nearby temple we visited is the nearby ‘Sun Temple’ dedicated to the ‘Sun God’. The temple has a polygonal wall, richly embellished with carvings of warriors, horses and celestial (Nakshatras, grahs) bodies. While we visited there were many devotees eager for blessings. Ranakpur is known as the “tranquil pilgrimage town”. Next was Udaipur known as the City of Lakes. It was here that we were meeting up with Joop and Jose and Yannick, Muriel, Victor and Robin. We found a very nice and quiet car park and for the first time in India, no horns, no cars, no people around our trucks. Udaipur is often called the “Venice of the East”, well I don’t agree with this but the location on the shores of Lake Pichola is perfect. The Lake Palace (Jag Niwas) located in the middle of Pichola Lake is a superb site and must be seen.

The grand City Palace on the banks of the lake along with the Monsoon Palace (Sajjan Garh) on the hill above enhances the beauty of magnificent Udaipur as it towers over the Pichola Lake. The entry to the Palace is from the Elephant Gate. The Bari Pol or the Big Gate brings you to the Tripolia, the Triple gate. It was a custom to weigh the Maharaja under this gate in gold and silver, which was distributed to the poor population. During our visit it was very busy and the main part of the palace now being a museum it was a long queue getting in and out of the palace. Jag Mandir is the other island palace on Lake Pichola, which was constructed by Maharana Jagat Singh I in the year 1620AD. The island has some striking carvings including a row of elephants that look like guarding the island. The exquisitely carved chhatri in grey and blue stone also is a major tourist attraction. The largest and most splendid temple of Udaipur is the Jagdish Mandir. The exterior and the plinth are covered with base relief of alligators, elephants, horsemen and celestial musicians rising in tiers. Chanting, ringing of bells and music can be heard throughout the day.

MUMBAI

with lots of noise, beeping horns and chaotic traffic we entered Mumbai. It was then that we realized that we were driving the last few weeks in the quite relaxed part of India. Nothing prepared us for the Mumbai traffic. Mumbai, also known as Bombay, is the capital city of the Indian state of Maharashtra. It is the most populous city in India, and the fourth most populous city in the world, with a total metropolitan area population of approximately 21 million. Plus, those no-one knows about approx. another 3 million! Along with the neighbouring urban areas, including the cities of Navi and Thane, it is the most populous urban region in the world. 10KM driving took over 4 hours. It is also the wealthiest city in India, and has the highest GDP of any city in South, West or Central Asia. Mumbai is the commercial and entertainment capital of India, it is also one of the world’s top 10 centres of commerce in terms of global financial flow, generating 5% of India’s GDP, and accounting for 25% of industrial output, 70% of maritime trade in India and 70% of capital transactions to India’s economy. The city also houses India’s Hindi (Bollywood) and Marathi film and television industry. Mumbai’s business opportunities, as well as its potential to offer a higher standard of living, attract migrants from all over India and, in turn, make the city a melting pot of many communities and cultures. However, it also has the poorest people of India living on median strips or near traffic lights begging for food and money. The people of Mumbai are buying cars faster than it is building roads.

In the last 60 years, the number of vehicles on Mumbai’s roads has increased 3,700 per cent while the city’s roads only increased from 700 Kilometres in 1955 to 2000 Kilometres in 2013. Mumbai has about 2 million private vehicles plus 65000 Black and white Taxis and around 160000 Auto Rickshaws. Located on Salsette Island, Mumbai city consists of an archipelago of seven islands namely: Colaba, Mazagaon, Old Woman’s Island, Wadala, Mahim, Parel, and Matunga-Sion. The city is covered with pollution. Thanks to our friends Kym and Lynne Bolton in Australia we were introduced to Jay and Mahendra, an Indian family living in Mumbai. That night we were invited to a traditional Bombay dinner at their beautiful house in the Southern Suburbs for dinner. We learned a lot about the Jain religion, Indian food and Mumbai. But unfortunately, despite all their efforts we were never able to park and sleep in the truck more than one night before being moved away again.

Hence, we decided to leave Mumbai after 3 days. But not before we visited some of the highlights of Mumbai. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, we all remember 9/11 but in India they have 26.11. On this day in 2008 it nearly brought the Taj Mahal hotel to its knees. Nearly 170 people died in this terrorist attack. Chhatrapati Shivali Railway Station, this very busy overflowing railway station in a very nice building is the beating heart of the Mumbai railway scene.

It is also the busiest railway station in Asia. Dhobi Ghat Mumbai’s largest and possible the world largest human washing machine. This suburb Mahalaxmi is one huge human washing machine where hundreds of locals beat the dirt out of thousands of kilos of dirty Mumbai clothes and linen in over 1000 open air troughs. The gateway to India, where the touts, homeless, beggars, foreign and Indian tourists rub shoulders. It was also possible to book a boat tour, but the pollution was so bad that we decided against it. Plus, after yet another phone call to move our truck it was time to say goodbye Mumbai.

MUMBAI to GOA

Leaving Mumbai that night we drove to well after dark before we parked our truck next to the highway after we covered 37 kilometres in 5.5 hours. On our way to Goa, we crossed India’s second most populated state, Maharashtra. This state has a world-famous town called Pune known for its Sex Guru. Next destination the state of Goa. This State is an ex Portuguese colony and has a very different feel to the rest of India but isn’t just about beaches, flea markets and all-night parties. It has some of the best seafood India has to offer. The beautiful region of Goa is situated on the west coast of India and was liberated from Portuguese rule in 1961.

This area is a melting pot of races, religions and cultures from both east and west. The travellers to Goa range from first time travellers, package tourists to those looking for spirituality.  The whole area is green and lush. We are told over 2 million tourists visit the area every year. This also makes Goa one of the more expensive places in India. The area has lots of Portuguese influenced food and buildings, mixed with a colourful blend of religious traditions. Goa is  known for its beaches. We would disagree with the word “beautiful” beaches as we have seen much nicer beaches living in one of the most beautiful parts of the world (Tropical North Australia right on the Great Barrier Reef with its white sandy beaches), but we may be spoiled?

The biggest let down is that Indians are some of the filthiest people we have met in our 5 years of travel. They are  completely ignoring the environment, they dump everything they have out of car/bus/truck windows. After arriving on the beach, everything is left behind. So, for a nice clean beach, we think there are much better choices, in our case the beaches we have seen in Mozambique, Southern Tanzania, Thailand and Australia beat any I have seen in India.

We were planning to spend 2 weeks on the southern side of Goa in a very small village called Agonda, on a wide beach. But also Agonda is getting too popular, although it still retained its atmosphere. The pace is slow and mellow, it has plenty of beach huts, and next year we are told the first 2 hotels will open. This will be the start of private beaches and very much higher prices. It will also mean the end of the overlander beach once the hotels are open. After FOUR weeks of swimming, beach walks, BBQ’s, and visiting Beach Bars it is time to move. It is very hard to leave the beach in Agonda. Despite the many reports of up to 30 overlanders over the Christmas period, this was not the case. In fact, it was one of the strangest overland gathering places we had visited in the last 5 years. Typical European was the reservation of spots. In fact one Spanish couple left for 4 days, left a mat and a small tent next to it expecting to get the same spot back after 4 days?!? The few overlanders who stayed over Christmas left straight after New Year, so we had the beach on our own with Yannick and Muriel and the 2 other German overlanders vehicles that arrived a few days later. We loved our time in Agonda. Nightly happy hours, and camp fires,  perfect and very relaxed. The day we left 2 other overlanders we met in Pokhara (Nepal) arrived including a Dutch girl Angelique on the road for the last 11 years. But overlanding is about meeting different cultures too.

GOA to KERALA

We followed the coast line south with its beautiful remote beaches and colourful villages with very friendly people. (No tourism here, WHAT A DIFFERENCE). Once we turned inland we were heading for the World Heritage listed town of Hampi. Hampi is a village in northern Karnataka state, situated on the banks of the Tungabhadra River. It is 353 km north of Bangalore and 350Km East of Goa. Hampi is both a historic & religious place in India.

The ruins of Hampi, as it is known today, are a vast open museum of history and religion. Spread over an area more than 25 square kilometres (10 square miles), Hampi ruins is packed with giant temples, palaces, market streets, aquatic structures, fortifications and an abundance of other ancient monuments. We found a perfect bush camp overlooking the local rice fields. Hampi has an unearthly landscape with scattered huge giant boulders as far as the eye can see.

Palm groves, banana plantations and rice field make this a very scenic area. Hampi consist of Hampi Bazaar (NO GOOD for our overland truck), a small village called Kamalapurum both on the south side of the river. North of the Tungabhadra River are many small rural villages and this is where we camped in the village of Sanapur,  we found a perfect spot overlooking the rice fields. This is only reachable from Hospet as the bridge in Hampi did collapse. (Turn off at Hospet). Hampi has many sights but the most impressive ones are the Virupaksha temple, Vittala Temple, Royal centre with its Elephant stables and Lotus Mahal, the underground Shiva Temple and the Queens Bath.

  1. Virupaksha Temple: This temple dedicated to the Hindu God of Destruction, is believed to be one of the oldest active temples (from 7th century AD) in India.
  2. Vittala Temple: This temple campus contains many halls and shrines. The halls are noted for its extraordinary pillars with the animated carvings on it. A set of pillars, known as musical pillars, resonates when tapped. A huge stone chariot complete with wheels carved out of stone stands in front of the main temple.
  3. Royal enclosure the seat of the erstwhile kings, this is a fortified campus.

This is a sprawling area with the ruins of many stately structures. For example, the Mahanavami Platform from where the king used to watch the annual parade of imperial majesty and military might. The area is packed with numerous palace bases, underground temple, aquatic structures and the likes.

  1. Queens bath: This structure belongs to the royal area of the capital. Probably used by the courtly ladies or the king himself, this looks like an indoor aquatic complex. A large veranda with protruding balconies all around faces the central pool.
  2. Lotus Mahal: This ornate structure was probably used by the military chief as his office or by the queens of the palace as a pleasure pavilion. The pavilion spots Islamic architecture style arches and the roofs and base are  typical of Hindu temples.
  3. Elephant Stables: That was the shelter for the royal elephants. This long structure is made of a series of chambers with domical roofs. Each chamber is big enough to accommodate two elephants. The central hall with an elaborated tower was used by the ceremonial band troop.

Hampi village is a tourism magnet and the epicentre of backpacker tourism; it appears that every house is a guesthouse with all locals renting out rooms. We stayed in Sanupur from where we used the scooter to go to Virupapur Gadde to catch the ferry into Hampi. (15 cents) Around Virupapur and Sanupur the area is very much a rural place. Many villages are scattered around this area where agriculture is the prime occupation. After a few days we were templed out and it was time to move further south.

HAMPI to KERALA

Leaving Hampi and after a quick visit to Bangalore, we entered Kerala. We entered via the mountain ranges from the western site rising to an average height of 1520 m. The national Highway was less impressive being mostly one lane and of very poor standard.

The high ranges and hill stations are the favourite spots of nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Expansive plantations of tea, coffee, rubber and fragrant cardamom and other spices for which Kerala is famous for, are cultivated on the slopes of these hill stations. Places like Munnar in Kerala produce an exotic species of flowers that bloom once in twelve years. In this area you can also see the milky waterfalls, mighty rocks, lakes, and hill-plantations. The scenic beauty of these Kerala hill stations cannot be defined in words. Next, we reached Kochi on the coast and part of a 600-km long shoreline dotted with many charming beaches, coconut groves, natural harbors, lagoons and sheltered coves. Fort Kochi is an old fishing village.

Fort Kochi was in Portuguese possession for 160 years, until 1683 when the Dutch captured Kochi from the Portuguese. The Dutch held Fort Kochi for 112 years until 1795, when the British took control by defeating the Dutch. Foreign control of Fort Kochi ended in 1947 with the Indian independence. Still today a mix of old houses built by the Portuguese, Dutch and British in these colonial periods are still lining the streets of Fort Kochi. Tourist spot number one in Kochi are the pre-colonial Chinese fishing nets on the waterfront, introduced by Chinese traders in the early 14th century.

We left Kochi after 3 days of intensive sightseeing and a perfect spot in the car park of the 5-star Taj Gateway hotel on Marine Parade. It was now time for the Kerala backwaters dotted with coconut groves, natural harbors, lagoons and sheltered coves. National Geographic’s Travelers magazine listed Kerala in the ‘Ten Paradises of the World’ and ’50 must visit places of a lifetime’. Being a coastal region rich in greenery and with a unique culture, Kerala is rich with mirror still lagoons, picture book lakesides, palm fringed canals and shores bustling with glimpses from day to day life in the country side.

Kerala’s 900 KM network of a waterway that fringes the coast, is a lush and colourful region where live is lived on rivers, canals and lakes. This is where the rice barges and canoes drift past picturesque waterside villages and the air is brimming with bird calls. It is one of the unique areas of Southern India and gave us an insight of village life by the water. The backwaters give a firsthand feel of the unhurried pace of life in the remote hamlets.

Scenes from the rural life unfold as we witnessed the locals engaged in boat building, prawn breeding, rice farming, duck rearing, sand mining, coir making, basket weaving etc far removed from the madding crowd, like Mumbai, Delhi or any other parts of northern India and cities. No wonder this is called Gods own Country. Unfortunately with only so little time and so much to see we had to move on after 3 days. (Remember India only issues a 6-month visa) Next stop Karvala and Kovalam on our way to India’s most southern point Cape Comorin. BUT instead we found 2 beaches full of swaying coconut palms. We drank the refreshing juice of tender coconuts and after midday it was time for 3 litre towers of Carlsberg beers. Bush camping is perfect along the palm-fringed bays in secluded coconut groves, but unfortunately you are not left alone. Kerala is just 100km wide at its broadest point and 450 km north to south. It is the far south west of India wedged between the Arabian Sea and the densely forested Western Ghats to the East. The state only has a population of 35 million what is small for Indian standards. This state is immensely popular by European tourists hence it boasts very nice resorts. We loved the mix of rice paddies, coconut groves and palm lined beaches. But we must admit that the attention and lack of privacy got to us, hence we looked for hotel car parks to be away from the hordes of Indian men on the beach and the odd woman. This week we stopped in Varkala and Kovalum both major tourist destinations for European travellers. Our first stop Varkala, a small town that is about 50 km north Trivandrum where we camped outside the Taj Gateway and paid 1000 rupees to use all he facilities in the resort including a magic pool ; our 2 days became 4 days.

Lazing around the pool, visiting the north cliff area with its many small and cheap restaurants and touring around the area on the scooter was very easy to do. Next was Kappil Beach, the long stretch of virgin beach makes this also a perfect place for bush camping. The whole Kerala coast line is dotted with small villages and beautiful palm-lined beaches. Our last stop for the week was Kovalam, about 14 kilometres south of Tiravananthapuram. This beach resort overlooks the Arabian Sea and was completely booked out by Europeans. Locals call Kerala God’s Own Country. After having tasted life away from the Indian men on the beach we stayed here also at a hotel car park (Taj Vivanda) which has a pool and beach bar and perfect sun lounges on the beach without Indians staring at you.

KERALA to INDIA’s EAST COAST

We never made it to the most southern point as planned but instead spent another 2 weeks in Kerala. The following day we made the final 90KM to India’s most southern point before moving up the East coast. We arrived in Kanyakumari at Cape Comorin the southernmost tip of mainland India. This is the meeting point of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. However, we were told it is not the southernmost tip of India? That is Indira Point at 6.45.10N and 93.49.36E on Great Nicobar Island. Like so many things in India it appears there are more disputes. Point Comorin is a popular tourist destination with Indians as it is a holy place for Hindus, so the people from around India who devote their life as Sanyasin come here. We are told nearly 5 million visitors a year. The Vivekananda Rock Memorial just off shore with its 133-ft. statue of a saint poet can be reached by Ferry. The Ghandi memorial is built where the urn containing his ashes is kept. We left Point Comorin and headed north to Pondicherry (many ways to spell this). We crossed Tamil Nadu, this is the 11th largest state in India by area and with 77 million people the 7th largest populated state. Most people believe that Pondicherry is part of Tamil Nadu, but it is not.

Pondicherry is a Union Territory. The capital city of Tamil Nadu is Chennai (Madras); here 27000 people live per sq kilometre. Everyone seemed to play down the tsunami disaster in 2004 but we are told just under 8000 people died on this coast line during this natural disaster. We have been told that 120 million domestic people visit Tamil Nadu every year and 4 million foreigners. This are huge numbers and hard to imagine for Pondicherry or Puducherry or Pondy in the Indian Union Territory of Pondicherry. It has been officially known by the alternative name Puducherry since 2006. This town has a rich history which includes English, Dutch, Portuguese and  French occupation.The city full of tourists has perfect colonial buildings, temples and churches and well-designed French look alike avenues. It promotes virgin beaches but this is something we were unable to find. The city has 2 parts The French Quarter Ville Blance (white town) and the Indian Quarter.

Mahabalipuram was next. A major tourist town 35 km south of Chennai, famous for its stone carvings,  historical monuments, sculptures, scenic beauty, culture and tradition. Mahabalipuram is placed along the Coromandel Coast facing the Bay of Bengal. We could park our truck next to the Taj Fisherman’s Cove Hotel right on the beach. Mahabalipuram dates to the Tamil Pallava dynasty in the 7th-9th century. The structures here, mostly carved straight out of granite, are among the oldest existing examples of Dravidian (South Indian) architecture. Places we visited in Mahabalipurum:                                                                                                                                                                     The Shore Temple, the oldest structure in the area, built c. 700 AD has been here for more than 1400 years. However the bulk of the current structure is a reconstruction after it was struck by a cyclone. Krishna’s Butterball is a giant natural rock perched on a hillside, seemingly in defiance of all laws of physics, very similar but slightly larger than the Devils Marbles in the Northern Territory (Australia). Five Rathas (Pancha Pandava Rathas) contains five rathas, literally chariots, dating from the 7th century. The sculptures are complemented by some enormous stone animals, including a large elephant.

Like everywhere else in India you must fight yourself through beggars, guides, and snake charmers and so on, all of which is an essential part of the experience and not to be frowned upon. The whole thing would be boring without them. A nuisance, but harmless. The rest of the week we lazed around on the beach. The crystal-clear waters of the Bay of Bengal give a serene look. One can experience the sun rise from the beach. What seems to become the norm, we stayed much longer than planned.

EAST COAST INDIA to VARANASI

Via Chennai and Hyderabad and 5 long 10-hour days with an average speed of 20KM per hour following National Highway 7 we arrived in Varanasi. Varanasi is situated on the banks of the holy river Ganges, in the state of Uttar Pradesh and  is one of the oldest cities in India and an eternal pilgrim destination for Hindus. Varanasi is very crowded, but a colourful and charismatic city flocked by millions of pilgrims every year. Varanasi is one city where death is celebrated, and dead bodies are worshipped. It is believed that one who dies here gains salvation. Many elderly or diseased people come here with the same belief hoping to take their last breath in this holy city. We visited the Varanasi Ghats, of which Varanasi has nearly one hundred.  While most of those are bathing Ghats where people flock to take a dip in the sacred river, there are a few which serve as cremation sites and a few are even privately owned. We organized a row boat with rower for 450 rupees (1.5 Hours) visiting the Ghats. Dashwamedh (the oldest in Varanasi) and Manikanika Ghat. This is the main cremation ghat where relatives of the deceased come to perform the last rites of the dead wishing that the dead will rest in eternal peace thereafter.  Assi Ghat is the southernmost ghat in Varanasi.

This is where the Ganges River and Assi River merge. Here we had dinner that night. The Ganges River is 2525Km long and is the third largest river in the World by discharge. Only the Amazon and Congo rivers have a greater average discharge than the combined flow of the Ganges; in full flood only the Amazon is larger.

It runs from the western Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and flows south and east through the Gangetic Plain of North India into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges is India’s holiest river, considered a source of spiritual purification for devout Hindus.

Today the river is among the world’s most polluted, struggling under the pressures of modern society, but is also a lifeline to over 400 million of Indians who live along its course and depend on it for their daily needs and make a living on the river. Trust me it is filthy. Despite environmental concern, some 250 bodies are prepared and cremated every day on the Ganges River.

Some organizations have been trying to battle pollution for years. The amount of toxins, chemicals and other dangerous bacteria found in the river are now almost 3,000 times over the limit suggested as “safe” by the WHO. Nonetheless, an estimated 60,000 Hindus bathe in the river every day to cleanse themselves of their sins. And likely, the city of Varanasi will continue to play a large role in the religious practices of Hindus, especially those in search of deliverance.

A dip here in the holy water of Ganges is said to wash away all the past sins and cleanse the souls of the devotees. Sitting in the front seat next to the tuk tuk driver it was like watching a James Bond Movie weaving through the traffic at such speed completely ignoring any traffic rules. No doubt in India you either take a scooter (we have our own) or a Tuk Tuk (also called Taxi Rickshaw). Most do not speak Hindi; they are helpful but bargain hard. The local deal is 50 rupees for 5KM. Tourists are known to pay 1000 rupees or  500 after bargaining down. BE FORWARNED. This is India, there are no rules!

VARANASI to NEW DEHLI

After we left Varanasi we crossed the heartland of India (the State Utter Pradesh), the fourth largest State of India. Ten times the size of Belgium and a little bigger than England. With a population of 170 million people and best known for the most precious jewel in the country’s crown the Taj Mahal. Agra sits on a large bend in the holy Yamuna River.

The Fort and the Taj, 2km apart, both overlook the river on different parts of the bend. And this was our next stop, we found parking in the garden of Hotel Lauries in the middle of Agra. Noisy but with no guests (It had no electricity or water) it was great to camp in the garden. The magical allure of the Taj Mahal draws people to Agra like moths to a wondrous flame. And despite the hype, its every bit as good as we had heard.

We visited the world famous beautiful Taj Mahal built by the Moghul Emperor Shahjehan in 1630 for his beloved Queen Mumtaz Mahal to enshrine her mortal remains on a Sunday hence it was very busy. It took 20 years to build The Taj Mahal and over 20,000 workers had worked in constructing it. Taj Mahal an unforgettable experience. Visiting large tourist attractions in India also has a downside and this comes into the form of hordes of rickshaw, wallahs, touts, unofficial guides and souvenir vendors, whose persistence can be infuriating at times. However, after 4 months in India we now know how to deal with them. The city of Agra is off course world famous for the Taj Mahal,

however, it is also famous for the Agra Fort, which is a veritable treasure trove of the Mughal architectural tradition. Most of the buildings within the Agra Fort are a mixture of different architectural styles most conforming predominantly to the Islamic style. The forts colossal double walls rise 20 m in height and measure 2.5 km in circumference. After driving on horrible roads for many weeks things change once arriving near Agra and become nearly German style highways, travelling the highway from Agra to Delhi. But it comes at a cost (toll), hence very few cars.

NEW DEHLI

Delhi is a city that bridges two different worlds. Old Delhi, once the capital of Islamic India, is a labyrinth of narrow lanes lined with crumbling havelis and formidable mosques. Being the political hub of India, every political activity in the country traces its roots here. Once we left the Yamuna Express Way things were back to normal and traffic was the usual Indian chaos. Our first campsite near a slum area was not the best hence we moved on the next day and found a parking spot near some high-rises in the south of the city. Joop had called us (he also arrived in Delhi and advised us that he had been given a location via Tourism India in the south of Delhi. (Garden of 5 senses).  After 2 relative quiet nights (at least 15 minutes no cars beeping and people yelling or wanting to have a look inside), we moved to the gardens; it was heaven. Delhi metropolitan region is the world’s second most populous city and the largest city in India and one of the largest in the world in terms of area. After Mumbai it is also the wealthiest city in India. However also the most polluted and it is far worse than Beijing. In January 2014, New Delhi’s reading, taken at Punjabi Bagh, a relatively affluent area with better air quality than other areas, was 473, which was twice as high as Beijing, which had an average reading of 227.

Only one day in three weeks in January 2014, did New Delhi’s daily reading fall below 300, which is 12 times the figure recommended by the World Health Organization. Exhaust gas from poorly maintained road vehicles is one of the reasons for New Delhi’s poor air quality. Many expatriates and affluent Indians have installed expensive air purifiers to protect themselves against the very poor air quality. It is time to finalize the Pakistan and Iran Visa’s.

Not that easy as it sounds. We are doing our daily trip to the Iran embassy as it appears our visa application has gone missing? Unfortunately for us the embassy is of little to no use to us as the visa reference number must come from the MFA in Tehran (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and the people from Iranianvisa.com have collected our money on February 14 but have not processed our application! So, after 2 weeks of emails, phone calls and promises yesterday we were told to apply again! With Iran New Year this means delays. Also, the No Objection Certificate for Pakistan to cross Baluchistan is still not finalized. Who said overlanding is not hard work!!!

So, plenty of time for sightseeing. But our camp spot in the Garden of 5 Senses is just absolute perfect. This Garden is spread over 40 acres with beautiful flowering shrubs and ground covers. It also houses some very nice restaurants (expensive) who cater for the rich and expats. A perfect park spot for overlanders. After nearly 5 months India we must admit we are a little palace/fort/templed out. So, besides the daily trip to the embassies we did little sightseeing in Delhi however a few sights we did visit and are worth visiting.

Qutab Minar is a soaring, 73 m-high towers of victory, built in 1193, this was very close to the Garden of 5 Senses. The tower has five distinct storeys each marked by a projecting balcony and tapers from a 15-m diameter at the base to just 2.5 m at the top. The first three storeys are made of red sandstone; the fourth and fifth storeys are of marble and sandstone. At the foot of the tower is the Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, the first mosque to be built in India. The red sandstone walls of the massive Red Fort (Lal Qila) rise 33-m above the glamour of Old Delhi as a reminder of the magnificent power and pomp of the Mughal emperors.

The fort was built in 1638 and was designed to keep out invaders. The Lahore Gate, the main gate, is one of the emotional and symbolic focal points of the modern Indian nation and attracts a major crowd on Sundays. You know you are in the tourist area once walking the arcade of Chatta Chowk, a bazaar selling tourist trinkets, which leads into the huge fort compound. India Gate at the centre of New Delhi, commemorates the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the British Army during the World War I. Connaught Place, one of North India’s largest commercial and financial centre, is in the northern part of New Delhi. The city’s service sector has expanded due in part to the large skilled English-speaking workforce that has attracted many multinational companies. Key service industries include information technology, telecommunications, hotels, banking, media and tourism.

This area houses some of the most expensive shops; international fast food shops (Mac Donald’s without a beef burger) and banks. Only a few hundred meters away people live and die on the streets!! But we read that New Delhi with Beijing shares the top position as the most targeted emerging markets retail destination among Asia-Pacific markets. We live in a strange world with a lot of injustice….

NEW DEHLI to NORTH WEST INDIA

After leaving very early to beat the Delhi traffic we set of this week to the famous Rohtang Pass and the town of Leh. (Well known from the National Geographic program THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS ROADS). But first we visited the town of Chandigarh, probably the most beautiful/clean/friendly town we encountered in India sofar. No chaotic driving, wide tree lined streets. Our reason for visiting, The Rock Gardens  called the Nek Chand Fantasy Rock Garden. This garden is a mix of recycled junk and organic materials with twisting pathways, waterfalls etc. We could stay in the car park that night. Next morning early, we left on our way towards the Rohtang pass and it only took 100KM for the road to become the usual Indian nightmare once you veer of the main roads. It was raining so the roads became very slippery and with nothing to stop you dropping a few hundred meters. Next was the constant battle with oncoming trucks and busses. We also had to negotiate a long tunnel with hardly any lights and no ventilation. When we entered Manali (our average speed the last 6 hours was 20KM per hour) it was just about dark. We made the mistake of looking for a campsite between Manali and Rohtang Pass. WRONG! The road became so narrow one wheel was riding on the edge of the cliff face. Enough for Clary to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH, REVERSE BACK! You know who is the boss!!, We reversed back with Clary walking behind the truck giving instructions. It had become dark when we parked in front of some huts housing Tibetan refugees.

Next day we realized we camped in the middle of the cricket ground, so we moved a little uphill and found a small car park belonging to a guesthouse which we could use. This town was called Vashist, a small village located on the left bank of the river Beas towards the Rohtang pass and renowned for its hot springs and temples and the pyramidal stone temple dedicated to Vashist Muni. There is another Temple of Lord Ram here. But to be honest we are templed out. The Natural hot sulphur springs with two separate bathing tanks for gents and ladies were full of locals. Manali is an interesting town with many streets not suited for our truck. In fact, 95% is not.

Time to leave Manali and climb up the mountain towards Rohtang Pass at a height of 3979 meters. Normally it offers a panorama and spectacular Mountain View. Also normally the pass is open from June to October, but we were told it could be open now as they had little snow. It is a gateway to Lahaul Spiti, Pangi and Leh valley just as Zojila pass is a gateway to Ladakh. There are beautiful sights of glaciers, on the way. Any way to cut a long story short, a landslide and a fresh dump of snow closed the road. Manali 40KM north of Kullu is situated near the end of the valley on the National Highway leading to Leh. The landscape here is breath taking. One sees well-defined snow-capped peaks, the Beas river with its clear water meanders through the town. Due to bad weather we never enjoyed the views.

At 2100 meters the temp cooled down to 2 degrees overnight. The next day we drove to the Solang Valley. Solang valley offers the view of glaciers and snow-capped mountains and peaks if the weather would have been good. And we were told it has fine ski slopes. One lift, no grooming of the slopes, you can hire a horse-Yak-Quad or skidoo for the day to pull you up hill!!!! Be aware that all the fore mentioned  race each other down the hill on the same slope you like to ski.

Leaving Manali we straddled The Great Himalayan National Park. This park is spread over an area of 1,171 km2 that lies between an altitude of 1500 to 6000m. From here it was to Dharamshala the home of the Dalai Lama and India’s largest Tibetan community. A major Buddhist center following the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising, the 14th Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government officials sought and were granted refuge in India.

The Dalai Lama has since 1959 lived in exile in Dharamshala, in the state of Himachal Pradesh in northern India, where the Central Tibetan Administration is also established. Tibetan refugees have constructed and opened many schools and Buddhist temples in Dharamshala. Upper Dharamshala is now referred to as McLeod Ganj. Is where the Dalai Lama lives. Security is very strict, and no photos can be made inside the Dalai Lama complex.

NORTH WEST INDIA to PAKISTAN BORDER

We arrived in Amritsar late in the afternoon and headed straight for the overlander camp spot at Mrs Bandari Guesthouse, a beautiful guest house with large lawns in a quiet neighbourhood with swimming pool. Amritsar is in the North West of India only 22KM from the Pakistan Border. It is also the spiritual centre for the Sikh religion. It is home to the Harmandir Sahib also known as the Golden Temple. This important Sikh shrine attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal with more than 100,000 visitors on week days alone. Amritsar’s central walled city has narrow streets mostly developed in the 17th and 18th century. The city is a peculiar example of an introverted planning system with unique areas called Katras. The Katras are self-styled residential units that provided unique defence system during attacks on the city. As you can imagine for us not a good city to visit with our truck, hence the scooter was again of good use. With over 1 million people the traffic is typical India but not as bad as the other cities we visited. The Golden Temple in Amritsar (Sri Harimandir Sahib Amritsar) is not only a central religious place of the Sikhs, but also a symbol of human brotherhood and equality. Everybody, irrespective of cast, creed or race can seek spiritual solace and religious fulfilment without any hindrance. Every day 100000 vegetarian meals are served free of charge and irrespective of race or religion.

A dark point in its history is Operation Blue Star when the Indian Army ordered by Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, to remove Sikh militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The operation was carried out by Indian army troops with tanks and armoured vehicles. Militarily successful, the operation aroused immense controversy, and the government’s justification for the timing and style of the attack are highly debated. Four months after the operation, on 31 October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards in what is viewed as an act of vengeance. Following her assassination, more than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in anti-Sikh pogroms.

Within the Sikh community itself, Operation Blue Star has taken on considerable historical significance. Amritsar is one of Punjab’s principal cities, dating back in history over 400 years. Amritsar is situated on the north-western border of India; the city is also gateway for the travellers on the overland route through Pakistan.

The Wagah Border Ceremony, the world’s most spectacular border ceremony takes place every day before dusk at Wagah. As large crowds gather on either side of the gate, claps and cheers of Pakistan Zindabad and Jai Hind charge the air with anticipation, as if were a sports game. What follows the closing of the gate is indeed a contest between two teams. The khaki-clad ones are the Indian Border Security Forces; the Pakistan Rangers are resplendent in black. The intent of the synchronized ceremony is to lower the flag of both nations before sunset. But as the border security forces from other sides dance their aggressive no-touch tango, the real object of the ceremony becomes clear: to act as a vent, right here on the geopolitical fault line, for the deep hostility and mutual resentment between India and Pakistan. The ceremony starts with a blustering parade by the soldiers from both the sides, and ends up in the perfectly coordinated lowering of the two nations’ flags. We are told that since 2010 the aggressive aspect of the ceremonial theatrics was toned down. The crowd consists of a few tourists & lots of locals from all over India and Pakistan on the other side.

The noise and atmosphere of the assembled crowds on both sides of the border is like that of a sporting match and very entertaining. In typical India style there is no crowd control, resulting in extreme chaos and a dense pushy crowd around the entrance gate. Once the entrance gate is opened, a stampede like situation arises for a while. The border is roughly halfway between Lahore in Pakistan and Amritsar in India. The only official road link (GT Road) across the highly contentious and recently fought-over Indo-Pakistan border passes through the towns monumental border gate.

And all this for a trickle of traffic. Apart from a few border-crossing tourists, the number of locals going back and forth is no more than a few dozen each day. The flag lowering ceremony which happens around 4:15 PM everyday has become the main event for tourists. In addition, there is now a short cultural programme also done by local folk dancers (Bhangra) for the waiting crowd before the flag lowering.

Our 6 months India came to an end.