A Travellerspoint blog

First stop Kyrgyzstan

sunny 22 °C


It's 7am at the airport on Bishkek. With just a couple of windows open and no one directing traffic at Immigration, inching forward is all about how aggressive you're feeling. The upside: It takes so long that the bags are waiting for us. Next a test of negotiating skills, but once in the taxi, the atmosphere changes dramatically. It's a 30 minute drive to the center on a straight, flat, virtually deserted road. A few minutes into the ride we realize that while we're driving on the right side of the road, the steering wheel is also on the right. Even more confusing, some of the (few) cars we speed by are lefthand drive. Apparently, you can choose; righthand drive being the cheaper option. It's all very green and our cab driver, who looks about 15 and speaks remarkably good English, tells us it's the best time of year to visit. Although it's quite hot (>35°), most of the sites are in the mountains and judging by the quantity of snow on the peaks that cut an irregular line across the sky in the distance, we won't be too hot for long.

Buildings and shops with signs in cyrillic start to appear. I probably should have bought that "Point It" book. At Ultimate Adventures Guesthouse, we're greeted by a kind woman who shows us to a very basic room for 40 eu with breakfast which feels a bit expensive for this shoebox with paper-thin walls and shared bath.
Our room, Ultimate Adventures, Bishkek (20 eu/person with breakfast)

Our room, Ultimate Adventures, Bishkek (20 eu/person with breakfast)

She starts talking Kyrgyz or Russian, we're not sure, as if we might understand. After a few giggles and the help of our Russian phrase book, we've ordered breakfast. Later, we meet one of the French-speaking owners, Smail, who, as hoped for, proves to be a goldmine of information. As we still need the visa for Tajikistan, we've got a couple of days in Bishkek to formulate a plan for the next month.

The application for the Tajik visa is surprisingly easy and it so happens that on the day we apply, there is a Tajikistan cultural evening at the Bishkek Philharmonic.
Fountain in front of Bishkek Philharmonic

Fountain in front of Bishkek Philharmonic

Police cadets by statue of (hero) Manas, in front of Bishkek Philharmonic

Police cadets by statue of (hero) Manas, in front of Bishkek Philharmonic

Tajik cultural performance at Bishkek Philharmonic

Tajik cultural performance at Bishkek Philharmonic

The city is a grid of long, wide avenues with soviet-style buildings. On the main square, we stop to watch the changing of the guards. Total respect as they stand still in the boiling heat for hours. The mix of people on the streets is so interesting: Russian, Mongolian, Chinese - fair skin/Asian eyes, sometimes blue : Eurasian. While Kyrgyzstan is predominantly Muslim, most women are not veiled or covered at all. In fact, most are quite feminine, in short or long dresses, heels, accessories and make-up. They are also not hiding from the sun as much as other Asians do.
National Museum of Kyrgystan and guards on Alatoo Square, Bishkek

National Museum of Kyrgystan and guards on Alatoo Square, Bishkek


Bishkek restaurant

Bishkek restaurant


Russian Orthodox Church on Togolok Moldo street

Russian Orthodox Church on Togolok Moldo street

Kyrgyz like their beverages fermented and on every corner, sometimes out of their cars, in every restaurant and cafe, people are selling Koumis, fermented mare's milk, Tan, fermented cow's milk or Kvas a drink made from fermented bread. In one restaurant we are offered Maxim, a fermented cereal drink. One sip and we push the pitcher away. Aside from the sour taste, the consistency is akin to the liquid you drink before a colonoscopy. Let's call it acquired.
Selling Koumis from the back of the car

Selling Koumis from the back of the car

Food is also a challenge. Most dishes are made with lamb and lamb fat. And not just any fat. We're talking big chunks of fat from the animal's backside. Even rice is cooked in this giving everything a heady taste and oily consistency. The culinary saving grace is Shashlyk, skewered kebabs of lamb, beef and sometimes chicken, and a fresh tomato salad. Little do we know, we'll be eating this almost every day for the next 3 months. Vegetarians will be sorely tested throughout Central Asia.

The Osh bazaar in Bishkek is a sprawling market where you can buy anything. Really. It also makes for a good practice zone for Russian lessons. Within a few days, one of us has learned the cyrillic alphabet and can count making purchases, ordering food and negotiating taxis much more manageable. I'm relying on Google Translate which also works really well, provided you download the off-line version.
Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek


Butcher, Bishkek

Butcher, Bishkek


Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

Osh Bazaar, Bishkek

While it is more or less possible to visit the country via public transportation, it's neither easy nor convenient. Marshrutkas, mini vans with designated stops are cheap, crowded and plentiful in the city, while shared taxis (which only move when full, though you are welcome to pay for the whole car and you have to pay for their return trip) can get you to points further, but then what? Not to mention that some locations require 4-wheel drive. It doesn't take much to figure that having a car and driver is the way to go. Smail makes it easy by introducing us to Alexey Drosdov (alexdrosd@gmail.com), a Kyrgyz/Russian who honed his English working for the American Embassy in Bishkek. One look at his fully-loaded Toyota Land Cruiser and we're sold.
Alexey Drosdov, our driver/guide and his Toyota Land Cruiser

Alexey Drosdov, our driver/guide and his Toyota Land Cruiser

We set out for a 2 week circuit with radar detector, camera filming front and back, "snorkel" a funny-looking contraption that filters dust away from the engine, altimeter, all kinds of charging capabilities for comps, phones, batteries, 40 litres of water, camping equipment and enough provisions to survive bad cuisine. Smail has laid out a plan for us with the caveat that we are free to change the program anytime, which suits us perfectly. Heading out of Bishkek, we drive through a gorge and up to about 3000 meters (approximately x 3 for feet) where we wait at the entrance of a bleak tunnel. People here do not line up in an orderly fashion, but rather jostle for position eager to get through first. When we finally pass, we see that it was a herd of sheep on their way to the Suusamyr Valley that had halted traffic.

The foothills are blanketed in various hues of green with a few white patches set against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks. During the brief summer months, shepherds from surrounding villages bring their herds of sheep, goats and horses to graze in the "jailoos" (mountain pastures) setting-up yurt camps for the season.

Our first stop in the valley is the village of Kojomkul named after a remarkably strong man famous for moving massive boulders weighing hundreds of kilos. He would have been in the Guinness book, but it was only established in 1955, the year he died. He was 2.36 meters tall and weighed around 165 kilos. His modest house is now a museum where they have preserved his grossly oversized clothing which Alexey models for us.
Village of Kojomkul

Village of Kojomkul


Village of Kojomkul

Village of Kojomkul


Museum caretaker (and relative) with bust and painting of Kojomkul

Museum caretaker (and relative) with bust and painting of Kojomkul


Alexey trying on Kojomkul's clothing

Alexey trying on Kojomkul's clothing


In front of the Sports Palace in Bishkek, there is a statue of Kojomkul holding a horse.
Statue of Kojomkul in Bishkek

Statue of Kojomkul in Bishkek

The highly-developed network called Community Based Tourism (CBT) in Kygyzstan offers accommodation either in local homes or yurts for about 11 euros/person/night with breakfast. Dinner is an additional 4 euros per person. Rooms can be booked in advance or not. Bigger towns have a CBT office where you can choose from photos, or guides take you to places they know. Our first homestay is at number 13 in the village of Kyzyl Oi (250 kms from Bishkek).
Homestay, Kyzyl Oi (11 eu/person with breakfast)

Homestay, Kyzyl Oi (11 eu/person with breakfast)

Dining room, homestay, Kyzyl Oi

Dining room, homestay, Kyzyl Oi


Street scene, Kyzyl Oi

Street scene, Kyzyl Oi

Mosque, Kyzyl Oi

Mosque, Kyzyl Oi

At 1735 meters, it's already much cooler and we head out for an afternoon hike across a shaky footbridge over rushing snow melt that is the Kokomeren River. The air is filled with the delicious scent of wild thyme.
Footbridge, Kokomeren River, Kyzyl Oi

Footbridge, Kokomeren River, Kyzyl Oi

Kokomeren River, Kyzyl Oi

Kokomeren River, Kyzyl Oi

Cemetery, Kyzyl Oi

Cemetery, Kyzyl Oi


Cemetery, Kyzyl Oi

Cemetery, Kyzyl Oi

It's cold at night and as in most homes, the toilet and shower are outside, but they are surprisingly up-to-date - western toilet, piping hot water and great pressure. Oddly, the family does not use the modem conveniences. They have more "traditional" facilities in the back yard. It's amazing how quickly you get used to walking around in a towel, removing your shoes at the door (a custom native to most of Asia) and limiting trips outside. Imagine the cold winter months...
Toilet and shower across the driveway, homestay, Kyzyl Oi

Toilet and shower across the driveway, homestay, Kyzyl Oi

Outdoor kitchen, homestay, Kyzyl Oi

Outdoor kitchen, homestay, Kyzyl Oi

It's only Day 2 and Alexey suggests that we change our plan. He's full of ideas and options and quickly understands what may interest us. We hike for another couple of thyme-infused hours in another direction in the morning and after a hearty lunch we head to Lake Song Kul (3016 meters) for our first night in a yurt.
Hiking around Kyzyl Oi

Hiking around Kyzyl Oi

On the outskirts of Kyzyl Oi

On the outskirts of Kyzyl Oi


On the way to Lake Song Kul

On the way to Lake Song Kul

Cemetery on the way to Lake Song Kul

Cemetery on the way to Lake Song Kul

It's about 200 kms with the last 60 or so are on a bumpy, unpaved road. It's our first glimpse of just how comfortable the jeep is and what it is capable of. The sky is looking pretty ominous and around Kalmak Ashu Pass it begins to snow!
Kalmak Ashu Pass on the way to Song Kul Lake (3500 meters)

Kalmak Ashu Pass on the way to Song Kul Lake (3500 meters)

Kalmak Ashu Pass on the way to Song Kul Lake (3500 meters)

Kalmak Ashu Pass on the way to Song Kul Lake (3500 meters)

We cannot imagine getting to Song Kul without a 4 wheel drive, though it is possible as attests the damaged roadster of a couple of (nutty) German guys who arrive rather worse for wear after us. Song Kul is perhaps one of the prettiest sites in Kyrgyzstan. The lake stretches almost 30 kms and depending on the sky is anything from bright turquoise to deep blue, bordered by green pastures with snow-covered mountains all around.
Lake Song Kul

Lake Song Kul

Lake Song Kul

Lake Song Kul


Milking horses, Lake Song Kul

Milking horses, Lake Song Kul

White yurt camps are set up near the water. Each camp has 5-6 yurts with a couple of outhouses set back at an odor appropriate distance and there's usually a free-standing sink somewhere in the middle. No showers.
Yurt camp, Lake Song Kul

Yurt camp, Lake Song Kul

Yurt camp, Lake Song Kul

Yurt camp, Lake Song Kul

Outhouses, CBT yurt camp, Lake Song Kul

Outhouses, CBT yurt camp, Lake Song Kul


The sink, Lake Song Kul

The sink, Lake Song Kul

Yurts can accommodate upto 6 people and each has a wood-burning stove. The floor of the yurt is the grass, covered with locally-made felt carpets. We have a yurt to ourselves with a double bed made-up on a stack of thin mattresses on the ground, clean sheets and lots of typical Kyrgyz blankets. Stacks of blankets being an indication of wealth.
Our yurt, lake Song Kul (11 eu/person with breakfast)

Our yurt, lake Song Kul (11 eu/person with breakfast)

There is a separate yurt (tent or trailer) for communal dining, sometimes at picnic tables, often cushions on the floor.
Yurt camp, Lake Song Kul

Yurt camp, Lake Song Kul

Dining yurt, Lake Song Kul

Dining yurt, Lake Song Kul

While we have dinner, the stove in our yurt is lit so that it's warm when we retire. The fire burns out after a few hours and it's freezing if you have to get up, but the reward for traipsing to the outhouse in the middle of the night is the mind-blowing sky. The creamy band of the Milky Way stretches across your entire field of vision with trillions of stars shimmering, shooting and posing in 3D formations within in what feels like arm's reach. For a few minutes, you completely forget the cold.

One of the more popular activities in Kygyzstan is horseback riding. A local man, taking a few horses to the other side of the lake agrees on a fair price to take me along. While the scenery is beautiful, the ride is a bit boring and no amount of encouragement and downright kicking phases my horse so after a few hours I get off knowing it's just a matter of time before the jeep catches up with me.
Horseback riding, Lake Song Kul

Horseback riding, Lake Song Kul

Lake Song Kul

Lake Song Kul


Yurt camp, Lake Song Kul

Yurt camp, Lake Song Kul

We spend the night on the opposite side of the lake where some locals are installing a yurt camp. Notice, the emblem on the Kyrgyz flag is the form of the top of the yurt.
Kyrgyz flag

Kyrgyz flag


Assembling a yurt, Lake Song Kul

Assembling a yurt, Lake Song Kul


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By dinnertime we're exchanging stories with a group of Swiss bikers, an Italian-British couple, an Austrian novelist, and an older Frenchman who refuses to stop traveling despite his children's concerns for his health.

We leave Song Kul via Parrots Pass (3050 meters), famous for its series of 32 switchbacks. Suddenly, a goat with its head stuck in a rusted paint can, stumbles onto the road. Without hesitation we all jump out if the jeep and the guys manage to grab and free it. If only, I had the reflex to reach for the camera...
32 serpentines, Parrots Pass, near Lake Song Kul

32 serpentines, Parrots Pass, near Lake Song Kul

If you're counting, we haven't had a shower in a couple of days and we're heading for another few nights in the mountains, We stop in the town of Naryn at the CBT office where wifi is free and for a bit more than 1 euro/person, we are directed to an apartment building for a hot shower in someone's home. 240 kms later, we arrive in Tash Rabat with its landmark the Caravanserai, an inn for caravans. Depending on who you talk to it dates back to somewhere between the 10th and 15th centuries and may also have served as a monastery. Just a shell now this was a place to stop, have a meal and sleep along the Silk Route.
Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat


Caravanserai, Tash Rabat

Caravanserai, Tash Rabat


Caravanserai, Tash Rabat

Caravanserai, Tash Rabat

The road leading to it narrows into a gorge once controlled by bandits. You either paid to get through, or you took an uncomfortably long detour, if they let you. There are several yurt camps in the vicinity including one particularly fancy one for $45/person/night! Their yurts have wooden floors and the outhouses have western toilets!
Fancy yurt camp, Tash Rabat

Fancy yurt camp, Tash Rabat

We stick to a standard, more authentic, yurt camp further up the road.
Yurt camps, Tash Rabat

Yurt camps, Tash Rabat

Yurt camp, Tash Rabat

Yurt camp, Tash Rabat

Yurt camp, Tash Rabat

Yurt camp, Tash Rabat

Dining room, yurt camp, Tash Rabat

Dining room, yurt camp, Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat is a beautiful area to hike or ride horses. The craggy ridge above us looks like the back of a dinosaur. We set-off after breakfast looking for the lake that offers a view of China. For hours we walk up and up some more. Aside from the occasional marmot we are alone. Usually they run way before we get close, but the wind masks our scent and we get really close to one thinking it must be dead. Suddenly it jumps up, loses its balance and backpedals in place like a cartoon character before scrambling to one of the many holes that dot the landscape. Every hill brings the hope of the elusive lake, but the view from every crest is yet another hill. It's getting harder to breath (3500 meters) and after 5 hours, a mini picnic, a snow shower, and some crackling thunder we give up and turn back (23 kms walked).
Tash Rabat

Tash Rabat

Hiking, Tash Rabat

Hiking, Tash Rabat

Marmot, Tash Rabat

Marmot, Tash Rabat

Marmot, Tash Rabat

Marmot, Tash Rabat

Hiking, Tash Rabat

Hiking, Tash Rabat

Over dinner with a French couple from Aix en Provence and their guides, we figure out where we missed a turn and settle on their photos.

Again, we modify the itinerary and head southwest towards Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan. We stop at MELS Pass (Marx Engels Lenin Stalin) on the way towards Bayetovo, by the monument dedicated to the Russian man who built this road. A local truck has also stopped to admire the panorama and they're overjoyed to meet us and to share a toast with the family in the back of the truck. It's a bit early for vodka and the only other option is koumis. Thankfully, no one minds if I abstain.
Drinking Koumis with locals at MELS Pass

Drinking Koumis with locals at MELS Pass


On the road to Kazarman

On the road to Kazarman

On the road to Kazarman

On the road to Kazarman

Cemetery on the road to Kazarman

Cemetery on the road to Kazarman

On the road to Kazarman

On the road to Kazarman

The scenery, is a mix of wide panoramas and narrow mountain passes.
Eagle at top of Kaldama Pass (3062 meters) Fergana Valley

Eagle at top of Kaldama Pass (3062 meters) Fergana Valley


Eagle at top of Kaldama Pass (3062 meters), Fergana Valley

Eagle at top of Kaldama Pass (3062 meters), Fergana Valley

About an hour before Osh, we stop in Uzgen to visit the minaret and mausoleum.
Uzgen Minaret

Uzgen Minaret

Uzgen Mausoleum

Uzgen Mausoleum

Osh is much hotter than northern Kyrgyzstan, but Alexey's friend "Joma" takes us to a nicely shaded restaurant and as the day ends the temperature settles around perfect. The next morning we visit Suleyman Too (throne of Solomon) the mountain of 5 small peaks that dominates the city. It is believed that the Prophet Mohammed prayed here and has since become an important pilgrimage site. A 20 minute climb gets you to a series of caves, one which houses a cultural museum offering a cool escape.
City of Osh

City of Osh


New mosque below Suleyman Too, Osh

New mosque below Suleyman Too, Osh

New mosque below Suleyman Too, Osh

New mosque below Suleyman Too, Osh

Joma has organized lunch at yet another friend's restaurant. He brings Samsas (the Kyrgyz version of samosa pastry filled with chunks of lamb fat and a little meat) cooked in a tandoor oven, a specialty of Osh. Tea, be it black or green, accompanies every meal in Kygyzstan and while we are thirsting for a cold drink, they insist that we drink hot tea with the samsas to melt the fat in our bloodstream... The main course is a specially prepared platter of Plov (rice with lamb and carrots). The meal ends with a fresh watermelon.
Tea with every meal, Osh

Tea with every meal, Osh

The bazaar in Osh is a vast network of alleys spread out on both sides of a river. Like most bazaars throughout Central Asia, the shops selling clothes, accessories & gadgets all operate out of former cargo containers. Bags of vegetables are piled high and buckets of fruit for jam, standard on every Kyrgyz table, stand on the ground. Men with carts are on hand to transport your purchases. As it is Ramadan, many shops are closed.
Fresh raspberries, Osh Bazaar

Fresh raspberries, Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar

Osh Bazaar

Turning northwest we drive to Arslanbob for a dramatic change of scenery. This tiny mountain village is surrounded by (supposedly) the largest walnut plantation in the world. We stop at the CBT office and choose a homestay from the photos on the wall. They all look pretty much the same and it's anybody's guess how far away the bathroom will be, so I pick my favorite number, 13. After lunch, we set off with a local guide to hike the area visiting a small and big(ish) waterfall.
Typical restaurant seating

Typical restaurant seating


Standard plastic tablecloth with Som (Kyrgyz currency)

Standard plastic tablecloth with Som (Kyrgyz currency)

The highlight is the walk through the walnut forest while the waterfalls are rather disappointing. The extremely rocky roads are painful to walk on leaving us exhausted after 15kms.
Panorama, Arslanbob

Panorama, Arslanbob


Village of Arslanbob

Village of Arslanbob

Walnut forest, Arslanbob

Walnut forest, Arslanbob


Typical rocky road, Arslanbob

Typical rocky road, Arslanbob

We drive along the border of Uzbekistan having to make a silly detour as official borders are still being worked out, and up a winding dirt road to Lake Sary Chelek. For the first time in weeks, the skies are gray and the lake is not as picturesque as usual.
Lake Sary Chelek

Lake Sary Chelek

Furthermore, the landscape here reminds us of Europe, so unlike the local tourists we meet, we are not as impressed. With the weather turning, we decide to head to the village of Kara Kou for the night only to find that the lone tourist hotel is sold out to an electricians convention. They offer us the possibility of sharing a room with other guests separating men and women, but we decide to continue.
Road from Arslanbob to Toktogul Reservoir

Road from Arslanbob to Toktogul Reservoir

Road from Arslanbob to Toktogul Reservoir

Road from Arslanbob to Toktogul Reservoir

Road from Arslanbob to Toktogul Reservoir

Road from Arslanbob to Toktogul Reservoir

Just as it's looking like we may need to pitch a tent in the rain, we spot a motel near Lake Toktogul, actually a reservoir. It's the cheapest room yet (8 euros for a double). The toilet, albeit inside, has me yearning for an outhouse.
Motel, Toktogul Reservoir

Motel, Toktogul Reservoir

Alexey belongs to a club called the Off Road Kings and their next expedition is coming up in a week. They have never taken tourists before, but he thinks we'd like it and the rest of the group agrees for us to join. We of course will take lots of photos even though they have hired a cameraman. The conditions will be pretty rude, but we decide that this is a unique opportunity, so we drive back to Bishkek for a few days to regroup and buy provisions in anticipation.
One stop yurt shopping

One stop yurt shopping

Posted by SpiceChronicles 11:34 Archived in Kyrgyzstan Comments (1)

We heart Greece

sunny 18 °C

We arrive in Athens with a "To Do" list consisting mainly of procuring visas for Central Asia where we have chosen to spend June - August. The weather should be hot and dry in the plains and much cooler at altitude. Anything to avoid the unbearable humidity of Southeast Asia that we experienced last year. Requirements vary depending on the "stan" and your citizenship. Kyrgystan offers a visa on arrival for most passports, but Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan each have their own procedures designed to test your patience and stamina. It takes several trips to each embassy, a few misunderstandings and about 7 working days for each visa. But embassies are always located in chic areas and we take advantage of walking to and from some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Athens. The weather is gorgeous. Chilly early and late and hot in the sun. The sky is standard Greek, royal blue without a cloud.
Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens

Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens


Hadrian's Gate, Athens

Hadrian's Gate, Athens

Parliament and statue of Vénizelos, Athens

Parliament and statue of Vénizelos, Athens

Of course the main topic of discussion is Greece's economic crisis, and while there are many empty storefronts, restaurants and cafes are full and the atmosphere seems hopeful. The city is clean, flowers are blooming and there are orange and lemon trees laden with fruit on every street.
Orange trees, Athens

Orange trees, Athens

It's pre-season in the Greek islands. The 5 hour (slow) boat drops us in Sifnos where the owner of the Grand View guesthouse is waiting. The room is basic: the view of Kamares Bay is glorious. Most places are shuttered, but a small supermarket, bakery and a couple of cafes are open.
Kamares Bay, Sifnos

Kamares Bay, Sifnos

Kamares Bay, Sifnos

Kamares Bay, Sifnos


Fighting the wind, Kamares, Sifnos

Fighting the wind, Kamares, Sifnos

The few locals seem almost surprised to see us. Every purchase ends with a gift. At the supermarket, the lady at the register throws in some extra fruit, a beer, etc. One lady runs after us waving what I imagine are forgotten keys, only to offer us chocolate. On another day, we are the first customers in a new shop and share in a toast to their success.

Sifnos is much less developed than the more famous Cycladic islands of Mykonos and Santorini. And like each of those, it has its own unique topography and character. Rugged hills, terraced in stone with flowering plants, herbs and olive groves dotted with blue and white churches, monasteries and a network of walking paths. A few well-paved winding roads connect a handful of villages. It's the weekend, and we wait at the bus stop for a bit too long until we decipher that the bus only runs during the week. In fact, the bus also serves as the school bus. With no transport, we start walking uphill towards the main town of Apollonia about 5 km inland. Anything that is open, closes between 2 and 5PM adding to the ghost town atmosphere.
Kamares Bay, roadside altar, Sifnos

Kamares Bay, roadside altar, Sifnos

Apollonia, Sifnos

Apollonia, Sifnos

Apollonia, Sifnos

Apollonia, Sifnos

We follow the typical white paths that wind through the villages looking for a place to rent for the next 6 weeks. As one of our requirements Is a nice view of the sea, we continue a few kilometers to the walled village of Kastro that sits high on a cliff with the islands of Paros and Antiparos in the background. Aside from a cat or two, there does not seem to be a soul here. Discerning some voices, I knock on a door and ask if anyone has a flat to rent. Calls to neighbors, searches for keys and we manage to visit a couple of places. While the idea of a 3000 year old village is appealing, nothing is quite ready to be occupied and the closest food store is a few klometers away in another village.
Kato Petali village, Sifnos

Kato Petali village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos


Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

Kastro village, Sifnos

As we head back, towards Apollonia, I see a group of ladies walking into a house and chase after them. I'm practically in the kitchen before they realize I've tagged along. The welcome is astonishing as they make calls and inquiries on my behalf and set up a couple of visits for the following day in neighboring villages.
Church near Kastro, Sifnos

Church near Kastro, Sifnos


Artemonas village, Sifnos

Artemonas village, Sifnos

Artemonas village, Sifnos

Artemonas village, Sifnos

Near Artemonas, Sifnos

Near Artemonas, Sifnos

We settle on Bella Vista, a small hotel set around a windmill in the tiny village of Artemonas. The fully-equipped studio is charming with a terrace overlooking Kastro in the distance. With typical Greek hospitality, we are welcomed with a plate of local cheese, olives, vegetables and of course some homemade Raki. Every day or 2 for the rest of our stay, the owners come by with goodies - fresh eggs from their chickens, honey from their bees, olive oil, olives, it's just so kind. It would be unfair to mark the price as it's the off season and we are the only guests, Suffice to say, it's an amazing deal.
Bella Vista, Artemonas, Sifnos

Bella Vista, Artemonas, Sifnos

Bella Vista, Artemonas, Sifnos

Bella Vista, Artemonas, Sifnos

Bella Vista, Artemonas, Sifnos

Bella Vista, Artemonas, Sifnos

View of Kastro village from our flat at Bella Vista, Artemonas, Sifnos

View of Kastro village from our flat at Bella Vista, Artemonas, Sifnos

From Artemonas to Kastro, there's an easy trail that takes you way down to a church perched on a ledge over the sea, then runs along the coast past another church to Kastro where you follow a steep-stepped path to the Church of Seven Martyrs that sits on a rock in the waters below Kastro. This church takes a beating when the seas are rough.
Panagia Poulati Church, near Artemonas, Sifnos

Panagia Poulati Church, near Artemonas, Sifnos


Sotiras Maina Church, near Artemonas, Sifnos

Sotiras Maina Church, near Artemonas, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Seven Martys Church, Kastro, Sifnos

Although the walking is great, having a scooter makes getting around more convenient and gives us the opportunity to visit some beautiful spots on the island like Heronisos, a traditional fishing village on the northern tip of the island and Platys Gialos a wide bay with a long sandy beach and crystal clear water in the south. We never see more than a few people at a time, but as the weeks pass, and the particularly wet and windy weather around Orthodox Easter clears, locals begin to prepare for the season.
Heronisos, Sifnos

Heronisos, Sifnos

Heronisos, Sifnos

Heronisos, Sifnos

Heronisos, Sifnos

Heronisos, Sifnos


Platys Gialos beach, Sifnos

Platys Gialos beach, Sifnos


Chrysopigis Church, Sifnos

Chrysopigis Church, Sifnos

I would not recommend any Greek destination during the high season, but It does not feel like this island gets as many tourists as some of the better-known Cyclades. Naturally, the incredibly reasonable hotel prices are due to the time of year.

The island of Paros is a short hop from Sifnos, but at this time of year, there's only one ferry a week and it makes a detour via Serifos before reaching Paros in 3 hours.
Serifos

Serifos

Here too, someone from the hotel awaits us at the ferry. It's a 10 minute drive around the bay of Parikia to Paros Paradise Apartments. Each spacious room, has a small kitchenette and a balcony overlooking the bay. Ours is particularly lovely with a flowering vine (27 euros). A path leads down to the bay and along the beach into the center of town (15 minute walk). The climb back with groceries is much more of an effort!
Paros Paradise Apts, Parikia, Paros

Paros Paradise Apts, Parikia, Paros

Paros Paradise Apts, Parikia, Paros

Paros Paradise Apts, Parikia, Paros

Friends from NY are here and we spend 2 days together exploring the island in their rental car. A small ferry, takes us (with car) to Antiparos where we stop for a delicious lunch by the water and contemplate where we'd put our house if we were Tom Hanks.
Paros

Paros

Castle of Antiparos

Castle of Antiparos

On our own for a few more days, we move to the small town of Naoussa a bit further northwest checking into Batista Apartments. Again we have a a cute room with a kitchenette, balcony with a picnic table and decent view of the water (28 euros). We rent a scooter and spend the next few days exploring the rest of the island.
Naoussa village, Paros

Naoussa village, Paros

Naoussa village, Paros

Naoussa village, Paros

Battistas Apartments, Naoussa, Paros

Battistas Apartments, Naoussa, Paros


Light House, Rock Park, near Katholika beach, Naoussa, Paros

Light House, Rock Park, near Katholika beach, Naoussa, Paros


Lefkes village, Paros

Lefkes village, Paros

Lefkes village, Paros

Lefkes village, Paros

With each passing day, ashops, restaurants and accommodations open, and every ferry brings more people. As the island season is about to start, we head back to Athens for a final week. The weather is really nice and much less windy than the islands.

It's the architecture of the Benaki Museum that draws us in as we walk by one late afternoon. The former mansion of the Benaki family who lived in Alexandria, Egypt is filled with art depicting Greek culture throughout history, from prehistoric objects to contemporary art. The collections are so vast that satellite museums focusing on influences from other cultures (Islam, China...) have been opened in other parts of the country.
Marble statue of Zeus, Benaki Museum, Athens

Marble statue of Zeus, Benaki Museum, Athens

Icon of Saint George, Benaki Museum, Athens

Icon of Saint George, Benaki Museum, Athens

Icon of the adoration of the magi, Benaki museum, Athens

Icon of the adoration of the magi, Benaki museum, Athens

A former gasworks, now called Technopolis or the Gazi offers an interesting backdrop for the Athens Jazz Festival.
Technopolis former gas factory, Athens

Technopolis former gas factory, Athens

Technopolis former gas factory, Athens

Technopolis former gas factory, Athens

Technopolis former gas factory, Athens

Technopolis former gas factory, Athens

Technopolis former gas factory, Athens

Technopolis former gas factory, Athens

Athens, Jazz festival at Technopolis

Athens, Jazz festival at Technopolis

Athens, Jazz festival at Technopolis

Athens, Jazz festival at Technopolis

Athens, Jazz festival at Technopolis

Athens, Jazz festival at Technopolis

As we finalize visas for the "stan" countries we agree that we'll be coming back to continue to explore the plethora of islands that are Greece.
Keramikos neighborhood, Athens

Keramikos neighborhood, Athens

Posted by SpiceChronicles 23:48 Archived in Greece Comments (9)

The final India entry... For now

sunny 25 °C


With the wedding and royal treatment behind us, for the first time in 3 days, we actually walk down the driveway, hail a tuk tuk to the bus stand and set off for our final few weeks in India. Suddenly, after 11 months here, we're feeling rushed!

The first stop is Bhopal, regretfully most famous for the Union Carbide chemical disaster of 1984 which killed thousands. Although the repercussions are still affecting the population today, the indelible images captured at the time have given way to a bustling, modern city.
Bhopal

Bhopal

The old part of the city is dominated by a large Muslim community ( >40%). And who says women have no recognition in their society? During the 19th century, Bhopal was ruled by Begums (Muslim women), one with the (unfulfilled) dream of building the largest mosque in the world during her lifetime; the Taj-ul-Masjid. It remains one of the largest in India. Intentionally or not, the oldest (and supposedly world's smallest) mosque is just across the street.
Taj-ul_Masjid Mosque, Bhopal

Taj-ul_Masjid Mosque, Bhopal

Taj-ul_Masjid Mosque, Bhopal

Taj-ul_Masjid Mosque, Bhopal

Bhimbetka, where over 500 cave dwellings with prehistoric paintings were discovered in a forest, is about an hour south of Bhopal by bus. From the bus stop, it is a 45 minute walk up a winding road in the blazing sun. For a few rupees you can flag down a motorcycle, but as walking is our only exercise, we huff it up the hill. A nicely tailored path with informative panels directs you around 15 of the dwellings. Some of the paintings, in remarkable condition, are 12,000 years old!
Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Cave paintings, Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Cave paintings, Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Cave paintings, Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Cave paintings, Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Cave paintings, Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

Cave paintings, Bhimbetka Rock Shelters

About an hour northeast of Bhopal are the Buddhist stupas of Sanchi which date back to 262 BC. A sacred place, the main stupa is particularly venerated. One lady, slowly makes her way around the temple on her stomach; praying then getting up to advance a few feet before laying down again to pray.
Devotee, Main Stupa, Sanchi

Devotee, Main Stupa, Sanchi

Detail Sanchi Stupa

Detail Sanchi Stupa

The overnight bus to Bandhavgarh National Park is supposed to be a sleeper, but a quick count of the faces staring back at us as we board says otherwise. We are given 2 regular seats while 6-8 people huddle in sleeping compartments designed for 2. And this is no short ride. Normally, we'd be dropped off at an intersection to catch a local bus to the town center, but it's the middle of the night when we arrive and the driver doesn't want to leave us in the dark, so he continues. A few kms later, he stops a local bus coming towards us, and we make the switch in the middle of the road much to the amusement of our fellow passengers.
Bus to Bandhavgarh

Bus to Bandhavgarh

Bus to Bandhavgarh

Bus to Bandhavgarh

According to our guide book, Bandhavgarh offers the best chance of seeing a tiger. We head out hopeful on an early morning safari, but there's not much wildlife, let alone tigers. We try a different route in the afternoon which is much more scenic. There's a lot of tiger food, but unfortunately, no tigers.
Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park


Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

Bandhavgarh National Park

We cling to the shade of the only tree close enough to the road not to miss a passing bus and wait, and wait some more. A few buses and a day later, we arrive in Varanasi. The contrast is shocking. The old part of Varanasi, one of, if not the most spiritual place in India (Hindu) is also one of the most crowded and dirtiest.
Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi


Train station, Varanasi

Train station, Varanasi

WARNING - sensitive photos:
People come here either to wash away their sins in the Ganges or to cremate their loved ones and set them off to smolder in it.
Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi

Life centers around the ghats (steps) leading to the water and the spectacle is a patchwork of color, ritual and reverence.
Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi

Finding your way to the water's edge is a dizzying labyrinth of narrow, winding streets lined with vendors, people, animals and everything associated with. Getting lost is par for the course and as the day wears on, moving through slows to a snail's pace. The endless offers are most annoying, but a boat ride on the Ganges at sunrise or sunset does not leave one indifferent.
Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi


Varanasi

Varanasi

There isn't a whole lot to say about Patna. Traffic is horrendous and there is a layer of grime coating the city. But it's a transit hub for a night before the train to Calcutta (Kolkata). We end up in something passable near a highway interchange, close to a good restaurant.
Highway interchange, Patna

Highway interchange, Patna


Autorickshaw, Patna

Autorickshaw, Patna


Patna

Patna


Patna Museum

Patna Museum


Patna Museum

Patna Museum

The night train to Calcutta is one of the nicest yet. We upgrade to first class A/C and share a compartment with 2 lovely ladies. Of course first class on an Indian train still means dinner in a foil tray, but service is excellent and the crew is constantly cleaning. Crisp sheets, a blanket and lights out by 11 leaves us feeling rested on arrival.

From Howrah train station, a ferry shuttles us across the Hooghly River for a few rupees.
Howrah Bridge, Calcutta

Howrah Bridge, Calcutta


One of the ghats along the Hooghly River, Calcutta

One of the ghats along the Hooghly River, Calcutta

As we walk towards the center we cannot believe our eyes. The streets are clean, cars stop for red lights, traffic flows in one direction at a time and the taxis are all Ambassadors. Colonial buildings, manicured gardens and churches are deliberately aligned along wide avenues. Far from the dirt and poverty we expected; this could be London! Well, I might be exaggerating a bit, but the first impression is more than civilized.
Calcutta

Calcutta


Calcutta

Calcutta


Calcutta

Calcutta


Calcutta

Calcutta

The Golden Apple Hotel on Sudder Street, the primary tourist area, is a modern budget hotel. For a big city this room at 32 euros a night is a deal. Comfy bed, flat screen TV, A/C, fridge, hair dryer. There's no restaurant, but the street has plenty of options and some places deliver to the room.
Golden Apple Hotel, Calcutta

Golden Apple Hotel, Calcutta

Built at the start of the 20th century for the Queen's (that would be Victoria) Diamond Jubilee, the Victoria Memorial is lovely both inside and out. The gardens surrounding the bright white marble monument are beautifully maintained. The collection of paintings and sculptures by renowned British artists, including brothers Thomas & William Daniell, along with memorabilia and thorough descriptions of the British occupation make for a fascinating visit. Most interesting, is that the crowds of tourists are, for the most part, Indian.
Victoria Memorial, Calcutta

Victoria Memorial, Calcutta

Tagore House, the tastefully preserved home of India's most famous modern poet and the country's first Nobel Prize laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, is filled with his personal belongings and collection of art.
Tagore House, Calcutta

Tagore House, Calcutta

You need to purchase authorization in advance to visit the Marble Palace, the 19th century home of a Raja with a passion for collecting. Descendants still live in one part of the house,e rooms There are all sorts of objects including, chandeliers and standing candelabras, ceramics, sculptures and silver. Every inch of wall is covered with gilded mirrors and paintings; some attributed to Rubens and Titian.
Marble Palace, Calcutta

Marble Palace, Calcutta

Calcutta is one of the few cities where rickshaws are still in operation, though these days some drivers wear shoes. Vendors on the streets are the cheapest we've seen in India. There are of course very overpopulated neighborhoods, and most citizens do not live in the mansions set back from the streets, or frequent the elegant country clubs that we are invited to, but modern, middle class neighborhoods with shopping malls and cafes have flourished on the outskirts of the city.
Rickshaw, Calcutta

Rickshaw, Calcutta


Rickshaw, Calcutta

Rickshaw, Calcutta


Rickshaw driver, Calcutta

Rickshaw driver, Calcutta


Calcutta

Calcutta


Calcutta

Calcutta


Calcutta

Calcutta


Sugarcane juice, Calcutta

Sugarcane juice, Calcutta


Calcutta

Calcutta


Rickshaw, Calcutta

Rickshaw, Calcutta

A billboard advertising the Kolkata Challenger, an ITF Pro-circuit tournament, catches our eye and we find our way to the tennis club on the final Sunday, only half expecting to get in. We are welcome to enter and take any seat court-side for the men's championship match. And with typical Indian hospitality, a cup of tea is served. Again, so civilized.
Men's Final Kolkata Challenger

Men's Final Kolkata Challenger


Men's final Kolkata Challenger

Men's final Kolkata Challenger


Men's final Kolkata Challenger

Men's final Kolkata Challenger


Men's final Kolkata Challenger

Men's final Kolkata Challenger


Men's final Kolkata Challenger

Men's final Kolkata Challenger


Men's final Kolkata Challenger

Men's final Kolkata Challenger

The neighborhood of Barabazar warrants its name. Streets are jammed with vehicles, rickshaws, people carrying inconceivable loads on their heads and vendors claiming the edges. The traffic is so dense that drivers simply cut their engines and wait.
Barabazar, Calcutta

Barabazar, Calcutta


Barabazar, Calcutta

Barabazar, Calcutta


Barabazar, Calcutta

Barabazar, Calcutta


Delivery, Calcutta

Delivery, Calcutta

Hidden within this chaos are several dilapidated churches, mosques and a few Jewish synagogues, one which offers a photographic retrospective of the once 30,000 strong Jewish community which hailed from Aleppo, Syria. The really nice touch is that the synagogues are maintained by Muslims, who are happy to show you around.
Magen David Synagogue, Calcutta

Magen David Synagogue, Calcutta


Beth El Synagogue, Calcutta

Beth El Synagogue, Calcutta

The next sleeper train takes us to Puri, located in southeast Odisha (Orissa) on the Gulf of Bengal. A bicycle rickshaw gives us the complete tour of the town. The center with its inordinately wide boulevard is dominated by the Jagannath Mandir (temple) dedicated to Jagannath, one of the incarnations of Vishnu. Non-Hindus cannot enter, but there's a really old library across the street which offers a nice view of the immense complex.
Bicycle rickshaw, Puri

Bicycle rickshaw, Puri

The Hotel Gandhara is a former private residence close to the beach. Our room is like a fishbowl with windows on 3 sides, overlooking a lovely garden with a pool (35 euros).
Hotel Gandhara, Puri

Hotel Gandhara, Puri

Bhubaneshwar, the city of temples and in particular those dating to medieval times, is a day trip from Puri by bus.
Ticket window, bus stand Puri

Ticket window, bus stand Puri

The ruins of hundreds of temples, some in relatively good condition are scattered throughout this busy, dusty city.
Lingaraj Mandir (temple), Bhubaneshwar

Lingaraj Mandir (temple), Bhubaneshwar


Mukteswar Mandir (temple), Bhubaneshwar

Mukteswar Mandir (temple), Bhubaneshwar


Mukteswar Mandir (temple), Bhubaneshwar

Mukteswar Mandir (temple), Bhubaneshwar


Raja Rani Temple, Bhubaneshwar

Raja Rani Temple, Bhubaneshwar

The 8th century Sun Temple at Konark is a World Heritage site. The temple represents the chariot of the Sun God Surya, with 24 massive stone wheels around the entire base of the construction and 7 horses "pulling" in front. Magnificent!
Konark Sun Temple

Konark Sun Temple


Konark Sun Temple

Konark Sun Temple


Konark Sun Temple

Konark Sun Temple


Konark Sun Temple

Konark Sun Temple


Konark Sun Temple

Konark Sun Temple

Since when does overpopulation correlate with throwing litter on the ground? Of course some effort is being made, but the overall mentality has yet to change. It's disheartening.
Garbage near Konark

Garbage near Konark

The overnight train from Puri to Delhi is again quite comfortable with excellent service relatively speaking. A few cappuccinos and good internet connection at our favorite hotel, the Grand Godwin in Paharganj (Delhi) and we're ready for an overnight bus to Amritsar the world capital of the Sikh community. Long distance buses sometimes leave from rather obscure places on the outskirts. It is the night before Holi (the festival of color celebrating the arrival of Spring) and locals are already lighting bonfires, throwing colored powders at each other and getting drunk. Anxious for the bus to arrive so that we can avoid getting dragged into the festivities, my heart sinks at the condition of our ride. Definitely, the crummiest sleeper bus to date. It's late, so we just squeeze into the cold and dirty compartment with our packs, shut the sliding aluminum door and pretend it's not so bad.
Waiting for the bus to Amritsar

Waiting for the bus to Amritsar


Waiting for the bus to Amritsar

Waiting for the bus to Amritsar


Bus to Amritsar from Delhi

Bus to Amritsar from Delhi

Thankfully, the brand new City Park Hotel in Amritsar makes up for the awful night (34 euros).
City Park Hotel, Amritsar

City Park Hotel, Amritsar

We join the throngs of people walking towards the sacred Golden Temple picking up head coverings along the way. Bags are checked, shoes must be left at the entrance, and feet are cleansed in a shallow pool of water leading to the main steps. The temple sits around a large basin of water where only Sikhs are permitted to bathe. Everyone else is welcome to walk around and admire the beautiful, quite slippery, sanctuary and food is free if you want it.
Golden Temple, Amritsar

Golden Temple, Amritsar


Golden Temple, Amritsar

Golden Temple, Amritsar


Golden Temple, Amritsar

Golden Temple, Amritsar


Golden Temple, Amritsar

Golden Temple, Amritsar


Golden Temple, Amritsar

Golden Temple, Amritsar


Golden Temple, Amritsar

Golden Temple, Amritsar

The great news is that Sikhs do not appear to celebrate Holi. Don't get me wrong, Holi is a great experience; once. This would be a third time.

The hot pink Mercedes (day) bus is a very comfortable ride to Chandigarh where we change for a local bus to Derhadun and change again for the bus up the mountain to Mussoorie (2000 meters). The hill station is a popular weekend retreat for locals to escape the stifling heat At sea level. Developed by the British in the mid 19th century, the town is a mix of weathered colonial architecture and Indian kitsch against a backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas.
Library, Mussoorie

Library, Mussoorie

Our hotel, Sun and Snow (35 euros), is a steep climb from the bus stand and much further than we understood, but the view of the valley from our balcony compensates the effort. It's decidedly colder here, and once again we have a space heater that heats only a very specific space.
View from hotel balcony, Mussoorie

View from hotel balcony, Mussoorie

Buses and more buses get us back to sea level and into the town of Rishikesh, self-proclaimed yoga capital of the world, that sits on the banks of the Ganges river. Here, about 250 kms from the source, the water is relatively clean and a pretty blue/green color, not that we're planning to swim.
Yoga class, Rishikesh

Yoga class, Rishikesh


Lakshman Jhula footbridge, Rishikesh

Lakshman Jhula footbridge, Rishikesh


Lakshman Jhula footbridge, Rishikesh

Lakshman Jhula footbridge, Rishikesh

Our first impression is not great: Mostly western tourists walking around with yoga mats and a few too many balding heads with ponytails. There are dozens of small hotels and guest houses of varying degrees of shoddiness between the pedestrian bridges of Lakshman Jhula (bridge) and Ram Jhula, all full, so I just start knocking on doors asking for a room.
Rishikesh

Rishikesh


Service available in Rishikesh

Service available in Rishikesh


Rishikesh

Rishikesh


Rishikesh

Rishikesh

It's first come, first serve and after losing out on what I thought was a done deal, I take what I can get. It's basic, but has a bathroom with a hot shower which appears to be a luxury at this point, and is a bit off center (7 euros per night).
Guesthouse Rishikesh

Guesthouse Rishikesh


Room in Rishikesh

Room in Rishikesh

Within a couple of days, we're really enjoying the town. The view from the restaurant on top of the Divine Ganga Cottage hotel nearby is lovely. The organic food, setting and ambiance at Ramanas Café and Orphanage, also next door, is excellent and by day 3, I'm taking free yoga classes in the morning and sitting in on Satsangas, a group gathering to listen and interact with a guru, in the afternoons.
Rishikesh

Rishikesh


Rishikesh

Rishikesh


Afternoon yoga, Rishikesh

Afternoon yoga, Rishikesh


Rishikesh

Rishikesh


Rishikesh

Rishikesh

The only incongruence in this New Age bubble is the number of cigarette smoking westerners in the restaurants and cafes.

Rishikesh has many ashrams, but the most famous is the one of Yogi Maharishi Maresh where the Beatles spent a few months writing many of the songs for the White Album in the late 60's. Now defunct, the ashram has been turned into a park with an entrance fee. The buildings and most unusual dwellings stand in ruins, overrun by vegetation.
Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh


Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh


Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh


Beatles' home at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles' home at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh


Beatles' home at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

Beatles' home at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh


Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh


Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh


Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh


Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

Vestiges of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's Ashram, Rishikesh

We get up very early to drive to Kunjapuri where we climb many steps to reach the temple and enjoy the sunrise over the Himalayas in the distance.
Sunrise at Kunjapuri Temple, near Rishikesh

Sunrise at Kunjapuri Temple, near Rishikesh


View of Himalayas from Kunjapuri Temple at sunrise

View of Himalayas from Kunjapuri Temple at sunrise

Our local guide leads us back to Rishikesh on foot through the lush forest, stopping at Neer Garh waterfall for tea.
Hiking near Rishikesh

Hiking near Rishikesh


Hiking near Rishikesh

Hiking near Rishikesh


View of Rishikesh

View of Rishikesh


Rishikesh, Neer Garh waterfall

Rishikesh, Neer Garh waterfall

After 5 days, we don't want to leave but our visa will expire and we have a lot of distance to cover to get to get to our departure city, Mumbai. A final bus ride gets us to Delhi where we catch an overnight train to Mumbai.
New Delhi

New Delhi


Waiting room New Delhi train station

Waiting room New Delhi train station

Once again, service is quite good on the train and we share the compartment with "The Captain" an extremely kind Sikh who invites us to spend our last night in his home. When we politely decline he says, "It is my duty, as you are a guest in my country."
Train from New Delhi to Mumbai

Train from New Delhi to Mumbai

It is not the first time we've heard this, and on that warm note, we step off the train for one last night in Bombay feeling like we're back home.
Bombay

Bombay


Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue, Bombay

Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue, Bombay


Interior Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue, Bombay

Interior Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue, Bombay


Bombay

Bombay

It truly has been an incredible year in India, and I'm sure we'll be back, but for now we're heading for a total change of scenery: Greece.[/float]

Posted by SpiceChronicles 03:25 Archived in India Comments (5)

A royal Rajasthani wedding

sunny 22 °C

Although we meet genuinely kind and helpful people on the road, we don't really expect to keep in touch with most. So when Veerbhadra "Veebu" Singh, patriarch of the Deogarh (Rajasthan) royal family says, "Would you be interested in attending a traditional Rajput wedding (of a friend's son)?" We don't give it much thought until a couple of months later when the invitation arrives! The event will take place over 3 days and the invitation alone makes us nervous about being appropriately dressed as there are at least 2 events per day. Bhavini, sister of the groom, who so kindly contacts me to make arrangements (our accommodations for 3 nights are taken care of), assures me that we can wear whatever we want, but as I press her for details it becomes clear that absolutely nothing in our backpacks, right down to our shoes will be suitable, so we arrive in Jodhpur 2 days ahead for a shopping spree.

It is infinitely easier to dress a man. Within 2 hours, monsieur has rented a Sherwani (long, embroidered coat over straight white pants, essentially leggings!) and Jutis (traditional shoes) for the dressiest events and purchased shirts, trousers, belt and shoes for the rest. It's more stressful shopping for me. The few places that will rent a Lehenga (long embroidered skirt) with Choli (top) and Dupatti (veil), the preferred wedding outfit and more comfortable for someone who is not used to being wrapped in a saree, have me try on the gaudiest ensembles. I look ridiculous. Sensing my distress, Sajjan & Mumal Singh, owners of Kurya Sunj, the guesthouse we're staying at, come to my rescue.
A_royal_Ra.._wedding_85.jpg
Mumal brings out a selection of her silks and soon I have an elegant Lehenga for the most formal event. The next day, they take us to a few shops where I find an outfit for another dressy evening. We're getting there. We spend the rest of the afternoon on our own trying to find some casual pieces for the day events. That evening, I present my proposed "dayfits" to several ladies who have gathered in anticipation, and cringe as they bow their heads in agreement, the clothes are all wrong and there just isn't enough color for a Rajasthani wedding. Namrata, Veebu's lovely wife tells me not to worry, but I go to bed contemplating skipping the first event so as not to offend anyone. The next morning, as I agonize over what to do, a male servant knocks at my door with a package of clothes including a colorful silk Kurta (tunic top) and the softest cotton pajamas (genie pants), with matching georgette dupattas (scarves) in the brightest hues of pink, yellow and orange to mix and match. I feel a bit uncomfortable dressing local, but the fabrics are so beautiful and I'm so grateful; I'm in.

In a traditional wedding, you are either invited by the groom's family or the bride's family. Each side conducts separate events. We are invited by the groom's family. Our room at Karni Bhawan is charming, but before we have time to settle in, I'm summoned to the front desk and handed a phone. Sunder Singh, hotel owner and grandfather of the groom welcomes me and insists on changing our room. There's simply no arguing with this kind man and within minutes we've been moved to the lovely Jodhpur suite.
A_royal_Ra.._wedding_84.jpg
The Tika (or Tilak) ceremony offers an opportunity to bring the two families together and to ensure an auspicious union for the couple to be. Attendees vary according to family tradition and in this case, the bride is not present. This ceremony takes place at Pokhran House the home of Nagendra Singh, father of the groom, a short drive away. Several cars and drivers are standing by at our hotel to chauffeur guests over the next 3 days; quite a change for us! Our car pulls in behind others and we are ushered in by valets as musicians announce each guest's arrival.
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Just off the entrance, wearing a crisp modern suit and Ray-Bans, Vijay Wardhan Singh, first cousin to the groom, is having his turban tied. I notice that many guests bow to him as they walk past and wish I had the clues to who's who in the crowd, but then again blissful ignorance frees us from all social barriers.
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In a Rajasthani wedding, the turban is a key element of dress, and Jodhpuri turbans are particularly colorful. A professional hired for the occasion swiftly wraps an average of 9 meters of bright colored fabric, some tightly, others with a long tail. Father, Nagendra's is bright pink with blue accents. Groom, Param Vijay will also wear a skillfully tied pink turban while cousin Anshuman's is multi-colored.
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Guests gather in the garden, including Maharaj Dilip Singh an exceedingly gentle man sporting a thick white moustache and a bright orange and yellow turban. He is the uncle of HIs Highness Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur who will attend the most formal affair tomorrow evening.
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Women elegantly draped in sarees made of exquisite silks with fabulous estate jewelry and color coordinated bangles admire each other while men in tailored jackets and Jodhpurs (pants) congregate near the bar.
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The groom is upstairs being dressed by his grandfather, who carefully pins a precious turban ornament, a gift to his grandson. The heirloom emerald and diamond necklace he will wear only today. Thereafter, it will pass to his sister Bhavini who wears a stunning pink ensemble trimmed in red which compliments (mother) Ruby's pink and gold outfit accessorized with a diamond tiara. And they consider this a casual day event...
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It's rather hot and I feel for Param Vijay who gracefully bears the weight of his accoutrements.
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He and several male family members take seats on a tented platform. Members of the bride's family place gifts of sweets, jewelry, clothing, fruits and other items as a gesture of participation in the costs of the wedding, on a large red cloth. After several rituals and prayers, the brother-in-law to be puts the Tika (vermillion dot) on the groom's forehead as a mark of respect and acceptance and presents him with a coconut; an invitation for the groom to come to the bride's home. Next, male guests remove their shoes and step up one at a time, and with an extended hand, wave banknotes in a circular motion before letting them fall in front of the groom. The groom then walks over to stand under a parasol and women approach to perform a similar ritual.
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Throughout the entire ceremony a group of veiled (married) women sing in the background.
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A family photo kicks off a generous buffet of flavors from around the world in the garden. As we mingle, I'm humbled by the genuine kindness and welcome we receive.
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Around 4PM the groom reappears for the Bana ceremony. Women gather around singing while female guests take turns brushing his hands, face and feet with a mixture of curcuma (turmeric) and ghee (clarified butter). As one woman puts it, "this facial prepares the groom for marriage". Only married women can participate. Following this ritual, tea is served in the garden.
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In the evening, the Bandola dinner characterized by an array of sweets, is hosted by the groom's grandparents at their/our hotel. Needless-to-say, everyone has changed for the event. Curiously, men and women sit in separate parts of the garden. On the women's side, there is traditional music and women get up and dance to the beat of the dhol, but only one or two at a time. The men stand together in another part of the garden, drinking and chatting. From 21h - 23h cocktails and snacks are served followed by another elaborate buffet. We are completely overwhelmed by the quantity of food at the end of the first day!
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Day 2, the actual wedding day, starts with the Mamayra ceremony at Pokhran House. Today, relatives of the groom's mother bring gifts. About 100 silver platters are laid out under a tent and filled with gifts of sarees and other stunning textiles; instant wardrobe! The groom and his parents stand at one end, facing their guests who sit around the perimeter. Mom is draped in layers and during the ceremony more are added. One by one, guests approach with envelopes and again draw circles in the air in front of the family before presenting their gifts.
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Men move into the garden first, followed by the women in a sea of vibrant color, for yet another fabulous spread.
The afternoon lingers into early evening. We barely have time to change into our most formal attire for the Nikasi, the ceremony whereby the groom, goes on horseback (elephant in the past) to the wedding venue, accompanied by the Baraat (procession). This is the most formal evening and it's a red carpet scene as guests arrive. Women are directed in one direction men in another.
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As photo assistant, official flash bearer and Westerner, I'm permitted to attend the men's functions. In the garden, elegantly dressed men wearing turbans, gleaming family ornaments and brandishing heirloom swords are seated in a u-shape formation facing 2 chairs. HH Maharaja of Jodhpur, amicably known as "Bapji" meaning father to all, arrives and is escorted to one of the seats as everyone rises. A man recites a text as one at a time, men approach to salute the Maharaja. The groom arrives and takes a seat next to him. HIs Highness presents him with a gift.
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In a traditional Rajput Baraat, the groom, wearing an elaborate headdress and carrying an ancestral sword rides an equally decorated mare accompanied by men only... and me! As the procession, led by drummers and musicians, makes its way out, the crowd that has gathered in the street cheers. Staying just ahead of the groom to position the flash while holding my gown to protect the delicate fabric and avoid tripping in the dark, is no small feat. It's a slow jog right into traffic which (thankfully) slows somewhat to allow the procession through.
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The women remain at Pokhran House for an evening of festivities. I'm told that one of the reasons, women do not participate in the Baraat is because in ancient times, it was not safe for them, covered in jewels, to make the journey. And it is also the reason that men carry swords. It sounds plausible, but I am unable to substantiate that it is anything more than tradition.

The groom is welcomed at the wedding venue with great fanfare, tapping his sword at the entrance to ward off the evil eye, before being greeted by the mother of the bride who performs a series of rituals welcoming him to the family.
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She then ties a red string around him and leads him to the Mandap (wedding canopy) for the ceremony.
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Shoes are removed before taking place on the Mandap, offering an opportunity for the bride's family to steal the groom's shoe. Retrieving it is one of the many games that take place between the families over the course of 3 days, designed to help everyone get better acquainted.
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The nuptials will only start at the (predetermined) auspicious time for this couple which is somewhere around midnight. Amazingly, very few people witness the actual ceremony, an intricate series of rituals presided over by a Brahmin priest, that includes tying their hands together and walking 7 times around a sacred fire. This is the first time we (almost) see the bride, veiled in vivid red.
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Meanwhile, across the garden, the hundreds of men who accompanied the groom have settled into the lavish bar and buffet. The atmosphere is old boys club as many are graduates of the prestigious Mayo College in Ajmer. This group is celebrating 40 years of friendship!
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The evening's ceremonies end with an intimate gathering of close relatives, whereby the groom's family officially welcomes the bride (still veiled) to the family.
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On the third picture-perfect day, a garden lunch reception is hosted by the groom's parents at the Park Plaza Hotel.

In the late afternoon, preparations are in full swing at Pokhran House for the Vadhu Pravesh, the arrival of the bride and groom.
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At 18h, exploding fireworks announce the couple. The bride, still veiled, is greeted by the ladies of the house bearing sweets.
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As she gets out of the car, she places her foot in a bowl of red liquid and takes a step forward to symbolize the arrival of good fortune.
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6 silver and brass platters with food have been are laid out over hand-painted rangolis (designs). The couple performs a series of rituals with each bringing the bride closer to her mother-in-law who officially welcomes her to her new home.
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The family then moves to the temple for the puja (prayer) and finally... the bride removes her veil and the couple receive their guests in the garden. Naturally, the evening ends with a lavish dinner reception.
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It has been an unforgettable few days. Not only for the sheer volume of rituals and customs so foreign to us that have transpired, or the extraordinary kindness and generosity we've enjoyed, but because this is more than just a union of two people. It is the bonding of two families with each member playing an important role, steeped in centuries of tradition and historical significance. And it is clearly the most important day of this young couple's life. Traditional weddings like this are a dying breed in modern India where western practices are coming into vogue. Here's hoping tradition continues to prevail.
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Now, if you've been counting, that makes 6 buffets, plus several teas, snacks & cocktails in just 72 hours! That is a lot of stretched waistbands and this is only the beginning of the wedding season. Many of the guests have a full calendar ahead.
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We say our goodbyes, walk to the street and hail a tuk tuk. We've got a (public) bus to catch!

Posted by SpiceChronicles 08:16 Archived in India Comments (5)

Rajasthan and Surrounds

sunny 16 °C

We're passing through Jaipur, the Pink City once again. Luckily, the Pearl Palace Heritage, our favorite hotel and as I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the locations for the 2nd Best Marigold Hotel film, has a room for us. At, 2400 rupees (30 euros), this is the best deal in the country! Every room is unique, with super comfy beds, ultra modern bathrooms, and an incredibly attentive staff. A restaurant is still in the works, but they do offer some room service. Our room called Madhubani, in reference to a style of Indo-Nepalese painting, was painted by a 12 year old girl! Over the course of one year, she and her family came during every school vacation so that she could complete the project.
Hand-painted walls, Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel, Jaipur, Rajasthan

Hand-painted walls, Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel, Jaipur, Rajasthan


Stepping into Royal Gems and Arts, Santi Choudary's shop which occupies a portion of his ancestral haveli (mansion), we have no idea that we'll be spending the better part of the day viewing a priceless collection of family jewels. The shop itself is magnificent. Every inch of wall is either intricately painted or covered in mirror work and accessorized with paintings of family members dressed in full regalia.
Royal Gems and Arts, Jaipur Rajasthan

Royal Gems and Arts, Jaipur Rajasthan


When I mention that my mother has just seen an exhibition of Rajasthani jewels at the Metropolitan Museum in NY, Mr. Choudary tells me that he was there for the opening as a few pieces, originally from his collection, are in the show. And thus begins a presentation of exquisite jewels, centuries old. Turban brooches, bracelets, sword casings, necklaces, rings, are brought out one at a time, each with an elaborate box shaped according to the piece. One, I swear is THE holy grail, encrusted with diamonds, emeralds and rubies.
Diamond, ruby and emerald ornament, Jaipur, Rajasthan

Diamond, ruby and emerald ornament, Jaipur, Rajasthan


Although we are free to touch, we hesitate to handle such extraordinary pieces. With genuine Indian hospitality, tea is served, and as the hours go by, nuts, sandwiches, fresh pomegranate, cakes, more tea... The experience is remarkable.

The Keoladeo Ghana Wildlife Sanctuary is located in Bharatpur. Cars and jeeps are not allowed inside the park, but bicycle rickshaws make for a lovely visit.
Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan


Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan

Keoladeo Wildlife Sanctuary, Bharatpur, Rajasthan


A 45 minute cramped bus gets us to Deeg to visit the 18th century summer palace of the rulers of Bharatpur.
Not the cleanest bus

Not the cleanest bus

Some of the interiors are accessible and it's easy to imagine the royal family living here. The grounds are beautifully maintained with various pavilions and a large tank (man-made lake).
Deeg Palace, Rajasthan

Deeg Palace, Rajasthan


Living Room, Deeg Palace, Rajasthan

Living Room, Deeg Palace, Rajasthan


Dining Room, Deeg Palace, Rajasthan

Dining Room, Deeg Palace, Rajasthan

Renovations, Deeg Palace, Rajasthan

Renovations, Deeg Palace, Rajasthan

Deeg Palace, Rajasthan

Deeg Palace, Rajasthan

The City Palace in Alwar has been converted into government offices.
City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan

City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan


City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan

City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan


Renovations, City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan

Renovations, City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan

Renovations, City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan

Renovations, City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan


Under a covered recess in the main courtyard, a group of guys have set up a badminton net. They play for about an hour, then suddenly, as if someone yelled "fire", they swiftly dismantle the court and ride off on their motorbikes.
Playing badminton at City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan

Playing badminton at City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan


Moss-covered tank (lake), City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan

Moss-covered tank (lake), City Palace, Alwar, Rajasthan


Moosi Rani Ki Chhatri, the cenotaph of Raja Bakhtawar Singh and Rani Moosi, Alwar, Rajasthan

Moosi Rani Ki Chhatri, the cenotaph of Raja Bakhtawar Singh and Rani Moosi, Alwar, Rajasthan


About 20 minutes away, we try to visit the Vijay Mandir (palace) but it is no longer open to the public as it now houses a school and orphanage. We hike all the way around the (somewhat dried) lake and climb up a hill to get the view we've seen pictures of.
Vijay Mandir palace, near Alwar, Rajasthan

Vijay Mandir palace, near Alwar, Rajasthan


Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan

Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan

Kite flying, Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan

Kite flying, Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan


Every once in awhile, we come across a really special place. In the south it was the Chettinad region. Here in northern Rajasthan it is the Shekawati region. Like their contemporaries in the south, wealthy merchants built havelis, palaces and forts in towns like Churu, Fatehpur, Nawalgarh and Mandawa to showcase their wealth. The signature of a Shekawati haveli is the frescos painted on the inside AND outside walls.
Mandawa, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Mandawa, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Mandawa, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Mandawa, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Mandawa, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Mandawa, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Wrapping a turban, Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Wrapping a turban, Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Funeral procession, Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Funeral procession, Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan


Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Nawalgarh, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan


We spend a few nights in Mandawa where several havelis and castles have been converted into hotels. While the Mandawa Castle is most famous and luxurious, we choose the Mandawa Haveli, a smaller, charming property. All rooms, on 3 floors, open onto the central courtyard and the walls are beautifully painted.
Mandawa Castle, Shekawati region, Rajasthan

Mandawa Castle, Shekawati region, Rajasthan

Mandawa Castle, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan

Mandawa Castle, Shekhawati region, Rajasthan


Haveli wall painting, woman giving birth, Mandawa, Rajasthan

Haveli wall painting, woman giving birth, Mandawa, Rajasthan

Sneh Ram Ladia Haveli, Mandawa, Rajasthan

Sneh Ram Ladia Haveli, Mandawa, Rajasthan

Main street of Mandawa, Shekawati, Rajasthan

Main street of Mandawa, Shekawati, Rajasthan

Hotel, Mandawa Haveli, Rajasthan

Hotel, Mandawa Haveli, Rajasthan

Interior courtyard of our hotel, Mandawa Haveli, Rajasthan

Interior courtyard of our hotel, Mandawa Haveli, Rajasthan

Our room, Mandawa Haveli, Rajasthan

Our room, Mandawa Haveli, Rajasthan


Daytime temps are perfect, but it's really cold at night and there's no such thing as central heating. The manager brings us a small electric heater which heats the space directly in front of the grill, neither to the left, nor the right. The bathroom on the other side of the room, with its smooth stone floor is especially cold despite steaming hot water. There are 2 types of bathrooms in India, Wet and Dry. Among other nuances, Dry infers that the shower is separate and therefore the floor in the rest of the room stays dry. Dry bathrooms are not yet in the mainstream but newer constructions are incorporating the idea. In 97% of the places we stay, even some of the nicer hotels, as soon as you take a shower the entire floor gets wet. It's almost bearable during the hot summer, but here it's cold and the minute even the hottest water hits the floor, it freezes! Wet bathrooms are up there on my list of things I dislike the most in India.

New Years Eve festivities begin with afternoon tea on the rooftop terrace. As night falls, a local ensemble accompanies a couple of traditional dancers. Small campfires, strategically placed throughout the property make it possible to enjoy the outdoor festivities. It's magical, though we wonder about residual damage to the frescoes. A feast is served throughout the evening, fireworks block out the stars at midnight, and the best part is that it all takes place in front of our room.
Mandawa Haveli, Shekawati region, Rajasthan

Mandawa Haveli, Shekawati region, Rajasthan


New Years Eve, Mandawa Haveli, Shekawati region, Rajasthan

New Years Eve, Mandawa Haveli, Shekawati region, Rajasthan


We head back to Delhi for a few days on our way to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal.
Fog at New Delhi Airport

Fog at New Delhi Airport


Fog in New Delhi

Fog in New Delhi

Bicycle rickshaw driver, New Delhi

Bicycle rickshaw driver, New Delhi

New Delhi

New Delhi

Piece by Subodh Gupta, Museum of Modern Art, New Delhi

Piece by Subodh Gupta, Museum of Modern Art, New Delhi

New Delhi at night

New Delhi at night

Bicycle rickshaw, New Delhi

Bicycle rickshaw, New Delhi

Lohri bonfire, celebrating the Winter Soltice, New Delhi

Lohri bonfire, celebrating the Winter Soltice, New Delhi

Cold night in New Delhi

Cold night in New Delhi


Agra is in full scale preparations for the visit of President Obama scheduled in 2 days. There are huge billboards welcoming him, traffic has been diverted, the police presence has quadrupled and... it's raining.
Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Agra, Uttar Pradesh


We check-in to a dump and shiver through the night. The next day, the sun shines brightly for our visit. There is perhaps no other place in the country with greater contrast between clean and dirty. The (auto) rickshaw ride through streets of Agra is shocking. How is it possible that the home to one of the top 3 tourist attractions in the world can be so filthy? And don't get me started on the touts trying to sell you everything, practically fighting with each other to grab your attention. Agra is by no means representative of India, though it should be given the importance of its tourist attractions. You just feel like running. But once you get through security, everything melts away in front of the pristine beauty of the Taj. Unfortunately, Obama changes his itinerary and Agra gets dropped. It's a real shame as this important visit might have kindled a renaissance for the city which has suffered from declining tourism.
Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh

Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh


We board the bus to Mathura the next day in pouring rain thinking how lucky we were at the Taj Mahal! About an hour into the ride, as I peer in between too many people standing in the aisle, I notice that the bus has no windshield wipers...

Everything is uglier in the rain. We have a hard time finding a hotel, supposedly because of Obama's visit. In order to accept foreigners, Indian hotels are required to submit an inordinate amount of paperwork to the police. True, security is beefed up these days, but sometimes, they just can't be bothered and you can tell.

Mathura, is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna over 3000 years ago. In a small room at the Kesava Deo temple, lies the stone slab on which Krishna was born. Twice a day, the room fills with devotees who wait anxiously for the curtain to be opened. I jostle for position in the front row and count down 8 interminable minutes with the large ticking clock on the wall wondering what's behind the thick velvet curtain that has the crowd in such a frenzy of anticipation. As the only pale face, standing a head over everyone, people smile and stare. One man says to me, "This is the birthplace of my god; I'm so happy." It's touching. As the clock strikes the hour, a man jumps up to opens the curtain, and a collective breath is released, revealing a small stone slab surrounded by a variety of silver objects, flowers and incense. The emotion is palpable, well for them anyway.
Mathura also draws massive numbers of pilgrims who come to bathe at the ghats (steps leading to the river) on the Jamuna river.
Vishram Temple and Ghat, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh

Vishram Temple and Ghat, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh


Vrindavan is the town where Krishna grew up and home to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, aka Hare Krishna. Founder, Swami Prabhupada, is buried here in a beautiful setting. The temple is more like a village and includes a hotel, restaurants, souvenir shops and of course membership services. In the main hall, dozens of people sit in groups chanting the familiar Hare Krishna, Maha Mantra.

Vrindavan has many temples dedicated to Krishna. The most amusing is the Prem Mandir from the entrance gate to the main temple. As the sun sets, the temple lights up with a rainbow of colored lights, shifting hues seamlessly.
Prem Mandir Temple, Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh

Prem Mandir Temple, Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh


Firozabad is famous for 2 things; lights and bangles. With fierce competition from the Chinese, whose lighting shops share the real estate on the main road, every type of light imaginable from mass market fixtures to top quality reproductions and made to order pieces, is manufactured here for worldwide export. We visit a few manufacturing facilities including one particularly reputable firm whose A-list clients include luxury hotels and palaces. Most impressive are the traditional, manual techniques of glass blowing, polishing and engraving used.
Glass blowing, Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh

Glass blowing, Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh

Glass blowing, Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh

Glass blowing, Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh

Glass blowing, Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh

Glass blowing, Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh


In addition to the usual mayhem in the streets, men pulling carts loaded with colorful glass bangles weave their way through traffic. Considering that ALL Indian women wear bangles everyday and change them to match their outfits, this is seriously big business. I'm often asked why I'm not wearing bangles. Indian women just don't get that you cannot travel wearing a sari and covered with jewelry. Even the poorest women don armfuls of bangles, ankle bracelets, toe rings, and gold.
Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh - Bangle capital of India

Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh - Bangle capital of India


Wedding ceremony, Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh

Wedding ceremony, Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh

Hanuman (monkey god) Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh

Hanuman (monkey god) Firozabad, Uttar Pradesh


Another one of these cities off the classic tourist track, but well worth a visit is Gwalior. The 19th century Jai Vilas Palace, home to the Scindia family claims to have 2 of the biggest chandeliers in the world. In any case, to be sure the ceiling could hold each 3.5 ton piece, 10 elephants were hoisted onto the roof to test the structure! Today the chandeliers use bulbs, but originally, each held 250 candles. The chandeliers are only turned on for special occasions as they are a big strain on the palace's electrical grid, but we are in the right place at the right time. The palace is hosting a group from the Maharaja's Express (luxury tourist train) and for the duration of their tour the chandeliers are lit. The walls, covered in gold leaf, shimmer.
Jai Vilas Palace Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

Jai Vilas Palace Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

Jai Vilas Palace Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

Jai Vilas Palace Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh


It's a hike up to Gwalior Fort on a switchback road but the payoff is 360° views and pretty paintings inside and out on the various palaces and temples. Certainly the most peculiar is the row of yellow ducks (and other animals) painted on the exterior of the Man Singh Palace.
Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

View from Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

View from Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

View from Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

View from Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh

Gwalior Fort, Madhya Pradesh


Carved into rock walls along another road on the way down are gigantic figures representing the 24 Jain divinities. One stands 17 meters tall.
Jain Tirthankaras (religious teachers) carved in the rock near Gwalior Fort, Madyha Pradesh

Jain Tirthankaras (religious teachers) carved in the rock near Gwalior Fort, Madyha Pradesh

Jain Tirthankaras (religious teachers) near Gwalior Fort, Madyha Pradesh

Jain Tirthankaras (religious teachers) near Gwalior Fort, Madyha Pradesh


At breakfast, scrambled eggs require a long wait, but fried (sunny side up) eggs are available right away. We don't even bother to try and understand that logic, we have a bus to catch!
Gwalior bus stand, keeping warm by the fire in the ticket office!

Gwalior bus stand, keeping warm by the fire in the ticket office!

Bus, food vendor, Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

Bus, food vendor, Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh

Dog, Gwalior, Madyha Pradesh

Dog, Gwalior, Madyha Pradesh

Night bus to Lucknow in the fog

Night bus to Lucknow in the fog

Night bus to Lucknow in the fog

Night bus to Lucknow in the fog


There are hardly any tourists in Lucknow, yet there are enough historical sites to fill 2 days. And, given the time, what better, ecological, way to visit than by cycle rickshaw, I used to feel bad about someone lugging us around, but I'm over it. We pass through the Rumi (Roomi) Darwaza a copy of a gate in Istanbul from the Byzantine era, to reach the Bara Imambara and Chota Imambara mausoleums dedicated to Shia Muslim saints.
What was the architect thinking? Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

What was the architect thinking? Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Bara Imambara, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Bara Imambara, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Shah Najaf Imambara, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Shah Najaf Imambara, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh


Khajuraho is famous for its erotic temples dating as far back as 950 AD. Classified by UNESCO, the temples have been carefully refurbished and the grounds are impeccable. The site is a major tourist attraction which implies the peripheral touts and souvenir shops, but nothing too unbearable. Besides, touristy spots do have some positive aspects including other food options, better wifi connections and real cappuccinos. The Siddhartha Hotel is a comfortable budget option in the perfect location across the street from the main group of temples. The street is only open to pedestrians and meals are served on the roof-deck overlooking the temples.
View from the bus on the way to Khajuraho

View from the bus on the way to Khajuraho

Jagadamba and Kandariya Mahadev temples, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

Jagadamba and Kandariya Mahadev temples, Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh

Lakshmana temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Lakshmana temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Chitragupta Temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Chitragupta Temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Kandariya Mahadeva temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Kandariya Mahadeva temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Jagadambi temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Jagadambi temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Kandariya Mahadeva temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Kandariya Mahadeva temple, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Everyone enjoying the warmth of the fire, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh

Everyone enjoying the warmth of the fire, Khajuraho, Madyha Pradesh


Cappuccino designs

Cappuccino designs


The train to Orchha is epic.
Train to Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Train to Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Train to Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Train to Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Train to Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Train to Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Train to Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Train to Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

What we don't know is that on this and every full moon, thousands of Hindus flock to the town to honor Lord Rama at the temple in the center of town. Someone motions to us that we have arrived. Wondering why we can't see the station, or even the platform, we gather our bags and head to the exit. It turns out there is no platform because the train is longer than the station! It's a 2 foot drop to the ground and then a slow shuffle with people jostling and elbowing ahead along the side of the train. On the road the scene is incredible. Shared rickshaws are frantically squeezing people in and rushing off while empty ones come screeching back for the next load.
Arriving in Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Arriving in Orchha, Madyha Pradesh


It's 10 rupees (5 cents) per person and they manage to stuff 12-15 people in a rickshaw designed for 4 max... Being the big spenders that we are, we wait until the crowd thins and then pay the full 2 bucks for a private ride into town. Finding a hotel room is equally trying, but we land a room at the brand new, Heritage Guest House. It's laughable, but the manager and his assistant are extremely kind and do everything to make us comfortable.
Dinner with a cow, Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Dinner with a cow, Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Sadhu, (person who relinquishes worldly pleasures), Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Sadhu, (person who relinquishes worldly pleasures), Orchha, Madyha Pradesh


Pigments, Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Pigments, Orchha, Madyha Pradesh


By the next evening the town is completely deserted.
Jahangir Mahal (citadel), Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Jahangir Mahal (citadel), Orchha, Madyha Pradesh

Orchha Chhatris (cenotaphs) on Betwa river, Madyha Pradesh

Orchha Chhatris (cenotaphs) on Betwa river, Madyha Pradesh

Orchha Chaturbhuj Temple, Madyha Pradesh

Orchha Chaturbhuj Temple, Madyha Pradesh

Orchha Chhatris (cenotaphs) on Betwa river, Madyha Pradesh

Orchha Chhatris (cenotaphs) on Betwa river, Madyha Pradesh

Orchha, Betwa river, Madyha Pradesh

Orchha, Betwa river, Madyha Pradesh


We're making our way (back) to Jodhpur for a royal wedding. To break up the long bus rides, we stop in Kota to visit the beautiful palace that sits inside the expansive fort. It's got the de rigueur palace fittings: elaborately mirrored halls, stuffed tigers and colorful wall paintings.
Kota Fort Palace, Rajasthan

Kota Fort Palace, Rajasthan

Maharaja's bedroom, Kota Fort Palace, Rajasthan

Maharaja's bedroom, Kota Fort Palace, Rajasthan

Street scene, Kota, Rajasthan

Street scene, Kota, Rajasthan

Street scene, Kota, Rajasthan

Street scene, Kota, Rajasthan

Street scene, Kota, Rajasthan

Street scene, Kota, Rajasthan

Next up, the Jodhpuri wedding, I promise!

Posted by SpiceChronicles 13:42 Archived in India Comments (3)

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