Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Mumbai is technically an island and therefore has several waterfront promenades that make for some great people-watching. Chowpatty Beach on the northern end of Back Bay is an especially good place to take in the local scene. Children carry pinwheels and men receive head massages, while fawning couples share bhelpuri (a local snack) or ice cream purchased from vendors who set up temporary stalls on the sand. We sat and watched the sun being eaten by the smog that lay low on the horizon, mesmerized by all of the activity around us.
Mumbai also has lots of parks, or "azids", where Indians gather to partake in the country's favorite past time, cricket. Just as our beloved baseball often remains a mystery to those not raised on it, we have tried hard to understand this allusive game, but have yet to discover its allure. Still, it was fun to stop for a while to watch men dressed in their whitest of whites and capped with a floppy hat taunt one another as they took turns with the bat.
Taking a break from the hustle and bustle of the city one afternoon, we took a ferry to visit Elephanta Island. The ferry departed from the Gateway of India, a huge monument built to commemorate the visit of King George V, and took us past several oil tankers and a refinery, reminding us once again of this country's long and sordid history and its present efforts to propel itself into the 21st century.
The island is home to a series of impressive cave temples, supported by huge carved pillars and decorated with enormous statues of gods. The main temple was dedicated to Shiva, and portrayed him in several different manifestations, including one elegant sculpture showing his three faces - the creator, the destroyer, and the preserver. We also hiked to the highest point of the island to see several canons, relics from its later life as a British military outpost.
The rest of our time in Mumbai was spent wandering the markets, enjoying the cafe scene, and sampling deserts at our favorite sweet shop. We also enjoyed a few delicious beers, which were -the first since traveling to the mostly dry northern states. We'll always remember the city for what could have been, beacuse on our last day we were asked to be extras in a film - I am sure we could have been the next big Bollywood stars if we only had a little more time....
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Bundi's major sights are situated on a hillside overlooking the town below. Two stone elephants and the smell of guano greeted us as we entered the crumbling Bundi Palace. It has an air of neglect, but is actually a work in progress, with several rooms of the abandoned building being opened to the public a few years back. Beautiful murals don the walls, their colors faded, but still revealing hints of the kingdom's former glory. The paintings in the Chittrasala room are particularly well preserved and their beauty is accentuated by the lovely garden at you must pass through on entry.
A cautious hike further up the hillside past some fiercely intimidating red-faced monkeys brought us to the Taragarh or "Star Fort". The Fort is chock full of decaying stone buildings, battlements and baoris (step wells) slowly being smothered by encroaching weeds and vines. We had full run of the place to explore each dark and spooky passageway or decrepit staircase we came across, or to walk along the top of the fort walls peering down at the lake cradled in the valley below. We also spent a while observing a group of docile black-faced monkeys playing and grooming one another near an old canon, curiosity gradually emboldening the younger ones to involve us in their games as time passed.
Bundi also has some lively markets and hundreds of beautiful temples and baoris scattered throughout town, making it a nice place to leisurely stroll around. It was the perfect location to savor all of sights, sounds and smells that make Rajasthan so captivating one last time before heading south.
Sunday, December 23, 2007
We rented a paddle boat to get a better look at the lake palaces. The marble Jag Niwas palace is now a luxury hotel, which some of you may remember from the Bond film, Octopussey (we reacquainted ourselves with this classic at one of the many nightly screenings held on roof-top restaurants around town). Security wouldn't let us get within 100 meters of the place, but we got close enough to confirm that the hotel's transport boats are paddled by a couple of small Indian men, not 12 hot blonds as the film suggests. Security shoed us away when we tried to approach the lovely Jag Mandir palace as well, which led us to vow our return to this city to do it up in style if we someday win the lottery.
We also visited the City Palace on the lake's western shore. It is largest palace in Rajasthan, but we were disappointed to find out that you can only explore a small part of the monstrous structure since most of it has been repurposed for 2 more upscale hotels. At least we were able to pretend to have the luxury of being guests at the former royal quarters by having a beer (served in crystal!) at the sunset bar.
From miniature painting workshops to sitar courses to palm readings, there are plenty of activities on offer in Udaipur. I attended a cooking class to learn the basics of cooking fragrant North Indian cuisine at home. Gil also treated me to an Ayurvedic massage and Shirodhara treatment as a belated birthday gift. Shirodhara consists of warm oil being dropped on the forehead for 30 minutes - it's supposed to cure you of all sorts of mental ailments, but I am as scattered as always, so I think I'll stick with the massage next time around.
While I was getting pampered, Gil was trekking all over Udaipur's hills with his camera trying to capture the beauty of this place to share with you. He also put in several tough hours taste-testing pastries and searching for the best pot of chai in town.
We also took in a classical Indian dance performance, which showcased traditional dances from all over Rajasthan. There was the peacock dance (with fabulous costumes, of course) and a one that involved clicking together metal instruments fastened to various body parts, but our favorite had to be the one where a woman danced with ceramic water pots stacked on her head. For the finale, the pots were stacked 8, maybe 10 pots high, after which she proceeded to dance on broken glass. That was a dance even Gil could love.
After nearly a week of kicking back and treating ourselves, we were just about ready to return to our normal regimen of bag-packing and sleeper trains...
Sunday, December 16, 2007
If you haven't figured it out by now, the main themes in Rajasthan are forts and palaces, and Jodhpur is no different. But, the Mehrangarh Fort here is unique in that it is exceptionally well restored and the admission price includes a fascinating audio tour that really brings the place alive.
After climbing the hill on which the fort stands, you enter through a series of gates surfaced with spikes to thwart attacking elephants. Near the last gates you find the hand prints of the thirty-some wives who ceremoniously committed sati, a act of ritual mass suicide, following the death of their maharajah husband. That's some kind of love!
The exterior of the palace is decorated with ornate carvings, while the inner rooms are filled with intricate paintings and mirror work. On display are fantastic collections of weapons, palanquins and elephant howdahs (forms of royal transport), miniature paintings and even opium pipes. The ramparts house many of the original canons used to defend the fort, a task they apparently performed well, as the Mehrangarh was never taken by force.
Jodhpur is also home to some lovely temples and lively market, and we regretted that we had to spend so many hours trying to sort out train tickets for the latter part of our journey rather than simply wandering around to take it all in. Just when you think you have the system all figured out, another obstacle rears its ugly head...
Friday, December 14, 2007
Set atop a natural hill in the Great Thar Desert, Jaisalmer Fort is a golden vision in sandstone. Rather than imposing fear, it's curvaceous bastions seem welcome you inside where you immediately fall under the spell of the delicately carved palace, temples and havelis that hide behind the fortress' walls. The intricate designs that embellish the crumbling edifices remind you of lace, or maybe honeycomb, and give the impression that a strong wind might crumple them to the ground.
But it is not the wind that poses a risk to this exotic sand castle in the desert, it is water. Because of overpopulation and drainage challenges, the fort is on the brink of collapse. We can only hope that immediate steps are taken to address the problem before it is too late, as this city is truly a magical place. Fellow tourists can help by avoiding hotels and restaurants inside the Fort in favor of those spread out in the town below.
We took a camel safari from Jaisalmer into the desert that reaches northwest towards Pakistan. We spent 3 days exploring sandy terrain, sleeping on the dunes under the expansive, star-filled sky. We stopped in several villages along the way, and were welcomed in by laughing children and women who were appreciative for the break from the near-constant work necessary to survive in such an inhospitable place. Our camels were stubborn and rarely responded to our kicks and pleas, but the camel drivers had better luck directing them. Our simple meals were cooked over open fires, sometimes accompanied by coffee or chai made with fresh goat milk collected by one of the camel drivers as we passed a grazing herd. It was a peaceful adventure that we thoroughly enjoyed - although our butts longed for the comfort of a soft cushion and our appetites craved a little variety in our diet by the end!
Gil also took a trip to Deshnok to see the Karni MataTemple, one of the more unusual temples in all of India. According to legend the rats at this temple are reincarnated story tellers from the 14th century. And, the place is indeed full of rats! This is not for the sqeemish. The rats are fed and cared for, and can be seen running all over the place, often near your bare feet (shoes must be removed at the temple entrance). Its also a very popular pilgrimage site. There was a line of devotees stretching out the door, waiting for their chance to enter the inner chamber, and be blessed among the many rats.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Jaipur provides a pleasant mix of old and new India. Modern cafe chains and mobile phone centers happily share the city with classical palaces and timeworn bazaars. A walk through the old city, painted cotton-candy pink, brought us past stone carvers and bangle makers, sari sellers and tea wallas. It also brought us past several architectural wonders, like the Isawri Minar Swarga Sal minaret, which we climbed to the top of for 360 degree views. We also visited the intricately carved Hawa Mahal, which was built for the royal ladies so that they could watch the goings-on of the city below while being carefully shielded from reciprocal glances in accordance with purdah, a custom adopted by the Rajputs of Rajasthan from their Muslim brothers.
A highlight of our time in Jaipur was our visit to Jantar Mantar, the largest of the five observatories built by Maharaja Jai Singh II. The observatory contains scores of antiquated instruments used for measuring time down to the second and meticulously tracking the course of celestial objects through the sky. It was a fascinating place to explore.
The rest of our time in Jaipur was spent trying to secure a SIM card for our mobile phone, an activity that involved an unimaginable amount of red tape (and a little begging). If you give us a call, we'll know it was worth all of the hassle. UPDATE: New number in Thailand - 011 66 853646741
Monday, December 10, 2007
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities on the planet. It is also one of the world's great religious and cultural centers Set upon the banks of the revered Ganga (Ganges) river, a holy place of pilgrimage for Hindus. It also has important ties to Buddhism and Jainism and is home to the largest residential university in Asia, Benares Hindu University.
Like Jerusalem, you can feel a certain energy in the air as you walk down by the ghats (stairways) that line the Ganga. But it's not just faith that resonates, it is the breath of life itself -the life-giving force flowing through the currents of the river. Along with those performing puja (prayers and offerings), you find people going about their daily activities - bathing, washing clothes, refreshing their cattle. There is no doubt that the people and culture of Varanasi are inextricably linked to the Ganga.
We were very lucky to be in Varanasi during a beautiful and moving Hindu holiday observed by married women. Wives fast for three days to pray for the long-lives of their husbands and children. One man we spoke to explained the importance of the festival to us in this way - "We have arranged marriages in India and for the first couple of years you do not know your wife and cannot really love her. But then she fasts for you, and slowly, you fall in love."
During the fast women come to the Ganga to make offerings of food and prayers. Typical of the Hindu religion, which encourages people to determine their own personal approach to worship, the ceremonies we observed varied from family to family. Some women painted the soles of their feet red and showed respect to their mothers and aunts by touching their feet and then their own hearts. Others crawled down the Ghats on their bellies, systematically pressing their foreheads to each step after being turned in a circle by their loved ones.
The fast is broken at dawn following the third day and women and their families wait patiently at the Ganga for the sun to rise over the opposite river bank. We took a boat ride to experience the ceremony up close and were amazed at the sea of colorful saris (traditional Indian dress) that filled each ghat. When the sun finally burned through the smog, it was greeted by whoops and hollers of praise. Women again presented a basket of fruits, vegetables and flowers and poured milk from a brass pitcher into the Ganga. They then returned to their homes with their families to eat!
Such displays of faith are not just evident during festival times. There is a nightly puja ceremony performed with much pomp, and more humble prayers are being offered nearly every second of the day. It is one of the most auspicious places a Hindu can die and so many people make the sojourn here at the end of their lives in the hopes of ending the cycle of birth and death. There are several ghats that are used exclusively for cremation and you can view the fires burning throughout day and night. It's not uncommon to see bodies draped with vibrant cloth being carried through the twisted streets of the old city, or to come across a husband or son who has shaved his head in mourning.
According to tradition, some people may not be cremated and so their bodies are simply placed in the Ganga to decay. We saw one of those bodies float past us on our boat trip. It was disturbing, but it was all part of the fascinating glimpse we were given into this culture's attitude toward death - one that is characterized by much less fear and a lot more acceptance than ours typically is.
We also took a trip to Sarnath, a town a few kilometers outside of the city. Sarnath is the place where Buddha gave his first sermon, and so it is a holy pilgrimage site for Buddhists. There are some ancient Buddhist remains, a small museum and a green park, as well as several modern temples. It was particularly interesting to compare the different temple styles used by the Chinese, Thai, Japanese and Tibetan Buddhists.
We filled the rest of our time in Varanasi visiting temples, trying to find an ATM that would give us money and sending a package back to the States. India can be a frustrating place at times, but it's certainly never boring....
Thursday, December 6, 2007
But, this so-called "apple-pie trekking" was a mixed blessing, as the trail was quite crowded and the traditional ways of life we saw in Manaslu have long been transformed or supplanted by the lure of the tourist industry. It's hard to begrudge the modern-day improvements this influx of money has allowed, but I fear that it may lead to an eventual downfall in the end - the government is currently building a road along the trail and I can't imagine that many foreigners will want to spend weeks trekking through small villages that they can drive to. But, perhaps the road will simply mark another transition, because on foot or by car, the Annapurnas undoubtedly contains some of the most magnificent scenery in the world.
One of our favorite parts of the trail was a side trip that took us through Upper Pisang to Ghyaru, an small village perched high on the mountainside. The village is reachable only after a long slog up a series of steep switchbacks, which meant that we got to explore its intricately carved buildings and spin its prayer wheels undisturbed by the masses. It was definitely worth the climb just to take in the spectacular sunrise views of Annapurna II and IV, a vision that truly made us marvel at the awe-inspiring beauty in this world.
Although the Thorong La pass is nearly 500 meters higher than the Larkya La, it proved much easier for us to ply our way to the top. The snow was well packed and we were much better acclimatized - Oren pretty much danced up and down the mountain, he was so relieved not to have AMS! A bit of a party ensued at the top of the pass, with everyone celebrating the pinnacle of their long and difficult journey. The descent was steep and punishing on the knees, but delivered us to Muktinath, one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus and the original purpose of the Annapurna trail. An entire complex of temples (Hindu and Buddhist) have been built around a natural flame that emerges from the ground and people travel from all of the world to pray in this very special place.
Two days later, we reached Jomson, the ending point of our 23 day trip. We were tired and proud, and a bit sad to see our trek come to an end . We flew in a small 15-seater plane to Pokhara, which made me feel as if we were in a toy plane, soaring over a toy model of the earth below, complete with miniature mountains, rice terraces and evergreen trees. It was a surreal experience and a fitting conclusion to our time in Shangri-La.