3 weeks in India has flown by! For the last leg of our trip we joined another G Adventures tour which would take us all the way from Delhi to Kathmandu in Nepal. For this trip most of our travelling has been done alone but we do like doing a tour every now and then – partly to get the local insight from our guide and travel to areas we wouldn’t have done by ourselves and partly to meet new people and not have to talk to each other as much! Thank you to our fantastic guide Karan as well as our wonderful tour group for making the trip so enjoyable!
We started the trip with a bit of an error in that we didn’t read that the tour itinerary only included India Gate. As a result, all we have to show for our time in the capital is a picture of the iconic monument and some pictures of the pollution in the city (spoiler alert – it’s bad). Not exactly an extensive report on one of the world’s largest metropolis’ but we’ll be back to finish the job soon enough!
“The Pink City” is known so because in 1876, the whole city was painted pink to welcome the old Prince of Wales to town. I cannot imagine anyone going through that level of faff for one of Charles’ visits today but it does mean that Jaipur is one of the most distinctive cities in India. It is also home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as much more:
Amer Fort – The jewel in the Jaipur crown and perhaps the best palace in Rajasthan. The interior is spectacular and the views of the surrounding area (including the mammoth fort walls) make the place what it is. As Bollywood fans, knowing that Jodhaa Akbar was shot here added to the experience as well!
Jantar Mantar – A collection of 19 astronomical instruments built by Maharaja Jai Singh II who had a deep interest and remarkable understanding of the subject. A couple of things hit you here – firstly that it’s amazing that Jai Singh even bothered with all this considering he had to deal with mental Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and the like. Secondly, he must have been bloody smart, 10 minutes of listening to audio guide explanations left us dazed, confused and no closer to understanding what half these things do. Very impressive though.
Nahargarh Fort – Nothing like the splendour of Amer Fort but it does have the benefit of being in Jaipur city which means it probably offers the best views in the area.
Hawa Mahal – Otherwise known as the “Palace of the Winds”, this Mahal was built for the royal ladies to allow them to observe street life as they were forbidden from being seen in public.
Jal Mahal – A beautiful palace in the heart of Man Sagar Lake. Alas, it can only be viewed from afar but having been to Udaipur, that’s normally the best bit of these lake palaces anyway.
Walking through the pink city – A must do just to soak in the vibe of the place! You’d have thought 3 weeks in India would have made us immune to the carnage but the livestock, garbage and road chaos gets you every time. The markets are full of colour and spice and everywhere you look something is happening – be it a cow crossing the road and holding up traffic, a scooter driver avoiding death by the skin of his teeth or a lady chasing our predominantly white group down the street in the hope of nabbing a selfie. India really is like nowhere else in the world – the buzz is just amazing.
Raj Mandir – And speaking of buzz there’s also nothing quite like watching a Bollywood (correction: Kollywood in this case!) movie in India. When “Superstar” Rajinikanth took down the bad guy in our movie, the cheering brought the house down and naturally, we joined in. On a side note, it is a little weird seeing 70 year old Rajinikanth flirt and dance around with a 27 year old from Liverpool but hey, whatever does it for you South India.
Chand Baori Stepwell – We’ve mentioned Bollywood a lot in recent blogs so here’s a Hollywood reference for you. This is the place where Bruce Wayne climbs out of the prison in the Dark Knight Rises! It’s about 2 hours from Jaipur but on the way to Agra so well worth the stopover.
Agra – the Taj Mahal
By all accounts (including our guide’s), the city of Agra is a bit of a dump but it also happens to have perhaps the finest monument in the world which means tourists flock to the place year after year.
The Taj Mahal was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as a tribute to Mumtaz – his favourite wife who died during the birth of her fourteenth child. It took 20 years to built and in today’s money, at an estimated cost of USD 830 million. Maybe romance is dead because after that show of affection it could only really go downhill from there!
Inside the Taj are the fake tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jahan (the real ones lie underground) but the magic of the place lies in the design of the exterior. Everyone has seen the pictures and everyone knows how spectacular it looks. But the intricacies of the architecture and the general aura of the place is something the pictures don’t capture. Here are our best efforts though (including the classic Instagramable one where you touch the top)!
A six hour train and 45 minute auto rickshaw took us into our 4th state of the G Adventures trip – Madhya Pradesh – and a quaint town called Orchha. It was a welcome change of pace and somewhere we would never had thought of visiting.
There are a couple of big tourist attractions – the Orchha palace is another example of great Indian architecture and the Centotaphs / Chhatris to the rulers of Orchha were as eerie as they were grand (and offered the most challenging set of stairs to climb on the trip!)
But I think what made Orchha one of the most memorable places on the trip for much of our group was the ability to just stop for a day or two and take in India’s way of living. Be it a cooking class, the local aarti, a visit to a paper factory or sunset on the banks of the River Betwa, Orchha offered a taste of the “real India” that you probably don’t experience zipping around the Golden Triangle on a tourist bus.
Before I describe the holy city, I should probably mention how we got there. Those familiar with India will know it’s a bloody huge place and the distance between Orchha and Varanasi is a solid 11 hour drive. Not wanting to waste too much time on travel, the tour opted for the sleeper train as a way of killing two birds with one stone. We shared a carriage with 62 other people and tucked in for the night, praying our bladders and bowels would hold firm until the morning. Verdict: Actually more comfortable than expected, particularly on the top bunk. Would happily do it again.
Onto Varanasi. Hindu mythology has it that Lord Shiva founded this site which makes it an extremely holy place. Nestled on the banks of the Ganges, Hindus come from across the country to cremate their loved ones and scatter the ashes in the holy river.
Varanasi is not a place where you hop from attraction to attraction like Jaipur – it is more an experience to take in the things you see walking through the ghats and cruising the river. Seeing the dead bodies being delivered and then cremated, watching the men (women rarely make the journey) scatter ashes in the river, seeing people bathe and brush their teeth in the not so hygienic waters and listening to the peaceful chants of the morning and evening aartis. I say this a lot about India but I’ll say it again – there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else.
A 6 hour train ride and 2 hour bus journey later we made it to the Nepal border! It is quite amazing how you can cross this imaginary line in the ground and suddenly the roads are clearer, the people look different and the language changes (a bit anyway). The biggest difference? The hooting stopped! I can hear the voices in my head again!
Despite the vast majority of the population being Hindu, Nepal host some of the most important Buddhist sites in the world with Lumbini chief amongst them.
Lumbini is known to be the place where Queen Mayadevi gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama who would later become known as the Buddha. As well as the Mayadevi temple where Buddha was born, the site also hosts the Ashoka pillar which acts as proof that the great emperor who spread Buddhism across the globe visited this site and acknowledged its significance.
Barauli / Chitwan
Before heading to the mountainous areas that Nepal is famous for, we had one more stop in the plains – the Chitwan National Park.
Our accommodation for this part of the trip was a community homestay at a local village called Barauli. It was absolutely brilliant – we were welcomed by the villagers with garlands and much fanfare and lived amongst them for two days as they went about their daily lives tending to their livestock and their children. An experience we haven’t had on this trip so far and something that we would probably not have done without G Adventures. As an added bonus the WiFi was excellent – all Nepali villages have high speed WiFi don’t you know #locallife.
The morning after our arrival we took a bike ride around the surrounding area. The place is so peaceful and who knew mustard seeds were so pretty. There was a nugget of activity among the peace though – we happened to stumble across a local Nepali wedding and, such was the Nepalese hospitality, we ended up joining the party! They even fed us!
Later that day we went on a safari to the Chitwan National Park. It was probably not the season to see the place heaving with wildlife and at one point I did think we may end up unlucky on this one. At the death however, we managed to catch the prize – a one horned rhino! It’s a proper unit, when it faced up to us we all became very aware that this guy could probably take us all out no problem. The baby rhino on the other hand was an absolute wimp – ran away at the first sight of us, came back and then ran away again! I suppose we were all young once…
A great day was capped off by a dance performance by the villagers who at the end of it all, invited us to join them for what can only be described as a 10 minute cardio session. Beers by the fire wrapped it all up very nicely.
A lot of tourists come to Pokhara to start their 2 week trek through the Annapurna region of the Himalayas mountains. For the less adventurous amongst us, Pokhara offers some of the most majestic views of the mountain range as well as a welcome selection of Western cuisine (I love dal as much as the next guy but sometimes you just need a good burger you know).
A sunrise drive up-to the top of Sarangkot mountain was first on the agenda – we got very lucky with the weather and everything was clear, from the Annapurna range to the World Peace Pagoda in Pokhara.
What followed was one of the best days of our life. We aren’t known for our love of extreme sports so when the option of paragliding came up there was a lot of umming and ahhing. But flying over the Pokhara valley was just too much of an opportunity to pass up. It was incredible -you fly at the same height as some of the Himalayan vultures and you feel like a bird. There’s no other way to describe it – you are literally flying. Can’t recommend this enough.
Pokhara was also the scene of our first momo cooking class! Momo’s are essentially a Nepalese dumpling – judge for yourselves whether we did a good job!
It’s important for us to mention our teachers at the class as well. The class was run by an organisation called SASANE which was kickstarted via a donation from G Adventures. SASANE helps women who have been victims of sexual abuse or human trafficking rebuild their lives. Many of these women are trained as paralegals so they can help others who have been in a similar position. Others are trained to work in tourism for which the cooking class is one such example. The girls were great teachers and their English was impeccable – a testament to what a great job they have done to date.
The Kathmandu Valley is the economic and cultural hub of Nepal. The Valley is home to 3 main districts – Kathmandu the capital, Bhaktapur and Patan – which each have various monuments taken their respective kingdoms. Given Nepal’s importance to both the Hindu and Buddhist religions, the area also holds a number of sites considered sacred to both.
Swayambhunath Temple – The Temple sits atop a hill and as well as offering great views of the valley, is considered one of the most sacred sites in Buddhism. Also known as the monkey temple because the place is heaving with them. Check out the eyes – Buddha is watching you!
Boudhanath Stupa – Buddha is still watching you! The Stupa is huge and dominates the skyline, particularly at night where it just seems to glow (we had a great view from our hotel)
Pashupatinath – A sacred Hindu site and in some ways Nepal’s answer to Varanasi. Bodies come here from all over the country to be cremated and, although we’ve seen it already in India, there was something particularly eerie about this place. I think the relative peace in Nepal compared to India meant that the cremation was all you really had to focus on (whereas in Varanasi there’s goats, people taking a dip in the river and plenty more going on). It definitely had an impact on us. The temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Kathmandu but I must make a confession – we didn’t see it. The faff of taking our shoes off and walking all the way to it was too much to bear. We are officially templed out after 2 months in Asia, I’ll read about it in Lonely Planet or something…
Kathmandu Durbar Square – The heart of Kathmandu city and host of a number of classic Nepalese temples. Parts of the area are in a shocking state following the 2015 earthquake but the main square looks magnificent and filled with iconic architecture.
Bhaktapur – One of the three old kingdoms and another fantastic monument to the architecture and culture that has been here in years gone by. Bhaktapur has it’s very own Durbar square (which probably isn’t quite as grand as Kathmandu’s) but it offers much more in terms of ruins of the old kingdom.
While some nutters were shelling out thousands to dance with death on the Everest base camp trek, we opted to see the worlds highest peak (and indeed the mountain range around it) from the comfort of our heated plane. We draw the limit at paragliding when it comes to adventure!
The views are absolutely phenomenal, just the thought that you are looking at the highest mountains in the world makes the trip worth it. I am well aware that these pictures could be anything so you’ll have to take my word for it – these are genuine photos of Everest out of a plane! The mountain was the only one that day which had its peak covered by the clouds giving an idea of the scale of the thing.
And after four months we’re on the home straight – to China and our final country before heading home!