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July 2008 in India: a slightly odd trip report

July 2008 in India: a slightly odd trip report

Aug 2nd, 2008, 06:47 AM
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July 2008 in India: a slightly odd trip report

Just a little background: you may treat this like a preface and ignore, if you like: My visit to India was from 04th July to 24th July, 2008. I had made all of my own arrangements via Internet, and traveled solo. I flew into Delhi (via Paris) from Philadelphia, went to Trivandrum (and on to Nagercoil), then Delhi, Varanasi, and Agra, with a finale of five days in the Himalayas in Leh, Ladakh, Kashmir Jammu State. I mostly used car/driver to get around the various areas, with one train trip and of course numerous flights between. Total cost for the three week trip, including international airfare, was about $4,500. Although it was indeed monsoon season, the weather was clear and sunny for almost the entire time, with highs in the 90��s Fahrenheit except for Leh, which stayed in the 70��s/80��s. There was usually a good breeze going, although Delhi was pretty oppressive due to the humidity�Xbut then, I��m used to that in July at home. The notes below are mostly based on my emails home, with a bit of explanation or references that I thought might be useful or of interest to fellow travelers. Pictures for the south can be found at

Southern India: Trivandrum, Nagercoil, Tuticorin, Kanyakumari
In the immortal words of Larry the Cucumber, "Oh, everybody's got a water buffalo, yours is fast but mine is slow..." Okay, so maybe everyone doesn't have one, but they were swimming (or, actually, sort've moving about very slowly) in the canal where the women were washing clothes by slapping the bright colors onto rocks and kids were swimming. Goats were also casually disregarding the manic traffic, and bullock carts meandered through. This is just really, really a cool place for juxtaposition people, and gorgeous to boot. I mean, it's the Western Ghats. The WESTERN GHATS! There's nothing like seeing geography come to life (if you're a geography geek, of course) and the rice paddies and coconut groves and banana plantations backed up by the mountains are just stunning. Not to mention the occasional Hindu shrine with a god who looked a lot like Cookie Monster.

Sunday, 05 July This morning (after "scrambled toast" at Hotel Canaan www.hotelcanaan.com , which features a very large and somewhat paint-by-numberish Jesus mural in the lobby) I was picked up in the chubby white Ambassador (one of those classic cars that just seems to go forever) to go to church. I had gotten into Trivandrum airport last night--along with the Defense Minister, but I don't think he was following me--and had a fairly twisty-turny ride into Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu state, where I'm staying. (1 1/2 hours) So anyway, to church this morning I saw some of the villages that I missed in the dark last night, and got to the service where I got to sit up front. Nothing like being conspicuous, but hey, guess what? I don't blend in here too well at all. Hee hee. The little girls in front of me on the floor were enchanting, some of them catching my eye and grinning, but all very well behaved. The message was on God's Perfect Peace, with an interpreter (the local English teacher) doing the hand gestures right along with the interpretation. It was very moving to be taking communion with the little congregation, and I sang along in English with the hymns whenever I could. The weather was perfect, with a lovely breeze, and just a bit of rain after Sunday School was done. There were many more women and children there than men, as the men tend to do a round-trip migration to the Middle East to work in the oil fields. There is certainly still a poverty gap here of immense proportions, but in my short time I'd say that India is indeed moving up. Tamil Nadu state has a lot of tech businesses, with more coming; by coincidence, I am currently having slides processed onto CD��s in Bangalore. I didn��t get to visit the big cities of Chennai and Bangalore, as my time was so limited that I stayed in the Nagercoil and south area.
Nagercoil itself seems well supplied with Internet cafes�Kprovided the electricity doesn't go out, which it does. A lot. Another one of those juxtapositions!

Dancing on the edge of the subcontinent
I stood at the edge of India. Here, at Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari) is the furthest south you can go in India, the place where the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea meet. It's a typical seaside town (what is with the compulsion to fill the salty air and sandy beach with cheap souvenir stands? It seems to be a human compulsion that's universal) except for, oh, the huge Hindu temple and the Gandhi memorial. (This is where his cremated ashes were put in the sea.) It was totally exciting to dip my toes into the Indian Ocean, and to ride the creaky ferry out to the very "toe" where the temple stands. I realize this is incredibly geo-nerdy, but then, I am. The weather has been beautiful, warm, but with bright blue skies and a gorgeous breeze always. On the way, we passed through the area that had been devastated by the tsunami of 2004; there is still rebuilding going on, but one can see the effects of that unimaginable disaster.

The next day, we (my friends from church are escorting me around the south) took a long trip to Tuticorin on the coast; we ascended stairs to view the mountainous countryside and also the little kids straggling into school. Time in Southern India, at least, seems to be at a different scale than US; kids go to school from 10 to 4 (or 5, if they're in Grades 10-12) and at night, the shops don't close until 10. You see people hanging about or walking or cycling through the dark streets, just socializing, at 9PM. The storefronts are the open type, where you can just wander in and out, and in between are the stalls for things like sugar cane juice (yummy with lemon, by the way) and flower garlands. Jasmine is everywhere, including hanging from rear-view mirrors in cars; it beats those pine tree air fresheners by, well, a lot.

The wind farm built in the valley was impressive and oddly aesthetic; the huge white turbines stretch for miles, catching the constant breeze in the narrow corridor between the mountains.

We visited a ship builder; the wooden ship was taking shape without much different technology than has been used for thousands of years, but the metal one in the next yard over had a more modern look to it. It was the first metal one they'd done, however, so I think I'd trust the wooden one a bit more.

The ride home via the "country road" (a very well paved one, for the most part) was enlivened by the fact that there don't seem to be too many traffic laws in India, and amazing speeds can be reached considering you have to go around bullock carts, bicyclists, huge construction holes in the road (without any signs--or lights, at that particular point), and occasional gates that are there, I'm assuming, to slow people down. Fat chance. It was exciting, but I think I may have aged a bit on that one.

We drove into Trivandrum on Wednesday for my Thursday 6:15AM flight back to Delhi; we visited Kovalum beach, quite lovely and ferocious as far as waves go, and then into Trivandrum for dinner and overnight across from the airport at a Catholic guesthouse. It was�Kutilitarian, to put it nicely, but had a private bathtub with glorious hot water. The Indian Airlines flight to Delhi (booked through www.travelocity.co.in ) was fine and left on time, but had to circle Delhi airport for an hour before landing, landing me in Delhi rather green around the gills from the air travel and tummy issues. (I don��t know if it was the spices or just my delicate constitution �� but I did get a bit queasy and off my feed for a while; not awful, just on the lookout for things like yogurt rather than masala.)

Delhi, Varanasi, and Trivandrum up next!
Amy is offline  
Aug 2nd, 2008, 08:22 AM
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Looking forward to the rest of this Amy! Great report so far, and kudos for tackling India on your own.
thursdaysd is offline  
Aug 3rd, 2008, 06:44 PM
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Thanks, thursdaysd, and thanks for your help in getting me there! (I read your blogs for encouragement. )

Here's where it starts to get "slightly odd"
1. No, I did not go to Rajasthan
2. Yes, there are going to be some completely out of the blue editorial comments on how out of it I felt (without smoking anything)

Before the trip through the three cities, however, I think now might be the time for a little completely subjective discussion of culture. (And perhaps culture shock.) To establish where Im coming from, Im an English-Russian-German-American with Quaker/Catholic/Salvation Army/Methodist etc. background living in an almost all Hispanic neighborhood in a large East Coast city, and Ive traveled to a different country (or countries) every year since 1984, plus I research world histories for fun. So, you know, somewhat multi-culti. But India discombobulated me. Ive never felt more disconnected. Its not that I didnt appreciate or enjoy the culture; its just that I was off-kilter for much of the time.

For one innocuous example, theres the head wiggle thing. I didnt know what it meant, and its just disconcerting to see a communicative motion repeated by various people and not know what it means. To describe it, just say that if ones nose were a pencil, the pencil would have drawn a rather large amoeba by the time the head thing is done.

Or reading the marriage ads in the Hindu newspaper (of course I read them; if its in English, Ill read it) and coming across Caste no bar. Fair or wheatish complexion required. Plus, of course, all the ads and commercials for skin lighteners, including Ponds. Believe me, Im not saying that skin tone issues are unique to India. Im just not accustomed to, well, such blatant advertising about it. It seems that the government is paying couples for intercaste marriages (high and low caste together; although the caste system is officially not there, you cant get rid of thousands of years that easily) thus the caste no bar part, but skin color and caste are still associated for most people, as far as I understand. Again, Im not condemning or ridiculing; its just not something I can easily wrap my head around.

I guess an analogy would be the brain-based theory that exists in language study that says that if a person doesnt hear a particular sound (specific to a language) by the time he or she is four years old, that person will be unable to duplicate that sound. They may be able to bluff a phonetic equivalent, they may recognize that its a sound that they dont know, but they really cant make the sound. Interesting theory, and I have the feeling it may involve more than just the language functions of the brain. There may just be some other parts of culture that youre never going to get because it wasnt a part of your early life. I dont mean that you cant understand someone elses reasons and respect them, its just may not be possible to internalize some things. But hey, what do I know?

Back to our regularly scheduled programming:

Thursday was the trip to Trivandrum, where my friends and I all stayed overnight at the Catholic guesthouse across from the airport; my plane was to leave at 6:15AM, and they wanted to be sure that I got on safely. It actually started raining while we were at dinner (after a day of seeing a huge aqueduct with a walkway and small waterfall, without one) and the streets were flooded. Monsoon rains do not fool around; it really did sound like someone pouring buckets of water down. Very enlivening, but tough on the cars; I'm thankful it stayed sunny for my time down there. The streets flooded almost instantly.

I arrived at Delhi Bed and Breakfast (www.delhibedandbreakfast.com) to spend Thursday and Friday nights; in between, on Friday, I did a whirlwind tour of Delhi: it's big, it's sprawly, it's got lots of people, and the traffic is, um, usually not great. My driver, hired through the Delhi B&B, was quite good, though. I really was enthralled seeing the Gandhi Museum, and touched by the memorial where he was assassinated. There were also various Mughal structures, British monuments, a crafts museum, a market, and Old Delhi: tiny streets stuffed with sari sellers and such through which I rode on a cyclo (carriage attached to a bicycle; those guys do a lot o' pedaling.) The Jain Bird Hospital is there, too; they believe in complete sanctity of life (no leather allowed in there!) and take care of, as you might guess from the name, injured birds. Also bunnies, supposedly, but those I didn't see The Jains did seem very gentle, but it's got to be a tough life avoiding killing bugs. They're only about 2% of the population; India, of course, is mostly Hindu, but does have the second largest Muslim population in the world. (Indonesia is first, I believe.)

A note here about the Delhi B&B: its a lovely family home with very comfortable beds and a nice breakfast; they can take care of arrangements for you, and in fact I booked my driver in Agra through them, which worked out very well. (It was nice being met at the train.) The location is reasonably close to many of the monuments and sites, and its not too expensive, for Delhi. I recommend it.

After getting back from my tour, I did have a bit of an adventure, one that happens, er, frequently with me. I got lost. What happened was that I got a cyclo to the "community center" where there are restaurants (Mine: A restaurant called "Not Authentic" because I loved the name; unfortunately, it was somewhat dark, smoky, and male dominated. I felt a bit like a Martian, but hey, the chicken strog was okay. But not authentic, for sure...chili peppers, anyone?) Anyway, afterwards I went to get a cyclo back; the driver agreed wholeheartedly that he knew where Delhi B&B Friends Colony East was. Of course, he didn't, so he dropped me and I went in search of a means of communication. After a bit of wandering (and prayer) I finally ended up at the "Ikon Residency" hotel type joint where they phoned to find out exactly where the place was and sent me with a driver (200 Rupees, please.) That's why I kinda like walkable cities; you might get lost, but it's hard to get tooooo lost. Usually. Delhi is not a walkable city. As it turns out, I should have gotten a paper from the B&B, but I didnt get that little tidbit until after my adventure.

Varanasi may be a bit more walkable, but it's pretty curvy and has the highest CPSM I've yet seen. (Cattle Per Square Mile) That's appropriate, I grant, but just a tad disconcerting to this urban person.

Varanasi registers under Class I in sensory assaults: not in a bad way, necessarily, but there's just so much to process in sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch. (Like getting whacked with a cow tail as you're walking down the street, or having a silver design painted on your hand while you're buying postcards from two little girls, or walking through alleys so narrow they almost meet overhead...)

Sunrise out on the Ganges river found me in a boat, along with a Danish couple and a meditation teacher/accordion player (how's that for a combination? Talk about your niche jobs!) from LA. We passed the people taking their morning dip--in some cases, a full bath--and washing clothes, slapping them on the rocks, and, at the cremation ghat (ghats are the steps going down to the river for bathers) cremating, of course. The cremation/ashes into the Ganges is supposed to guarantee a break in the cycle of reincarnation; you achieve the freedom from rebirth that way, so there are many people brought to Varanasi to die. Children and holy men are considered already pure and not cremated, but just left to float in the water. (You may see why this is a bit to take in, as we saw all of these things from the boat yesterday.)

After the boat (and then breakfast: lassi, which is a yogurt drink) I was herded out by a couple of "tour guides" (all of about 16 years old) and taken around the city to the Monkey Temple and other places of interest; they also took me, surprise surprise not at all, to a silk place; I am afraid I don't buy as well as most Westerners do, but I did get a dress made, which I picked up the next day. It's a peacock blue color, so appropriate for India, but the tailoring isn't great. After I picked up the dress, the same two took me into Old City and to see the guru of Goldie Hawn and Michael Jackson; I told him, however, that I already knew my past and my future was in God's hands, so I escaped without a reading or astrological chart. I forebore to tell him that being the guru to Mr. M. Jackson would not tend to be a plus for most people.

The streets and alleys are winding (and muddy; it rained last night) and it would be very easy to get lost, but there are always rickshaw or autocyclo drivers nearby, plus my guides tend to find me. While I'm still mentally adjusting to cows and goats all over, the sight of a Western tourist here is rather common; I saw more Westerners in Varanasi than in just about any other place until Leh.

Amy is offline  
Aug 3rd, 2008, 11:32 PM
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Oh, I love the head bobble! And it usually means, "I'm really not sure", so I like to ask directions to obscure places and watch it happen!

Great report; I can't wait to read more!
lcuy is offline  
Aug 4th, 2008, 08:42 AM
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Enjoying your report Amy, especially the more personal insight.
Femi is offline  
Aug 10th, 2008, 10:09 AM
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Sorry for the delay; I was in Disneyworld. (It's a small world, after all.)

Before I venture on to getting all breathless about the Taj Mahal, Id like to put a bit of a warning or explanation or what have you about the touts and guides and so on; some places really are about the worst Ive seen for this type of badgering and for making one feel as if ATM is tattooed on ones forehead. (China, by comparison, is a cinch. India is possibly tied with Morocco if you include Tangier.) I understand the perception that Westerners are wealthy, and its comparative truth in many cases, but it does get wearing to be have to constantly turn down someone trying to sell you something, from a service you dont need to souvenirs you dont want to an experience youd rather avoid. I realize, as well, of course, that this is a very small fraction of Indias people and certainly wouldnt avoid the country for this reason, but I think it is best to be prepared.

Every place that I visited had guides, usually with an ID tag slung around their shoulders. The guiding consisted of telling you what you could read for yourself in any reputable guidebook or on the posted signs at the location, and asking for a different amount at the end of the tour than the beginning. My method of avoidance for all of it became the slight smile, head down, no no no and hand wave whilst walking away, but even that doesnt work all the time. I lost it a bit at Fatepuhr Sikri with a dude who just wouldnt give up; not majorly, just telling him that when I said I wanted to be alone I meant it.

Prices (for anything from a rug to a rickshaw) were also a bit of a problem, as I dont really like to haggle and didnt have a lot of info to go on; suggestions in the travel books are indeed outdated and there are so many situations that come up that arent really covered anywhere anyway. Its not that I mind paying the value of a service, but I dislike messing up the balance of the system by overpaying and thus making it worse for the next tourist. Oh, and try to have ten and twenty rupee notes handy at all timesnot that this is an easy thing to do, as the ATMs spit out 100s and 500s, of course, and nobody has change. Tipping at restrooms and for a porter to wave toward the direction of check-in (theres a REASON I have a single wheeled bag, thank you) are pretty much expected.

Anyway, warning over and on to the Taj Mahal.

Beyond the power of description...

...but of course I'll try anyway.

The Taj Mahal looks as if it were set down on a cloud from heaven, not grown brick by brick, marble slab by marble slab, from the earth. It glows and floats and gleams and is, without doubt, worth every moment that it takes to reach this point.

And thats from the outside, across the river. I communed with it with only a small but sensitive post card seller to accompany me. He didn't try to sell until I was on my way back; a rare gift.) The driver took me to the road leading down to the viewing site; theres a garden there that charges admission, but you just head on down the road for a beautiful view of architectural perfection.

It seems like nothing could live up to the story and the legends of the Taj: built as a mausoleum to commemorate the great love of Shah Jehan and his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal; gazed upon by Shah Jehan from the Agra Fort whilst he was imprisoned there by his son (mostly for spending so much money); pictured in so many places and so many contexts that it's one of the most recognized buildings in the world. But there is nothing, nothing to prepare you for the sight of it. (And this is rare; many times, the reality requires an adjustment from the expectation--life's like that, innit?--but this, well, this one is immortal.)

I came in on the AM express train (two hours, and meals are served) and was met by the driver that had been arranged by the Delhi B&B. I stayed at Hotel Sheela at the eastern gate of the Taj; no cars are permitted in this area (due to pollution) and it makes for a peaceful stay, once one is past the rickshaw offers and invitations to come in and shop for really tacky reproductions and pashmina scarves. It's a fairly bare-bones kind of place (no hot water), but I'm here for just one night and paid under $20 for it. On my first day I visited the Agra Fort, the "Baby Taj" tomb that inspired the later design, and the view of the Taj across the river. Agra Fort is impressive, red sandstone and white marble being used at different times; the red looks ferocious and fitting the crocodile moat, the white more joyous and gracious. There was a huge library and a six-foot deep bathtub in the white part!

I also managed to buy a wee bitty carpet, since it's in just the difficult shade of blue that I need in my wee bitty living room in front of the loveseat. I'm guessing that the info that I was told about it was grossly exaggerated ("Seventeen people work for forty-two years to make these carpets, knotting each thread of pure Kashmir wool with their own hands!!!" Not quite, but close) but I like it and it will be nice to step on and remember Agra.

It was full moon in Agra, but I didnt get to view the Taj by moonlight; you need to get the tickets a day in advance, plus it was overcastand you only get to go a bit in. I would like to have seen it, but settled for sunrise the next day instead.

I spent Thursday in Agra with a beautiful morning (6AM) visit to the Taj, wandering the marble barefoot as is necessary in many places in India, and drinking in the gorgeous details of inlaid semi-precious stones. It wasn't terribly crowded at that point, but still enough people doing all the famous poses. It's nice to see everyone's excitement as they get closer and it looms larger and larger.

From there, it was Fatehpurh Sikri, a royal town built and then abandoned; lots of interesting architecture, but way too many "guides" whom I was trying to avoid. Its a fascinating place, but it was extremely crowded at that point. There does come a time when, for me, the sound of silence is all I'm looking for, and it hit in Agra that day. Fortunately, I left on the train that afternoon, which was another unique experience: I was in a "sleeper", had no idea how long the trip would take (it was two hours in, but this is a "slow" train) and, well, nobody was communicating a whole lot. Sometimes silence isn't quite what it's made out to be. As the fields alongside the train were monsoon flooded, I knew the tracks might be as well, and we did kind of "ooze" along for a while; I finally reached Delhi at 9:30PM! I'd booked my one "luxury" hotel for that night, and it was terrific: the Trident Gurgaon, with flames in the reflecting pool on the way in and an upgrade to an executive suite for me (I could get used to that lifestyle, I'm afraid) and all kinds of luxe lushness like fresh flowers and fresh cookies. Unfortunately, I had to leave it all at 2:30 AM for my plane to Leh, but it was nice while it lasted.

Amy is offline  
Aug 10th, 2008, 11:16 AM
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Hi Amy,
Thanks for posting your trip. I have enjoyed reading it.

The head bobble (as good a description as there is) signifies understanding or agreeing with what's being said.

As for the printed matrimonials, I don't know how many marriages actually result from these. Anyone I know has been matched by way of word of mouth among family members, business associates, etc. Sadly, skin shade is still a big deal especially for the girl to be married.

And finally, on the rugs, it never fails to amaze me the ridiculous stories they will tell tourists, but I'm glad you found one you like.

Safe travels to you.
Jaya is offline  
Aug 11th, 2008, 01:36 AM
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Am truly enjoying your report.
Your reactions are very similar to what mine were on my first visit to India in 1965. Last year I spent a month traveling around and whether it was because I am older and perceive things differently I came away loving India.

I stayed at Sheela as well when in Agra, great location.

It seemed to me that the north was much worse, than the south for pushy sales people and touts.

Please keep it coming, really enjoy your observations.
Nywoman is offline  
Aug 11th, 2008, 03:41 AM
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Amy, What day were you at Fatehpur Sikri? I was in India the same time as you, I thought FS was really bad and wwaaaaaaay overcrowded. Would you go back to that site?
riversair is offline  
Aug 11th, 2008, 05:39 AM
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When we were at FS in February of this year on a Saturday morning on our way to Agra it was absolutely deserted. I wonder what has changed?
Marija is offline  
Aug 11th, 2008, 08:34 AM
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One thing about tourist destinations in India is that they can change from hour to hour. I've been to the Taj five different times in the last three years. some visits it was shoulder to shoulder people, other times practically empty. Once it was like walking the gauntlet past the postcard sellers, the last time we had only one kid try to sell us.

Our visit to FS was on a hot morning in August 05 and there were no more than 15 people in the whole complex. The only troublesome employee was the guy with the toilet key!

That's one of the things I love about India is that there is always so much unexpected!
lcuy is offline  
Aug 11th, 2008, 02:40 PM
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I am really enjoying your post about India. Thank you! it was a pleasure to read.
lollylo25 is offline  
Aug 12th, 2008, 02:38 AM
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Thanks all! I was in FS on 17th July--I wouldn't need to go back, I have to admit. But I'd love to return to India some day to see more. Last installment now:

Posting under the influence of altitude

(Im going to quote my email home for this one, as it was written with that hey, Im practically non-functional due to oxygen deprivation feel that comes from the high mountains, so its not really duplicable under normal circumstances.)

Please pardon any dizziness in this posting; I'm 11,500 feet up in the mountains (which, it seems to me, is more than two miles up) and my brain is a bit oxygen-starved. Not so much, though, that I can't appreciate the brilliant blue skies, craggy Himalayas, and singing of the monks to greet the morning. I'm in Leh, in Ladakh, a little town that has more in common with Tibet than with much of the rest of India. The temperatures are in the 70's, and the sunshine is gorgeous.

I left the life of luxury at the Trident early in the morning, but I don't think, really, that I would have enjoyed as much staying in that kind of place for the whole trip; my $10 a night guesthouse here in Leh is much homier and friendlier, even if the hot water doesn't work at night and you have to flush the loo with the leftover shower water. Its Guesthouse Paul, located right in the center of town. The people at the guesthouse are lovely, and the garden is just beautiful.

Yesterday I just acclimatized (sleep, read, rest, sleep, repeat...) and today I did some walking around town, including the Royal Palace which resembles Potala in Tibet quite a lot, but is in enormous disrepair, which makes it kind of exciting. (Hey, there's a big hole to fall through!) They are reconstructing it, though, which here seems to mean making it rather like a concrete bunker, all straight lines and, well, cement. I've booked a trip out to some of the monasteries in the mountains, and then rafting on the Indus on Monday; just the wee baby rapids, as my rafting experience is, um, minimal at best.

(End of email, back to some more info about the town)

I flew into Leh from Delhi, about an hour or so flying time. Youre limited to 15 kg checked luggage, and theres to be no carry-ons except a purse or camera bag. They dont enforce this as much out of Delhi as they do out of Leh; security going out of Leh is pretty tight. (And why am I one of the few people who can actually FOLLOW these directions? she asked self-righteously but really ticked with all those people trying to get on the plane with elephant sized cabin luggage.) I was met by a taxi sent by my travel agent, Mr. Mohd Ali of Shayok Travel in Changspa. (Nice guy, worked out fine; his son, a living El Greco whose name Im not sure of, took me around the town on my first full day. Email is [email protected] ) They arranged the guesthouse for me and all the excursions, including rafting. Changspa is actually connected to Leh; its a hotel town, from what I could see, for the most part, and its easy enough to walk to from Leh center.

Much of my time was spent jouncing about on incredibly curved and narrow mountain roads (Of course they're two way! And if a truck is in front of you, of course you have to pass! Just blow your horn, it'll be fine!) visiting the stunning monasteries built up on the mountains and going through tiny villages as well. They are green oases in the desert of Ladakh; here there are three months of summer, the rest winter, and there is very little moisture at all. But, oh, these blue blue skies and huge puffy white clouds...gorgeous.

I visited Thiksey Monastery (or Gompa) first, leaving at sunrise and watching the incredible changes of light on the harsh, bare, and beautiful mountains. Thiksey sprawls down a mountainside, and has the usual monastery accoutrements of small shrines, huge Buddhas, and many steps. What it did not have many of, that day, was monks, as they were mostly visiting in the village for a funeral. It was fascinating to wander around, though, and is very aesthetically pleasing.

The monasteries have incredible artwork, but what I loved best about this area is the flowers. The garden at my guesthouse is a small treasure, and everywhere at the "gompas" (monasteries) and along the roadsides in the valleys there are flowers of all shapes and sizes, most noticeably vivid hollyhocks. They have such a short season that everything seems to grow with abandon.

From Thikseys I went on to Hemis, the largest monastery in the area. It was here that I had my first major experience with what is commonly referred to as eveteasing; this is another one of those things that Id read about but wasnt prepared to find in a monastery in the Himalayasfrom a nose-ring wearing monk, no less. I was wandering about, following my guidebook (bought in Leh from the Book Depot) and he opened one of the small shrines for me; not anything unusual there, and he was explaining what was there when suddenly he moved in, asked for a kiss, and, well, grabbed a part of me. It was really upsetting, particularly as the monastery was quite empty at that point and isnt easy to get around, but thankfully I quickly broke free and escaped. Id had no other problems with thisnothing more than the usual city stuffand to encounter it here was off-putting to say the least.

But on to the next day:

Squelching the Indus from my Tevas!

White water rafting, on the Indus, is a really really fun thing to do. You've got the whole huge vari-hued mountains along side, an occasional cow, and very large rocks in the water...plus a 16 year old Nepali in charge of the raft. Very confidence inspiring, eh?
But these were only Category II rapids for the most part, so I only got dumped once. That's some pretty cold mountain water, though, I have to say. But ah, the exhilaration! (Not to mention the slightly aching arm muscles the next day; I paddle with enthusiasm but not much form.) There was an Israeli family with me; lovely bunch. There are large numbers of Israelis who come to India; seems to be a special bond.

The next day was Alchi monastery, a lovely old place with a quiet dignity. On the way, we stopped at a Sikh temple (I got an orange scarf to wearand got fed, as is the custom there.) This spot is where a stone rolled down and molded itself like wax around a guru it ws meant to harm. The Sikhs who run it are part of the army; there are army outposts everywhere here, as the borders for Pakistan and China are right there.

I originally wrote most of this on my last night here; the electricity had gone out a few times as I was composing this, but the generators eventually kick in. Sometimes. I thought for a while I'd have to do this in haiku to get anything across:

Raft down the Indus
Meet the cold Zanskar river
Look at Buddhist art.

Pretty much sums it up, I guess!

I'm due on the plane tomorrow morning at 6:50AM to fly to Delhi, and due out of Delhi at around midnight for the flight home, via Paris. There's been so much to take in that this has seemed like a lifetime, yet I know that when I return it will only seem a dream. The squelched sandals and sunburn will serve as reminders, though!

This was an amazing and fascinating trip; weeks later, Im still processing all the sensory information and images. Truly, India is a unique and incredible experience, and Ive only seen a small, small part.

Photos of Leh: http://travel.webshots.com/album/565330061LhhkWk
Amy is offline  
Aug 12th, 2008, 05:28 AM
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Thanks for the wonderful report and pix! (Nice carpet, BTW) Ladakh just moved several places up my must-see list...
thursdaysd is offline  
Aug 12th, 2008, 02:19 PM
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Hi Amy, want to ask you to clarify on Fatehpur Sikri. You said you wouldn't "need" to go back. Does that mean like you saw everything and don't need to go back or could it also mean you would not "want" to go back?

Just asking because lately there have been replies from people saying they didn't like it much (ie: dirty, overcrowded kind of things). I haven't been yet and am just trying to figure out if I should keep it or delete it from my plans.

Jaya is offline  
Aug 12th, 2008, 02:52 PM
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Er, actually both, Jaya. I do feel like I saw everything pretty comprehensively; I loved some of the detailed carvings and the contrast of the old deserted looking bits and the strong red stone, but I don't feel any compulsion to return. It's hard to advise, but I'd say that it you're going to be in Agra anyway it's worth seeing, but I wouldn't visit Agra just for it, if that makes sense?

The heat probably wore me down a bit, too, so depending on when you're going...

Let's just say it's definitely not a "find" kind of place anymore!
Amy is offline  
Aug 12th, 2008, 04:48 PM
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You were braver than me to go in July. I WAS going to go in August, but family who live there said "no", it would be too hot and humid (I live in New England just for a reference point). They live in the Delhi-Lucknow area. This summer has been somewhat better, but I only go when it's cooler. If I can include Agra on my next visit, I was thinking of including F.S. too.
Jaya is offline  
Aug 14th, 2008, 02:15 AM
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Hmmm, not so much bravery as necessity to go in July; summer is the only time I can travel. (That's one reason why it took me so many years to get to India!) I'm grateful, though, that this seemed to be a milder July than usual; it really wasn't bad at all.

Thursdaysd, I think you would like Ladakh...but that "list" is tough, isn't it? I keep adding places instead of subtracting them from my mental list. So many places, so little time.
Amy is offline  
Aug 28th, 2008, 12:31 PM
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Just bringing this up to sing the praises of Trident Gurgaon!

I was waiting for a response to the letter that I had sent to them, and it arrived today. I'd gone out with a driver (Avis, bur booked through the hotel) who, despite being specifically asked (by both me and the desk) to take me to FabIndia, ended up taking me to two shops that, I would strongly assume, gave him commission. I was in a bit of a bind because I did need to get some things, and was working under a pretty tight time constraint; I hadn't wanted to carry gifts around with me.

Trident has addressed the matter with the driver and has also given me a refund (which I didn't ask for) for both that ride and the airport transfer! I kinda hate to rat anybody out, but I really did feel that the driver had gone out of line in this; he had the power here as I'm not at all familiar enough with India to know where he was going. It was made worse by the fact that by the time I returned I had a splitting headache and had been gone for four hours due to Delhi traffic!

Anyway, Trident has made good and I can now unreservedly praise the place: serious raves on the gorgeous hotel's appearance and the service!
Amy is offline  
Sep 4th, 2008, 06:14 AM
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Hi Amy, really enjoyed this report! You are a really good writer
Thyra is offline  

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