A Travellerspoint blog

September 2007

Tickets to Agra - $35. Hotel Room - $0.29 a Minute.

View of the Taj? Priceless.

sunny 25 °C

After only one night in India, it’s clear (and I confess that I am very surprised to find) that Lloyd shares my passion for the country and I’m already regretting not allowing more time here to explore beyond the Golden Triangle and Rajastan. More than any other place I’ve been to, India isn’t a country to be understood through a list of attractions ‘to do’: I’d take driving around in a tuk-tuk over ticking off the Taj Mahal anyday. We unanimously agree that India is somewhere we need to devote more time to than we have this trip, although that doesn’t really make us feel much better about the accelerated schedule that sees us travelling from Varanasi to Delhi in just nine days.

On Tuesday, we catch a mid-afternoon train from Varanasi to Agra. As we booked the tickets online (an experience by the way – I had to giggle at the quota allocations broken down into tens of categories: there’s probably a special category for divorced, one-legged leprosy sufferers in there somewhere), we stopped by the Foreigners’ ticket office in Varanasi to confirm our seats. It was quite a revelation, and not in the way you think. Now, we recognize that as thirty-something kind-of-backpackers we’re probably in the minority when it comes to global travel, but we hadn’t – in our three months on the road – yet come across the stereo-typical young ‘traveller’. And now, here in Varanasi, we see not one, but a pair of ‘them’.

Unshaven (both male, happily), matted long hair worn in dreadlocks and tied back with a rag, wearing t-shirts that had clearly been deliberately mutilated so they covered not quite enough skin and hung off pathetically scrawny shoulders. Covering their legs, I’m not sure if the clothing would be described as a skirt or trousers, but the ‘uniform’ is required to be brightly coloured, and of course the more dirt the better. The more battered and ripped the backpack the better, but the mistake Lloyd and I are making is restricting ourselves to the one pack. No one told us the uniform requires more individual pieces than you can possibly carry, and that one of the pieces must be in the shape of a guitar. The final requirement is a facial expression that at a minimum shows a lack of interest in anything, but even better suggests several months of substance abuse. One of our two “models” sat for the hour we were in the office with his mouth gaping open, staring with great interest at a mouldy patch on the wall.

Aside from the two ‘authentic’ young travellers and the two oldies (that would be us), the office was filled with maybe half a dozen smartly dressed, young Japanese. I guess there’s a growing trend for Japanese backpackers out there? Anyway, comfortable in our relatively clean clothes and streamlined baggage, we speculate on his boss's reaction if Lloyd were to report back to work in January having been transformed into a ‘real’ traveller…..

But I digress. When the train pulls into Varanasi at 1550, we find our carriage – the highest class of service on this train – marked as 2AC, which means two tier, air-conditioned. It’s unnervingly quiet, and we ask whoever we can find whether we’re in the right carriage. Hell, we don’t even know if we’re on the right train when it pulls out at 1602. Nonetheless, we set about securing our packs so we can try and get some sleep tonight. We later find out from the ticket inspector that the train is expected to fill up when it reaches Lucknow which is roughly halfway between Varanasi and Agra.

After our sleep-starved night fighting incoming rainwater in Varanasi, we are drowsy as soon as dusk falls, and Lloyd is quickly asleep in the bottom bunk. I take the top bunk, with the two backpacks secured to the train’s alarm above my head. If someone tries to move the bags tonight, the entire train will come to a complete halt, which indeed proves to be an effective deterrent.

Our luxurious accommodations for the night. You can just about see how Lloyd secured our bags around the train's alarm!

We do wake as the train fills with chatty Indians in Lucknow around midnight, and then sporadically as the overzealous air-conditioning threatens to freeze us solid (hey, we paid for it, we got it in buckets!). Just as we settle into a nice snooze in the early hours, it’s time to get up and prepare for our arrival into Agra at 6am. The train around us continues to sleep, but there we are – two faux travelers (the real, uniformed guys must be in the three-tiered carriage) – waiting for a station that simply refuses to materialize.

Someone could have told us that the train was running three hours late ;o)

This is very bad news for me because it means that the probability of me avoiding using the train’s toilet has just reduced dramatically. The fact that half of India seems to be taking care of their own morning business right outside my window – on the railway embankment or in fields – isn’t helping. I’ve got so good at avoiding going that I’m probably causing long term damage (just kidding, Mum!). To be fair, I’ve yet to see anything in India that even comes close to China, but I was expecting to be in my clean hotel bathroom several hours ago! I sit, cross-legged, praying for AGRA CANT to be the next station we pull into.

Finally, we do arrive in Agra, stinking of urine which pervaded the blankets that had been essential to our air-conditioning survival overnight. Now, we mentioned before that this trip would include some pockets of decadence, and Agra was one of them. With reservations at the Agra Amarvilas Hotel, we are greeted by a red-turban clad driver who had waited three hours for us. I’m sure we were something of a disappointment: we’ve slept in our clothes. We stink of someone-else’s – hell, half of India’s – urine. And we carry no nice luggage, but two backpacks. Nonetheless, he welcomes us warmly and we climb into the most luxurious car in India for the half hour drive to the hotel.

The view from Room 422. Yours for 29 cents a minute.....

The Amarvilas hotel is located about half a kilometer from the Taj Mahal, and every room offers an uninterrupted view. Don’t get me wrong, the view is almost priceless, but the inflated prices associated with everything else in the hotel means that Lloyd and I could be living on crackers for the next two days. After a long shower, the breakfast buffet is welcome, but frankly disappointing for this level of hotel (and the associated price tag). You can’t fault the service or the location, but we fail to find any semblance of value-for-money in terms of food and beverage or concierge services during our time here.


But of course, we’re only here for one thing: the Taj Mahal. And we do have a splendid view from our room. As the day draws to a close, it looks – for a few minutes – as if the sunset could be glorious, so we rush out of the hotel and into the golf cart that will deliver us to the gates of the Taj Mahal. (I know, apparently Amarvilas residents are physically incapable of the half kilometre walk, although to be fair the cowpats and camel droppings probably make it a little precarious in the dark). By the time we get there, accompanied by our own security guard from the hotel (!), it’s clear that the sunset will be far from spectacular, so we decide invest our 750 rupees (almost $US20!) each tomorrow.

Down by the river at sunset... cheaper than tickets into the Taj

Instead, we are guided by thirteen year old Ashu (who wants to take us to his uncle’s marble shop) down the side of the Taj Mahal walls towards the river. The hotel’s security guard runs after us, and tries to direct us back to the Taj entrance. But within a few minutes, we find ourselves on a boat taking us across the river for an alternative view of the Taj. The light isn’t great, and really we enjoy the interaction with Ashu and the armed police perhaps more than our viewing of the Taj. The boat driver serenades us as he sails back to shore, where he implores us not to disclose how much we paid for the ride. Apparently, the police will expect half of the 200 rupees we paid, so we are asked to fib a little and proclaim we paid only 100 rupees.

Me taking a picture of Lloyd taking a picture of me taking a picture of Lloyd taking a picture of me..... oh yes, and the Taj Mahal

When we get back to the main Taj entrance, it is pitch black and the walk back to the hotel is unappealing, especially the need to run the gauntlet with the tens of young kids attempting to guilt us into visiting their father’s/uncle’s/cousin’s/grandfather’s store. To the security guard’s credit, he had been so concerned about our back-alley detour, that he is ready with the golf cart and a turban-clad driver to whisk us back to the ‘safety’ of our hotel. It occurs to us that many people come to India and allow themselves to be whisked from attraction to attraction and back to their super-luxury hotels, completely failing to experience anything of India at all.

On Thursday, we plan to visit both the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. Agra Fort is a massive, red sandstone, walled Fort built in the mid to late sixteenth century. Most of the Fort is still actively used by the Indian military and cannot be visited, but the remainder is a UNESCO Heritage Site. We heard from the hotel driver that serious steps are being taken to reduce pollution in the city of Agra in order to preserve both the Fort and its more famous neighbour, the Taj Mahal. Certainly, it was clear that work was underway to both conserve and renovate the site.

Improvements underway. On top of one of the domes, one young man took the time to wave for the camera!


From the Fort, there's quite a nice view of the Taj. I had a great picture taken from here three years ago with my Dad, so we decide to try and get a good piccie of Lloyd from the same spot. With so many Indians around, the outlook is not hopeful, but we've found on the trip that a little patience is usually enough to get the photo you want.

Crowds of tourists .....

.... plus a little patience .....

... results in a great piccie of Lloyd and the Taj!

And so finally to the Taj! This morning we woke at 0530 to find the Taj completely socked in with fog, making an early morning visit unattractive relative to a few more hours of sleep! Happily, when we visit in the middle of Thursday, it isn’t as busy as I was expecting, and we also benefit from a little blue sky which we really haven’t seen since we left Tibet. The vast majority of visitors are domestic tourists, but we are pleased to find that Indian groups are infinitely more pleasant than Chinese groups. We’re frankly a little lost not having to defend ourselves from the pushing, line-jumping, and spitting that we’ve become so accustomed to. Only smiling faces and brightly coloured saris all around us. Perhaps the most authentic way to experience the Taj isn’t alone at sunrise, but with several hundred Indians!


The wonder of the Taj is the fact that it’s impossible to take a bad picture of the thing, somehow it even seems to make us better looking.... maybe a little bit?


We take our ‘calendar’ picture and then walk the perimeter of the Taj gardens, where we find stone-carving and gardening teams at rest. For a little baksheesh, you can take a picture of anything around here, so I pay my ten rupees to pose with the bull-powered lawn mower!

Yes, those horns HAVE been painted green.......?!

In fact, we should start asking for a little baksheesh ourselves; during our visit, we are photographed maybe a dozen times, often by the ‘official’ photographers carefully posing Indian visitors.

After two nights in Agra, we – and our bank manager – are ready to escape the weird world of super-luxury Indian hotels. We are as unimpressive in our departure as we were in our arrival – we’ve hired a car and driver of course, but it’s a tatty looking Tata Indica that is announced for us, rather than one of the hotel’s gleaming limousines.

You wouldn't know this is an Indian chipmunk unless you heard its accent

Posted by jacquiedro 08:37 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Holy City, Sacred Water

Life on the Ganga in Varanasi, India

storm 25 °C
View The World 2007 on lloydthyen's travel map.

The fierce storm that met us as we landed in Varanasi, India, turned out to be a fitting metaphor for my first 24 hours in this country of stark contrasts. While I had seen many pictures and video from Jacquie’s first trip here 3 years ago, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the dizzyingly hectic pace, the diversity of the population, the array of bright colors, nor the unexpected warm and open human interactions. Certainly India was immediately a storm on my senses, with a completely positive impact.

Varanasi is about the root of the Indian culture. It is a holy city situated on the banks of the Ganga (aka Ganges) river: lifeblood and mother of India. Impossible to sum up her significance simply, she is a place where the people of India come to celebrate life, to seek miracles in her waters, to make pilgrimage and ultimately, for some lucky few, to die and be washed away in her flow. As such an important place, Jacquie put us directly in the middle of it all, selecting a hotel right on the water, between two of the busiest ghats (stairways leading to the water, used for differing ritual acts, like prayer, bathing, cremation) on the riverfront in the Rashmi Hotel.

Our first night treated us to uncharacteristic weather – monsoon like strong gusting winds, and heavy rains. Exiting the plane, Jacquie was hit by a gust so strong, it blew her glasses off her face from the top of the jetway stairs. I made a dash at the bottom to get them, before they were crushed by ground crew, or sucked into the intake! We made our way from the airport by car, then by cycle rickshaw, and finally on foot through a labyrinth of alleyways and cows leading us ultimately to our destination. At once tired yet exhilarated, we were also treated to the celebration of India’s victory over Pakistan in the first World Twenty20 World Cup of Cricket. Storms battering our windows, with a flood of rain seeping through, we were kept awake by the addition of screams of exhalation and fireworks until the early hours. Nothing could dampen Indian spirits – not even unexpected monsoon rains!


Our day in Varanasi left us touched. We awoke early after our short night to take a boat ride up the river to experience the essence of Varanasi: life on the water. Here people pray, bathe, celebrate, sell, beg, buy, worship and, for some, die. It is all the smallest and biggest things in life along a ½ mile stretch of water. Water that, while brown and murky with the debris and detritus of everyday life floating by, it is worshipped, drank straight and bottled for home-bound consumption as medicine for the body and soul. More than life being on the river, life IS the river.

Whether boating or walking along the mud lined banks, it is all here. You pass by a rush of colors, smells, sights and sounds, yet nothing simply passes you by: crows picking at a floating, bloated, hairless dead cow; brown and white goats (big ones!) menacing visitors; pottery washed up and half-buried in mud along the banks; naked men, women and children bathing or doing laundry; yogis in yellow, faces painted or not, smiling, staring, chanting, singing; monkeys swinging wildly, throwing themselves up and down trees, buildings and temple walls; flower sellers peddling yellow and red marigold chains to adorn people’s necks; golden shrouded dead bodies lying on bamboo stretchers angling towards the river along the ghat stairs waiting for their turns on the funeral pyre; smoke announcing another in an endless 24-hour procession of cremations; temples spires accenting the sloping, undulating edgewater skyline; and boats, endless boats of tarred wood or painted metal with oars or diesel inboards bobbing, floating, rowing, motoring, bumping, even sinking, along the water. Always it comes back to the water. Ganga. Life. A never ending steady pulsing flow.


Setting out after our morning, we spent time in the labyrinthine alleyways and the main road just up from our hotel. As we walked, we were swarmed by people, bicycles and rickshaws – both auto and manual – and nothing could stop or move the flow of traffic. Nothing but – you guessed it – holy cows, Batman! The sea of humanity parted, we walked a bit close by one such holy beast, and as Jacquie passed (not quickly enough) by, it reared its holy head and horned her in the back of the thigh! Holy Bad Karma, Batman!


Walking later along the water after our first foray by boat, I passed a sign reading “Yoga Training Centre”. Being the child I am, I sat next to it, struck a very un-Yoga pose and looked for Jacquie to take my picture. Eyes shut for the picture, I opened them to find some Indian ladies passing by. Instead of a reprimand (which I probably deserved due to my antics!), I received a quick incantation lesson from one of them. She coached me on the proper mantra, smiled, and went on their way as sun began to break through the morning clouds. It left us smiling as well, and when we saw them passing on a boat not 10 minutes later, they beckoned to us to join them. Having just completed our own ride, we demurred at first before giving in and joining them. After all, the price was better than out first ride – what could we lose??


Lose we did not, but what we gained was more than we could have hoped – certainly more than just another boat ride. In just 45 minutes on the water, we gained better insight and warmth than we could have hoped on our own. First hand, we got to experience the Ganga and the banks of Varanasi with visiting pilgrims. For no certain reason, other than perhaps our smiles and foreign looks, these ladies invited us to join them on their holy ride. One spoke excellent English and chatted with us about the river and its meaning to them, while the others communicated with us through gestures, smiles and bright eyes. The ride ended, we parted ways with invitations to visit their homes, and genuinely kind words.


It is almost impossible to describe what we got from our ride in that boat, suffice it to say we made our way from the banks of the river with deep appreciation of India’s warmth: her people, her culture and her grand diversity. These ladies shared their time, gave us each a blessing with their holy Ganga water, and somehow imparted on us each a sudden calmness and sense of peace. Noon still some time away, we felt our day complete, our trip to Varanasi richer than we could have hoped, and our start in India magical. India is life at its purest. As soon as you think adrenaline has subsuded, you get another chance to feel the pulse again – and at checkout from our hotel, we got another opportunity to experience one of the iconic modes of Indian transport : the “Tuk-Tuk” or Auto rickshaw!

The auto-rickshaw is many things to many people– transport, taxi, pickup-truck. For those of us from the west, it can be a thrill-ride, a rollercoaster, or an absolute terror, as you sit inches behind a driver steering the single wheel up front of this metal framed passenger cage throught harrowing traffic situations. The tuk-tuk drivers seems trained to know the absolute limits of their vehicles, from the width and height to a millimeter, to the absolute top speeds possible to bob and weave through the ever-presetn flow of vehicular, human and animal traffic, as well as dealing with multiple obstacles and road conditions. Needeless to say, sittin ginthe back of a tuk-tuk is hairy enough, much less doing it with large backpacks on your laps and knees hanging precariously out of the side of these little death-traps. Not our first ride and by no means our last, the tuk-tuk is literally a moving event not to be missed in India. It is perhaps the best way to experience the essence of India and get to the heart of her excitement.

My senses still tingling, we prepare to move onwards to our next stop: the magical white spires of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India!

Posted by lloydthyen 08:32 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

What to do? Kathmandu!

Clean sheets and bustling streets.

overcast 22 °C


We're not sure whether we were waiting for the Chinese border or the Nepalese border, (or both!), but we were processed as foot passengers into Nepal at at about 10am on Saturday, 22 September. The beauty of the previous day's drive continued, only this time we were blessed with some clear blue skies which just heightened our senses and sparked excitement as we approached Kathmandu.


Arriving at Dwarika’s (and escaping the group!) was like arriving in paradise. We stepped off the group bus into a bustling Kathmandu street, but the world mysteriously transformed as we were saluted (yes, saluted) through Dwarika’s front door. Finding ourselves in an idyllic courtyard of stone carvings and flowers floating in pots of water, surrounded all around by authentic wooden carved window frames, we both had to work to catch our breath at the beauty and tranquility of the place. Unobtrusive Nepalese music lulled in the background, competing only with the sound of water flowing from stone fountains and a lone monkey stealing what looked like apricot-miniatures from a nearby tree.

Dwarikas is the result of a life-long quest by the hotel's namesake to preserve the traditional art of Nepalese carving. The hotel was established to showcase Dwarikas' burgeoning collection of window frames and doors saved from the scrapyard since the 1950s!

When we were shown to our room, it was all I could do to hold back tears at the massive, spotlessly clean bathroom after the bathrooms-come-crime-scenes of the last few weeks. The contrast to our previous evening at the border was laughable! Our bedroom area included a beautiful window seat, overlooking one of the hotel’s main courtyards. It took us only minutes to secure a glass of wine and a gin and tonic in the courtyard and take in our tremendous good fortune. Dwarika’s is an incredible hotel that proves a local operation is capable of delivering to international standards (and by that I only mean spotless sheets and bathrooms!), and is something that you simply shouldn’t miss if you visit Kathmandu. The only danger is that you risk being so entranced by the place that you won’t want to leave!

Lloyd thanking his lucky stars for two nights in clean sheets!

Despite the temptation to do nothing other than allow ourselves to be rejuvenated by the beauty of our surroundings, we did head out to the main sights of Kathmandu with our own guide and driver on Sunday. I visited Kathmandu more than three years ago with my Dad, so for me it was a repeat visit and I think the most surprising thing was how much Lloyd enjoyed the hustle, bustle and absolute chaos of downtown Kathmandu! Anyway, our knowledgeable guide really brought Durbar Square and Bhaktapur to life in a way that every single one of the group guides failed to do. The relief at escaping the group was tangible, notwithstanding the fact that we met some great people who we'd be pleased to welcome in our home anytime (hello Larry, Audrey & Caroline!).

Durbar Square is really the old heart of Kathmandu, and when we visited was preparing for a festival that was due to start the next day. As a result, many of the pagodas were being dressed with red fringes and a number of the buildings were receiving fresh coats of paint.

Note the street barber in action!


In the afternoon, we headed out of town to the ancient city of Bhaktapur, a spider's web of cobbled old streets that is wonderfully fun to wander around.


The pottery is manufactured on a communal basis. This is one of two massive kilns, where the pottery is buried in heated sand for several days. Here, hardened and cooled pottery is removed from one kiln.


We saw the main tourist areas, of course, but enjoyed far more strolling around the residential areas, wondering just how much life has changed over the last fifty years!


Posted by jacquiedro 08:38 Archived in Nepal Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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