Bombay Mix

We arrived in Mumbai early in the morning and walked out of the train station expecting the usual onslaught of drivers and tour guides offering their services. Either we were too early for them or they actually weren’t that excited by us?!

IMG_5326.JPG Our first sleeper train

Mumbai is India’s financial capital with money mainly coming in from international businesses, and feels upmarket in comparison to Delhi. Taxi’s, not auto rickshaws, dominate the southern areas, and the horizon is dotted with huge skyscrapers and international hotels. The picture is not all rosy though, with 60% of Mumbai’s population still living in slums.

IMG_5420.JPG Busy streets of Mumbai

After dumping our bags we headed out onto the streets, still without hassle, and admired Mumbai’s mix of Portuguese and colonial architecture. Starting at the “Gateway to India” we followed a well walked trail, which took us past many of Mumbai’s key sights.

IMG_5329.JPG Walking tour

IMG_5348.JPG Cricket in front of Mumbai University

The trail ended outside a beautiful Art Deco styled cinema. Where better to watch a Bollywood movie (and take a break from the relentless heat), than in the Bollywood epicentre of India? Khoobsurat is the latest film to be produced by Anil Kapoor and has most of the ingredients you would expect to find in a Bollywood movie. We would however have liked to see more big dance numbers! However, with tickets costing only £1.50 each we weren’t complaining…

The following day we took a ferry across to Elephanta Island. The island contains a network of caves, which house impressive carvings of various Hindu gods. The carved panels and statues were impressive, though there wasn’t much to see beyond the main cave. However, we thought it was worthwhile even if just for the boat trip. Looking back at Mumbai harbour from the sea gives you a really good feel of what it would have been like to have arrived by ship.

IMG_5355.JPG Boat trip to Elephanta Island

IMG_5368.JPG Entrance to main cave

IMG_5380.JPG Hindu God

IMG_5394.JPG Gateway to India alongside the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

We spent the early evening walking along marine drive, and watched the sun go down over the city. It has been great to be able to sit and watch the world go by without being asked if we need help, or if we mind having our picture taken, or if we would like to go to somebody’s shop. To finish off a perfect evening we had a cheeky beer in Leopolds, made famous by the book Shantaram.

IMG_5402.JPG Sunset on Marine Drive

IMG_5413.JPG Enjoying a drink at Leopolds

The morning of our final day was spent exploring the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalayan Museum (formally the Prince of Wales Museum). Housing exhibits from all over India it is a really interesting place and the complementary audio tour gives you a much better understanding of the key artefacts. This evening we head out to Goa on a sleeper train, where we are both looking forward to some chill time on the famed Goan beaches!

IMG_5425.JPG The museum grounds

C

Amritsar and the Golden Temple

As I write we are just leaving Amritsar, having spent a couple of days in this famous city located in the northwestern Punjab region of India.

Amritsar is best known as the home of the spectacular Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs. The city was founded in 1577 by a Sikh Guru, and later was a flashpoint in the fight for Indian independence in the early 20th century. Outside of the serene Golden Temple complex lies a network of frantically busy streets, constantly packed with pilgrims, touts, market stalls and legions of honking rickshaws.

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Heavy goods vehicle

We arrived in Amritsar by train from Delhi, after eventually managing to leave Kashmir by plane. Although we loved Kashmir, we stayed longer than we had originally intended, due to the devastating effect the floods had on the transport network. This had also limited what we were able to see and do whilst in Kashmir, and so we spent longer than we would have chosen sitting in the house, playing cards and chatting with the family. Although this was enjoyable, and the hospitality much appreciated, we were relieved to be able to return to Delhi and continue our journey.

We arrived into Delhi airport late at night, planning to leave for Amritsar the following afternoon by train. When we arrived at the station in the morning, we were informed that there were no second class tickets left, only 1st class. Oh well! We joined the trendy Indians and smart businessmen in 1st class, somewhat bringing down the standard in our travelling attire, laden with huge rucksacks. The train was excellent; huge reclining seats, overly aggressive air conditioning (we were both wearing our fleeces by the end), and an unceasing stream of food and drink served by the railway staff for the full 6 hour duration. Not bad for £16 each!

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Travelling in style

Upon arrival in Amritsar, our first stop was the Mata Temple. This temple commemorates the 20th century Hindu Saint Lal Devi, and reputedly has fertility-improving powers. It was not at all what we expected; instead of the usual solemn affair, the temple more closely resembled a fairground attraction. We were directed up a narrow set of stairs, which led us on a trail through crooked passages, up and down more rickety stairs, crawling along tunnels, walking through a canal of ankle deep water, and finally passing through another tunnel decorated as the mouth of some giant beast, complete with a full set of big pointy teeth. Throughout there were lavishly decorated shrines and statues, which included a giant pink horse and an archer with a reindeer, amongst other things. The whole experience was surreal, but also one of the most interesting and unusual temples we’ve seen so far.

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Following the trail

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Into the mouth of the beast

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One of the more sane rooms

After leaving the Mata temple we took a car to nearby Attari, a small town 30 km outside Amritsar, to watch the Border Ceremony which takes place each evening at the border with Pakistan. Strictly speaking, the purpose of the ceremony is simply to lower the national flag of each country and close the border for the night. However, it has evolved into a theatrical contest between the Indian and Pakistani soldiers; of power marching, high-stepping, chest-beating and general macho gesturing. Both sides are dressed in suitably gaudy uniforms, complete with large mohican-style fans on their hats which add a certain je ne sais quoi. The ceremony was really good fun to watch, and the loud music, huge crowds and impromptu Bollywood dancing scenes all combined to create a carnival atmosphere.

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Warming up the crowd with the Ladies Flag Relay

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Competitive marching

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Improving Indo-Pakistani relations

As the sun set, we headed back to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple by night. The temple was beautifully lit, and much quieter than when had stopped by earlier in the day. In accordance with Sikh etiquette, we deposited our sandals and donned scarves to cover our heads, before entering the temple to spend a peaceful hour soaking in the atmosphere.

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Evening at the Golden Temple

Although the whole complex is referred to as the Golden Temple, the actual Golden Temple is a stunningly ornate gold building, which sits at the centre of a large square lake, linked to the surrounding marble courtyard by a narrow causeway. The central building is topped by a shimmering dome, gilded with over 750kg of gold. Sikh pilgrims travel from across the world to submerge themselves in the Amrit Sarovar (the sacred water surrounding the temple, said to have healing powers), and file across the causeway to contemplate within the inner sanctum. Many pilgrims stay in the free dorms which adjoin the temple, and are also fed free of charge at the enormous temple canteen.

We had a more leisurely time the next morning, revisiting the Golden Temple to write postcards in the shade, followed by a brief visit to the Jallianwala Bagh (a park with a monument to commemorate the killing of hundreds of unarmed Independence protesters by the British army in 1919). After a delicious lunch of dhosa (savoury filled pancake) and kulchi (a Punjab delicacy – paratha bread filled with spices, herbs and potato) at a tucked away little cafe, we headed back to the train station and left for Delhi (lowly 2nd class this time). We plan to stop overnight, before heading south on a sleeper train to Mumbai tomorrow.

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Feeding the masses

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Bathing in the holy waters

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Another light lunch – paneer dhosa

L

Into the Himalaya

After a week in Srinagar, the roads were finally in good enough condition for us to be able to leave for the mountains.

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All our gear!

We drove for a couple of hours up the valley, past beautiful terraced rice paddies and tiny rural villages, to reach Naranag. This remote settlement nestled at the foot of the Himalayas is known locally as the ‘Gypsy village’, after the ethnic group of the self sufficient, semi Nomadic mountain people who live here. We quickly realised that they bore no resemblence to the caravan-dwelling Gypsys we have in the UK!

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Gypsy home life

We stayed the night in Naranag, which was interrupted by a black bear trying to steal corn from the fields. Fortunately for us, the barking dogs scared it away!

The next morning we headed up a steep track, with 2 local guides and 4 pack horses. The village is at an altitude of roughly 2,800m, and so we were both panting for the first few hours of ascent, after which the path levelled out, with us reaching base camp (approx 3,500 – 4,000m) in time for lunch.

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The ascent

The next couple of days we set off on walks from camp, reaching two beautiful glacial lakes on the first day, and climbing to the top of the ridge for an incredible panorama on the second day. The scenery up here is stunning; many mountain areas at a similar altitude are bare and arid, but here was lush and alpine-esque, with pine forests and flowers.

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The view from camp

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First to cross the freshly constructed bridge

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Lake Gangabal

We’ve now returned to the Dundoo family home in Srinagar, where the floodwater has fallen significantly but is still covering all of the major roads. We are hoping to head out of Kashmir as soon as possible, to continue with our journey through Northern India.

L

From Delhi to flooded Kashmir

We have been in India for almost 2 weeks now. Arriving in Delhi, we spent our first couple of days doing a mix of admin jobs and sightseeing.

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Delhi

Our main admin job was to obtain a VISA for Burma. They say in India that nothing happens quickly – after a rickshaw, taxi (with a customary stop at the petrol station) and a trip to the bank (the Burmese embassy don’t accept cash or card, only a bank draft), we at last had a piece of paper stating that we could collect our passports with Burma VISA the following afternoon.

The challenges of the morning left us in need of some R&R, and so we spent the rest of the afternoon in a rooftop cafe oasis, an excellent place to look down on the hustle and bustle of the busy market street below, but not be part of it.

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Enjoying the calm rooftop of Sam’s Cafe, above the busy market street

The following day we played tourists and visited the Red Fort. Constructed at the height of the Mughal empire this was a majestic fortress made of sandstone, lavishly decorated with marble and precious stones. Converted to barracks by the British and looted over the centuries, it has lost some it’s splendour, but is still an impressive collection of buildings.

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The impressive Red Fort

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Exploring the grounds

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Supertourist in action!

We then headed to nearby markets in the search of food, before returning to the Burmese embassy and successfully collecting our VISAs.

The following day we headed out of Delhi on a flight to Srinagar, where we had booked accommodation for the next 3 nights. This was a slight detour from the original plan, which was to head up to the Himalayan regions of Manali and Leh. The notorious road between these towns, which passes along the sides of steep gorges and over high mountain passes, was at high risk of landslides following several days of heavy rain.

Srinagar is part of Kashmir, a province of India which has experienced high political tensions and occasional violence since Indian independence in 1947; however luckily for us the situation is currently stable. We arrived to pouring rain (it would appear that it wasn’t just Manali that was receiving higher than usual rainfall) and were picked up by a guy named Show, who drove us to our houseboat accommodation.

The main attraction in Srinagar are the iconic houseboats, which first appeared in colonial times, when the British were forbidden from owning land. Our boat, “H.B. Young Sunbeam”, is around 70 years old, featuring beautiful hand carved wooden panels and ornate period furniture. Nearly all of the houseboats are situated on Dal Lake, a beautiful, mirror flat stretch of water which perfectly reflects the surrounding mountains.

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View from the boat

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Charlotte relaxing on House Boat Young Sunbeam

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The serene Dal Lake, framed by the Pir Panjal mountains

Our boat is owned and run by the Dundoo family, who have hosted guests for several generations. This is recorded in their extensive collection of handwritten letters from visitors, which date back to 1917!

We learned on route that this was day 5 of continuous rain. The drive from the airport was punctuated with roads under several feet of water. Unfortunately the rain kept falling and the level of the lake continued to rise.

Two days after our arrival the rain finally stopped; however swollen rivers from the surrounding valleys caused the water level to keep rising and rising. By this point, it was decided to evacuate the family (who lived in a house on stilts behind the boat) to their large home on the mainland. It wasn’t long before the same happened to us, and we were extremely fortunate to be taken into the family home, where we have been well looked after. As well as being a refuge from the flood, living with the family has been a fascinating cultural experience.

After several more days the water level finally reached a maximum, having resulted in the worst flood in living memory. Many buildings were underwater up to the 3rd floor, forcing thousands of people out of their homes, with the military offering aid in the form of rice and water. Electricity and mobile phone signal were both turned off, resulting in a lack of information and no means of outside contact.

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Flooded roads

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Flooded buildings

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More flood damage

Despite our immense gratitude to the Dundoo family for their hospitality, nearly a week’s confinement to the house and the small surrounding area of dry land has left us eager to escape the flood. We are hoping to head up to the nearby mountains for a few days of trekking as soon as the roads are passable…

C

In and out of China

So, we have finished our train journey to Beijing and are now in Hong Kong Airport, en route to Delhi.

We really enjoyed the train – as mentioned in the last post, we were very lucky to be sharing a compartment with a nice couple. The landscape through the Gobi was impressive, but quite monotonous. Sandy scrub land as far as the eye could see, not quite the Sahara-style sand desert we had imagined.

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Cold in the train to begin with

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Leaving Mongolia

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Enjoying the view

We reached the Chinese border late at night, where we spent several hours undergoing rigorous (repetitive!) immigration checks. Also, as the train track gauge is different in China and Mongolia, we another few hours in a station building whilst the train carriages were separated, raised, and the wheels of the train (the ‘bogeys’) were adjusted to the Chinese track dimensions by a clever machine.

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Changing the bogeys

We woke up the next morning to ugly industrial towns, which soon improved to a pretty stunning gorge, before arriving in Beijing. This was a bit of a shock after Mongolia – so many people!!

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Through the gorge

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Lunch

Due to our poor planning skills we spent a large part of the afternoon wandering Beijing trying to find our hotel, which we had failed to print out a map for. Eventually we located the hotel, had a couple of hours downtime, and found a brilliant Chinese restaurant down a back street, where we accidentally ordered far too much (delicious) food.

The next morning we left Beijing, and are now in Hong Kong for a few hours before travelling on to Delhi. Beijing airport was a pain; Hong Kong has been bliss by comparison!

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Coming in to land at Hong Kong

Very excited now about arriving in India, and looking forward to stopping the constant flights / trains / transfers for a while!

L

Leaving Mongolia

We are currently on the train, and as it is chilly I am writing this post wrapped up in a blanket! We have now completed our tour of Mongolia and are heading out on the Trans-Mongolian railway to Beijing.

In the final week, we spent a couple of days at Lake Khovsgol, fittingly described as the “blue pearl of Mongolia”. The water is crystal clear, and the colours are incredible – aquamarine around the edges and dark blue in the middle.

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Writing the journal

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Clear water

We decided that the best way to appreciate the lake would be to get on it. Most ger camps around the area offer canoeing, kayaking and boat trips; of these, we opted for kayaking. This was great value, some much needed exercise, and the best way to appreciate just how clear the water is. Even 50 metres out into the lake, you can still see boulders deep beneath you.

The lake is ringed with large hills, some of which have old vehicle tracks leading to the top. We spent several hours hiking up one of these, and were treated to a stunning view. Once back down at the lake we couldn’t help ourselves from taking a quick dip in the icy cold water.

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Lunch with a view

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Summit

Following on from Lake Khovsgol we spent 5 days and 4 nights driving south through beautiful valleys and passes, returning to UB. Most of the days were spent on the truck but we did have one final monastery to visit.

Amarbayasgalant Monastery is among the largest monasteries to have survived the Russian purges, today one of Mongolia’s central religious centres. Walking around you see many young children between 8 and 13 years old. In Mongolia, monasteries are one of the ways in which children are offered an education, all be it a religious education. On the hillside behind the monastery is a large golden Buddha, which is easy to walk up to on a flight of marble stairs.

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Amarbayasgalant Monastery

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Big Buddha

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Cook team

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Bush camp

Arriving back in UB on the 30th August, our first job was a SHOWER!!!! For most of our bush camps we have stopped by rivers, streams or lakes; unfortunately this was not possible on the return loop, so we resorted to a wet wipe showers instead.

Before leaving Mongolia we went out for a final group meal. In need of something other than mutton stew we found an Indian restaurant called ‘Namaste’ nearby, which was excellent, even if a bit pricy by local standards. The final goodbye was hard, having made some good friends during the past 3 weeks on the truck. We hope to see some of them again further into the trip.

As mentioned above, we have now started a 28 hour train journey to Beijing. We are sharing our sleeper compartment with a friendly Belgian couple who are basically a mirror image of ourselves – travelling for a similar amount of time, to similar places, and even with similar jobs (teacher and energy engineer). Looking forward to reaching China!

C