India: Varanasi

I have been trying to think of a word to describe Varanasi but I don’t think any word is worthy of association. Varanasi is a place beyond description. You need to see it to believe it, you need to smell it to believe it, you need to hear it to believe it. And I still don’t think I truly believe what I saw, smelt or heard. I don’t think I have ever been, or ever will be, to a place that has left me so dumbfounded that I have struggled to describe it. And, whatever I say in this post will not do it justice.

So Varanasi. Our last stop on a whistle stop 3 weeks in India. 3 weeks that will stay with me forever ended in a place with such spirituality that I will endeavor to encourage any visitor to India to ensure it is on their itinerary.

We pulled into our guest house in the early hours of the morning after a less-than-comfortable overnight train journey in comparison to our others. We were greeted by friendly faces and beaming smiles, which have us good vibes for the days ahead.

Before heading on an exploration we sat on the rooftop of our guesthouse and ate some breakfast with our obligatory Chai Masala. For the first time in India we were in the presence of rain. This fell relatively heavily around our feet as we sheltered ourselves and our omelettes under a tarpaulin roof.

Once the rain subsided we ventured out towards the famous ghats of Varanasi eager to get our first glimpse of the famous River Ganges. We walked to the southern most ghat (Assi) and saw our first glimpse of the Ganges beyond the haze of the drizzly rain. At that very moment the Ganges could have been any river in the world. But, having been taught at school, and eventually teaching others, about the significance of it made very presence of the water in front of me a very special experience. In fact, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt about being in the presence of such a holy river when it means so little to me and so much to millions of people who may never get to see it.

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As we strolled along the Ganges we saw very few people, who appeared to be put off by the rain. Instead our company, as it usually is in India, included many cows who roamed freely, clearly oblivious to the significance of the river in front of them.
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We passed a few ghats on our walk before coming to our first burning ghat. These are places where hindu people are burnt upon piles of wood and cremated by the side of the river. The idea is that their body will enter the river and their spirit will have a direct passage to Nirvana if they are burnt there. We watched, captivated, for a very long time as dead human bodies were carried into view under silk and flowers and were then were piled upon the logs of wood before being burned. They would burn until the human remains were unrecognisable. Family members would stand around the body whilst the cremator ensured the flames stayed alight and that all parts of the body remained part of the bonfire. It was an amazing sight that neither of us imagined to see. The smell of burning, the heat from the flames and the ash that fell about us were all an experience that I never thought I would be a part of (It is forbidden for photographs to be taken at the cremations, understandably).

As the rain began to beat down hard again we ran through a nearby ghat, weaving across narrow corners and nearly missing cow shit and the cows themselves. We eventually pulled into a cafe and waited for the rain to give us safe passage again.

We then entered the evening where we had arranged to meet my colleague, Simon, who was also coincidently in Varanasi. We were to see the city in a completely different light.

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As we entered our tuk tuk to meet him the street was dimly lit and relatively quiet but it was only a minute or so and a few streets later that we were hit with a wall of noise, traffic and people. My senses were overloaded. There was colour, music, shouting, honking, singing, begging and cows everywhere. Everywhere we looked something was happening, normally strange. We couldn’t believe that such a spiritual place could be so hectic. Having Nicki with me makes me a little more aware of the dangers around but I genuinely feel as though we had no need to be worried for our safety. It was neither a good thing nor a bad thing, it was just a different thing. Fortunately, we ate in a decent restaurant in a side street.

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We had the same experience on our way back. Except a wedding reception had found its way into the streets and we were stuck behind people with colourful lamps on their head in celebration. When we eventually did get back to our street we wanted to find a beer. We came across a shop but were asked to walk up a dark alley in order to get the beer. Along the alley we were met by a young boy who checked the stairs ahead and ushered us forward as if the coast was clear. At the top of the stairs everyone fell silent until we had got our beers and left. I don’t know what happened in that minute, but it was odd.

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The next day was when we got to see Varanasi in all of it’s true glory. The sun was back, and the ganges was more majestic than the previous day. We once again walked towards the ghats that met with the water and were now greeted with what makes Varanasi a truly holy place to Hindu people. There were Babas sitting at the side in meditation (and some just reading the paper), there were people bathing in the water, there were boys playing cricket, there were people drinking Chai, there were people washing their clothes, and their were others burning their loved ones on bonfires. Varanasi is an incredible place, and one that everyone should see in their lifetime.

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Later in the day we boarded a local boat containing lots of Hindus on a pilgrimage. We felt like hijackers once again as it was clear that floating on the ganges meant far more to these people than it ever would do to us. The captain of our boat decided to enthusiastically drink the water as we passed the burning ghat. The Ganges may be a spiritual water but it is so heavily polluted that I wouldn’t dare put it near my mouth. Not only does all waste end up there, but up to 100,000 bodies are cremated (or particularly cremated) before being thrown into the river each year. This is not something I want to be drinking. Still, he then got his hands wet and sprayed it on everyone, like he was egging us all on for a water fight.

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As the sun went down we stopped beside one of the main ghats where a congregation of boats surrounded us. Here there was an incredible performance of sound and lights at the side of the river. Men walked around selling chai as we watched in awe at the thousands of people who had gathered their for the happiest moments of their lives. It was amazing to be a part of it.

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Satisfied with out spiritual experiences on the Ganges we explored more of the city by tuk tuk the next day. We visited many temples, including one large one to Shiva and another temple with monkeys (I have seen so many monkeys recently) before seeing a scale model of India on the basement of one temple. We did get a little frustrated with people asking for money in the temples. One man even put a necklace on me before asking for 100 rupees for Shiva. I didn’t give him the money.

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Our time in Varanasi only came to a close once we had bought some spices and visited a silk factory (where we once again didn’t give in to buying anything).

As I said, I cannot express in words what Varanasi is like. And I hope that is enough to say that we had the most memorable time there.

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The train journey back to Kolkata before out train journey signalled the end of our journey. Fittingly there were vast piles of rubbish beside the railway tracks and countless slums leading out of the city to remind us that India has a long way to go. Yet, there was also one more sunset in the distance to remind us of its beauty and tranquility.
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It has been an amazing time. I have lived in Nicki’s back pocked for over 3 weeks and she has never once complained about my habits. She has been the perfect travel companion and India has been the perfect travel destination. It’s now time to return to work, but I feel like we are more than ready for the next trip already.

India: Delhi and Agra

I want to start this post by admitting that Delhi is a hard place to love. It does not have the wonderful beaches of Goa, the romance of Udaipur, or the golden sunsets of the Thar desert. Strangely, its attraction is largely its unattractiveness. That said, Delhi is a place that no one will ever forget visiting.

If we were able to consider ourselves as ‘backpackers’ so far, we would not be able to claim that tag for our stay in Delhi. In fact, we knew that we could not leave India without visiting the Taj Mahal and I should probably be ashamed to say that our stay there was largely focused about gathering ‘that photo’.

Yet, the Taj Mahal is not based in New Delhi. It is in Agra. For that reason there was a little more to this part of our trip than a visit to one of the wonders of the world.

Our first reason was to decide if we liked Delhi or not. Everyone we had spoken to had warned us about how tourists often have contradictory opinions about the city,  with most deciding they hate it.

However, if our comfortable overnight train into the most polluted city on Earth was anything to go by, we were going to enjoy the city. This may have been the most likeable thing about the city.

We positioned ourselves in the hugely populated area of ParahGanj,  not far from the train station. There we were able to walk to many of the sites we wanted to see during the day and get a rickshaw to the rest (although we tried to find alternatives when we struggled to avoid the heavily inflated foreigner price wherever we went).

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Dehli is as frantic as you imagine: the roads are lawless, the noise is deafening, and the air quality rivals that of China. In fact, the traffic also makes China’s road madness look sane. One of the reasons for this is that China has paths for pedestrians, and another is that it doesn’t regard resting cows as additional roundabouts.  Wherever we looked something weird was happening (just as Karl Pilkington pointed out).

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Despite the chaos on the roads we decided to explore the pedestrian areas. First of all we went to Connaught Place, signposted by massive Indian flag in the distance. Here we were hounded by everyone in a way that was so tiresome we often resorted to rudeness to desuede them from us.

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We then went to a market in Old Dehli, sold to us a ‘moonlit market’. Instead it should have been named ‘mahem market’ due to the thousands of people, rickshaws, tuk tuks, cars, motorbikes, cows, dogs, and goats all competing for space in narrow streets. It’s fair to say Dehli had overwhelmed us on our first day. We were left thanking China for introducing us to these kinds of crowds. Without experience of China we would have been shell shocked.

When we went for lunch we saw a nice man with a basket outside of the restaurant. As we got closer to him he lifted the lid of his basket and out popped the head of a snake. He was a charmer. Nicki, who is usually fearless, yelped and coward behind me. I protected her from the snake by walking away.

During the evening we went in search of train tickets for an early morning day trip to Agra the following day. There were many train ticket retailers dotted around the city and we asked a few for tickets. All of them offered us tickets at such extortionate rates that there was no way we could accept. I could sense Nicki’s frustration with the people (men) of Dehli already, and I wasn’t far behind her.

In fact, we saw an Internet cafe advising the sale of train tickets. We walked in and three heads turned towards us from their computer screens. I asked them ‘can we please buy train tickets to Agra tomorrow morning?’. One of them responded ‘servers down’. Quite puzzled I probed further ‘the Internet server?’
‘Yes.’
I then saw that all three were using the Internet on their three separate computers and said ‘but you’re all on the internet’ to which they all turned back to their computers as if the check. At this point I heard Nicki’s voice say ‘todd’ in the same tone you use to a dog that looks like it’s about to jump on the sofa. That was our cue to leave and our frustrations were levelled.

We found a saving grace in the form of a Sikh man named Jasdeep. He worked for a company selling airline tickets but offered us the opportunity to go to the Taj Mahal and back in his car for a very decent price and on our terms. In exchange he would also come with us. He turned out to be one of my favourite people! With this minor success under our belts we went back to our accommodation for an early night before out 5am wake up call.

We were actually staying in a nice hotel in an ugly back alley which made for a peaceful night, save for the pigeon who had nested in our air vent. We woke up just about on time for our meeting with Jasdeep downstairs. Getting Nicki out of bed at 5am is no easy task.

However, the day had come. We were now visiting the one place synonymous with any trip to India. Not only that, we were visiting the majestic building, created by a man to express his love for his wife, on Valentines Day.

It was a very good idea to leave for Agra so early as it meant that we missed the rush hour traffic and were able to access the Taj Mahal before the mid morning madness. Our trip was not without drama though: Jasdeep was to open his heart to me whilst Nicki pretended to sleep.

He informed me that he had health problems before revealing that his wife had filed for divorce out of the blue with no explanation. He appeared to want me to solve his life problems for him and I am pretty sure Nicki giggled to herself as she heard me try to give both life advice and regularly steer the conversation away from divorce.

Once we arrived at the entrance to the Taj Mahal we had to join the special foreigner queue to pay our inflated fee whilst we waited for Jasdeep to buy his from the local’s queue. He, like both of us, had never visited the Taj Mahal before and was excited about seeing it for the first time with a couple of foreigners. Because he was with us he was able to join the shorter, faster, foreigner queue to enter.
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Both Nicki and I had not gone to India with high expectations of the Taj Mahal. We both saw it as something we had to do but did not put it top of our to-do lists. I think we both expected to be underwhelmed by it, but we were not.

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As soon as we caught sight of it for the first time I was captivated by it. There is something special about the building and the way it stands serenely in a country clouded by noise, dirt and famine. It really is a spectacular building to look at. Naturally, we took oodles of selfies and photos whilst we were there:

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We must have spent 2 hours touring the building, and I enjoyed every moment of it. There was something hypnotic about it and I was certainly not underwhelmed, feeling a little guilty about my original approach to visiting it.

We then drove back to Dehli with Jasdeep via the expressway. I have a sneaky suspicion that Nicki really wanted me to be back in time for the Arsenal vs Leicester game as she seemed more keen to get back quickly than I did (or showed). It was Valentines Day after all. In fact, we made it back and when Arsenal won with the last kick of the game I reacted with such drama that Nicki would have had every right to continue the journey without me. Fortunately she didn’t mind me jumping on the bed.

We then went out for a nice meal in the evening (curry) where an Indian man asked I would take a photo of him giving Nicki a rose so he could send it to his girlfriend. I am not sure that would have gone down as well as he’d planned.

The next morning we explored some more of Delhi, this time on foot. We found ourselves in an under ground market where we were hounded by salespeople telling us what they are selling as if we couldn’t see it ourselves and the air quality worse than outside. We decided to take it a bit easier and eat in a deli in Delhi called ‘Wengers’ because it seemed apt.
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Naturally, no trip to India is complete without sharing the road with an elephant:
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On reflection, we did not take full advantage of Delhi on this 3 day visit. There is plenty to do in a truly unique city. However, you do need to give yourself time to move anywhere because of the traffic. You also need to have a good night’s sleep before braving the outdoors, because patience is a necessity. I would recommend Delhi to people travelling to India (but not my mother, she’d bloody hate it) but I wouldn’t expect anyone to fall in love with it.

That evening we boarded our train to Varanasi. As we set off a man threw his rubbish out of the window. A foreign passenger quizzed him about why he did. He responded ‘that is our trash can’. It pretty much summed everything up.

Rajisthan, India: Jaisalmer and The Thar Desert

Udaipur had provided us with such a positive first impression of Rajisthan that Jaisalmer had a lot to contend with. It didn’t let us down.

Such is the vastness of Rajisthan that we spent 12 hours on a bus and arrived in the desert. We were told by the bus drivers that they knew reputable people who would take us from the bus stop to our hotel and that we should ignore any other rickshaw touts. We were happy to follow their advice but ended up in a tuk tuk with 2 men who took us to their own guesthouse and were quite angry when we didn’t stay with them (despite informing them of our reservation elsewhere as soon as we met them). After a semi – sleepless night and backpacks on our backs this was hardly a nice introduction to our new home.

We then went on search for our accomodation on foot and quickly entered the majestic fort of the city. It was beginning to absorb the brightness of the morning sun, which made it an impressive site. It looked like a giant sandcastle.

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We had booked a room inside the fort. We felt quite guilty about this as we had just read about how the increase in tourism to the fort, and thus water use,  had put a strain on the foundations of the ancient buildings. However, we were given access to our room by the 2 teenage boys who seemed to run the lodge. To our surprise, and the surprise of everyone else we spoke to, they did not put pressure on us to do a trek with them (which was we already had a trek in mind).

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Our day in Jaisalmer took as to the fort’s sorrounding streets and the havelis within. We, as is becoming habit, had a rooftop beer in a bar run by Tibetens.

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We then went for dinner at a restaurant beyond the fort, but with a good view of it. We ate on the floor and had a beer whilst being hosted by an incredibly friendly fellow named Prince, who insisted on blessing us more regularly than was comfortable.

And no day in India is complete without a spectacular sunset:

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Or a cow at your front door:

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Jaisalmer is a lovely place but we couldn’t help but feel part of its problem. It should be a peaceful old town but it has turned into a haven for tourists, such as us, eager to explore India’s far West.  For this reason we felt it had probably lost a bit of its charm.

However, Jaisalmer was just an added bonus for our reason to travel West.  We wanted to trek by camel into the desert of Rajisthan. And on our second morning in Jaisalmer we woke up, packed our desert essentials and headed for a jeep into the desert and towards our camel companions.

The Thar Desert isn’t like the sandy dunes of the Sahara (although it is in places), but dry land littered with green shrubs. On our initial jeep ride we were able to get a feel for the desert and avoid an hour of the intense midday sun. At the same time we got to know the people who were joining us on our trip: a young Dutch couple and an older English gentleman with his Taiwanese wife. All 4 of these people were very good company.

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We then met our camels and our camel drivers in the desert. Earlier in the day I predicted that I would get the dodgy camel (like my excuse for being slow during when kayaking from Glasgow to Edinburgh) and it was immediately obvious which camel that would be when we saw it. All of the camels, except mine, we’re light in colour and clear of obvious scaring. Mine was dark with what looked like tattoos. Additionally,  he kept shouting before we even sat down. I was told later that he was complaining about a sore nose. Still, my camel looked a bit like a Bond villain. 

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Anyway, it was immediately obvious that the camels were well looked after and the drivers were very gentle with them. I have never seen an animal continously wee for so long, which made me confident that they were being watered. One by one we mounted our camels and were lifted 8 feet into the air.  Much like on an aircraft, the take off and landing on a camel is the scariest part. Camels are not the most elegant creatures.

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We then walked for a few hours across the desert, taking in the sights of wildlife around us and feeling the afternoon heat on our backs.

At one point we stopped off at a desert village. Nicki felt as though this part was slightly ‘grief tourism’ (partly why we didn’t explore slums in any great detail) and I agree with her.

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The camels offer a bumpy ride and, despite the amount of padding underneath me, my boney bum was not quickly accustomed to it. Still, this was all part of the experience. 

As the sun began to subside the temperature dramatically cooled and we were eagerly anticipating our dinner. We began an accent through the dunes. I am not sure how camels climb on sand with such weights on their backs. They seem to be capable of anything and look like they should be capable of nothing.

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We eventually reached our camping spot in time to watch the sun set on the horizon. The sun was so large that it felt closer to us. We both sat on the dunes and posed for photographs until the sun went down and it was time to enjoy some masala chai by the newly lit fire.

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The camel drivers turned out to be skilled cooks and entertaining singers, which made for a good campfire evening. We ate the vegetable curries they cooked, enjoyed the beers they had hidden away and listened to them sing songs in hindi and rajistani to the beat of a water container/drum. It was a throughly enjoyable night and we both agreed that it was the best we had experienced so far in India.

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To make the night even more special we slept under the stars. We could forget about 5 star hotels as we had our own million stars to sleep under. It has been a while since we saw stars properly, and they had a hypnotic effect, resulting in a good night’s sleep in the desert.

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The next morning we woke up to the smell of breakfast and the sounds of the bells ringing from the camels necks as they prepared for another day of walking.

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We set off before the heat became too unbearable and walked continuously for a long time. Within an hour or so the sun became very strong and we were reapplying sun cream, covering our heads or searching for drinking water. It was a great feeling to be in the heat, and I had no intention of complaining about it after the cold winter we’ve had.

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I wondered why the camels followed each other and the driver informed me that the camels will do anything as long as they are together. I liked that.

We trekked until our bottoms were sore and our camels ready for a rest. At which point we were ready to sit in come shade and wait for the jeep to take us back to the fort.

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Our desert trek had come to an end and we loved every minute of it. All we had to do was find a shower (which was offered to us) and find a lift to the train station (which was offered to us) before our overnight train to Dehli, which promised to be an altogether different experience.

This was certainly highlight so far. India has so much to offer.

India: Train to Mumbai

It was hard to leave the beauty of Goa behind, especially with the contrasting reputation of Mumbai ahead.

However, we had long awaited a cross country train trip in India and the route between Goa and Mumbai is said the be one of the greatest.

We arrived at the train station an hour prior to our 9am departure. As expected, the train was slightly delayed. This didn’t really matter as we were in no rush and knew we would be on the train all day regardless.

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To our surprise the train was not heaving and for long periods of our journey we had a cabin of 6 beds between the 2 of us. We initially sat on one bed beside the window and took in the changing scenery as we moved through Goa. It is probably needless to say but the quality and speed of the train bears no comparison to China and Japan. In fact, it was more like an English train speed. But the sights beyond the train were far better than any I’ve seen in England.

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We have both recently discovered that we have been conditioned to sleep when we feel transit. This is a blessing when we are genuinely tired, but a hindrance when you just want to sit and look out of the window.  As a result, we slept a lot of the journey and missed a lot of the terrain as a result.

During bouts of sleep we did wander the train and took advantage of the open door policy of the train to stick our heads out and enjoy the breeze, with the added ingredient of danger.

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At several points on our journey we were joined by a little rat who decided to call our carriage his home.  His size made him less frightening but his very presence should probably have been a concern.

As the day wore on the sky changed colour:  first pink, then golden, before blackness marked the end of our trip and our arrival in Mumbai (Bombay).

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In our haste to book cheap accomodation we found ourselves on the outskirts of what we later found out to be a massive city. The first of our tasks the next morning was to work our way to the very edge of the city,  where the gateway to India is situated, on the coast.

In order to do so we had to board another local train. We joined the local commuters where we initially thought we might have to be separated because of the ‘women only’ carriages. Fortunately Nicki was allowed to join me and the women only carriages are only really by choice and/or religious reasons.

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Once again there were no doors on the trains and people were jumping on moving trains to get a lift. As if it were needed, there were even signs recommending people to avoid sitting on the roof of the train.

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We stayed on the train for about half an hour before reaching the coast which gave us an opportunity to swing out of the door of the moving train once the commuters had alighted.

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Mumbai is a noisy place. It is very crowded and we saw slum areas throughout the city.  However, the coastal area looks nice and there were areas where the crowds were thinner.

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We worked our way towards the famous gateway. We have also taken advantage of the presence of Cadbury’s chocolate here by eating some at every opportunity, which we did here.

It was quite an impressive monument, described as ‘Bombay’s Taj Mahal’, built to commemorate a royal visit over 100 years ago.

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We then wanted to take a boat to a nearby island where there were several stone carvings,  but refused to do so without suncream (given our recently failure in our battle against the sun in Goa).

Eventually we did board a boat to Elephanta Island and were glad of our sun cream.

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The island was not what we had prepared ourselves for. We were greeted by several cows, who lined to streets, street sellers and a few monkeys.

The site carried a foreigner fee of £2.50 and a local fee of 10p.  However, the man at the ticket desk gave us a small discount in exchange for not giving us a ticket (which meant our money probably went straight into his pocket and we were never really officially there). 

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The stone carvings on the island were very impressive and some were maintained well. But our attention was constantly taken towards the monkeys who roamed freely. We spotted a monkey looking in people’s hands as they walked past.  He noticed one man carrying a Coke bottle and he snatched it from his hands before sitting down, unscrewing the lid, and then drinking from it. It was very clever. We later saw one turn their nose up at a water bottle, and another open a ketchup packet only to get it all over himself. They certainly liked the sugar and were taking advantage of the huge litter problem.

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We then returned back to the mainland by boat in order to enjoy the sunset at Chowpatty beach. Unfortunately, several things, including our irresponsible lack of water consumption, led to Nicki getting migraine. We returned back to get away from the noise and the crowds of the he city for the night and prepare for our morning journey to Udaipur. 

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India: Goa

On our second day in India we flew from Kolkata in the far east of India to Goa on the south west coast. We decided to visit Goa a few months earlier, after expressing a desire for some R&R from the normal busy travelling,  and the presence of unpolluted air and direct sunlight.

The flight across country took over 3 hours, highlighting the vastness of the country. It was immediately obvious that we had set foot in a very different culture when we arrived. Gone were the honks of the busy traffic, and gone were the multitude of colourful saris donned by the devoted women of Calcutta. Instead they were replaced by clear roads enveloped with palm trees and middle aged hippies with leather skin.

We spent our first evening in Benaulin beach having opted for the relaxation of South Goa over the party scenes in the North (beginning to show our age). This particular beach was chosen because, out of chance, one of Nicki’s friends was in Goa at the same time. We checked into a lovely homestay room not far from the beach where we are able to drop off our backpacks and walk down to the beach before sunset.

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At the beach we met with Nicki’s friend, Claire,  at the beach and shared a few drinks with her before meeting her mum for dinner on the sand. Together we enjoyed another delicious curry. In fact we have been very pleasantly surprised at the effort that seems to go into every meal here, no matter how cheap. The food never appears quickly after we order and we have taken that as a good sign.

It was nice for Nicki to catch up with one of her friends from home and I’m sure it was a little odd for her to have her life in China cross paths with her English life.

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We woke up the next morning in our comfortable homestay and headed for Palolem beach further south on the recommendation of James, who had stayed there previously. We caught the attention of many taxi drivers who seemed to be offering us inflated prices for a taxi journey south. On reflection the price difference was not more than a couple of pounds, and I was a little worried that my stubbornness for a good price would annoy Nicki. I don’t think it did and we did end up getting a decent price in the end (although the driver did make us get out of the car to look at a tree which resembled an elephant, and therefore Ganesh. I’m not sure he even believed it himself).

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We eventually did arrive at the beach and immediately realised why it was so recommended to us. It had golden sand, clean water and it was enclosed by green hills at either end.

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Nicki was left to sunbathe with the bags whilst I went in search of a beach hut for is to stay in. I went to a few and bargained for a decent price before settling for one with a view of the water.

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Before transporting our luggage to our new room we both lay in the sun with a beer in our hand, satisfied that a couple of days relaxing on the beach would do us good.

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When we did eventually move our luggage to the hut we were soon back on the beach, moving between a lounger and the sea. We both considered when we last had a similar experience. The last time I had sunbathed was in Israel 18 months prior,  and Nicki’s was around the same time. As a result of this, and the lack of UV rays in China and a summer holiday last year, we were whiter than we have ever been. To such an extent that an Indian woman reminded us: ‘you are so white,  be careful in the sun’.

Despite repeated application of our sun cream it soon became clear that neither of our bodies had any resilience to the intense sun reflecting off the Arabian sea. Unfortunately, it was a little too late by the time we realised.

The sunset in Goa is stunning and made for quite a romantic end to the evening. I find something captivating about the sun.

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We had another curry on the sand before we could awknowledge the extent of our sunburn before returning to our sea facing shack for a swing in the hammock and a night under the mosquito net.

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The second day in Goa was a little different. We managed to wade across the small sea separating the main land from an island before boarding a boat to see some dolphins. We spent an hour at sea on the boat with some other tourists and got a few fleeting glimpses of the dolphins leaping from the ocean. We also spent time on a beach named butterfly beach. However, as the photos probably suggest, the sun from the previous day made us fear any great exposure again.

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This meant that we returned to the main beach and spent the majority of the late afternoon tucked inside a bar with cushions for seats and enjoyed the sea breeze in some shade like a couple of cowards.

This lead to our final night on Palalom and in Goa. We had another fantastic meal with a few beers and a candle light and reflected on a fantastic few days of rest, sun and peace. We were now ready to rejoin the noise and crowds of India by moving on to Mumbai.

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India: Kolkata

After returning from my trip to India I met up with Nicki to embark on another adventure,  this time in India.

We left on the Sunday morning after a rather rushed packing session due to my delayed flight on my return from Japan.

This, however, turned into one of the more peaceful flight experiences, where we had 4 hours to kill in Kunming and did so by relaxing with a few beers in the bar.

Our arrival in Calcutta was as much of a culture shock as we had expected. We were greeted with a dusty haze outside the lively airport where the traditional yellow taxis waited. We traveled the short distance to our accomodation both excited and shocked at how different India appeared to be compared to China. Nicki accurately noted that India was exactly as you imagine it would be, which is actually quite a surreal experience.

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Our quest for the cheapest possible flights meant we had a whole day in Calcutta before we were able to start our scheduled R&R in Goa. We were later told that visiting Calcutta first is like jumping into the deep end before you can swim. Still, we attempted to make the most of it.

We opted to take a public bus to the centre of the city, choosing to get off the bus when the majority of those on it did. One of the first things we noticed was the etiquette of the people traveling, which was different to those in China. Firstly, there was no pushing and shoving and secondly, we were informed that the seats we initially sat in were for the senior citizens so we’re kindly asked to sit in other seats.  Everyone adhered to the seats appropriate to them.

The bus ride was an good experience in itself as it allowed us to see the morning activities of the locals as well as observe the wealth of colour throughout the city. The people of calcutta also dress very trationally, so their clothes are almost as colourful as the buses and the buildings.

We got off at a stop in the middle of the city,  although the bus was still moving when we hopped off. This meant that we walked through the busy trading streets in search of the Victoria memorial gardens. 

Once we were free from the vibrant crowds, with all the sounds and smells anyone would associate with India,  we came to a greener part of the city, featuring a cricket green.

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Eventually, we made it the Victoria memorial gardens, where we became a bigger attraction than the monument itself. People were obviously interested in our pale skin and there were queues of people asking for a photo.

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We then visited a Kalighat temple, not far from the gardens. We were informed that 20-25 goats are slaughtered every day in the temple as a sacrifice against evil (because they have horns). We saw one of these goats being phycially torn apart by a man just outside of the temple.
The temple itself was impressive and a haven for all faiths. There was a large queue of barefooted people ready to enter for worship.

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Outside of the temple was a natural spring where people came to bathe in the holy water and pray to Shiva.

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We then headed for our first curry, at a brilliant place we had been recommended called ‘Peter Cat’. It was a little more upmarket than we expected but still had 2 curries and 2 beers for about £8. We later found out that this is very expensive for India. 

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As the afternoon wore on we walked a towards the ‘Mother House’ where Mother Teresa lived and worked for over 30 years. We were surprised to find the house with no sign postings and very few people inside.  There was no admission fee and many of Mother Teresa’s sisters were still working within. We were able to visit the room where Mother Teresa worked, and eventually died as it had been kept as it was.

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We were especially surprised to see the tomb of Mother Teresa visited by so few people at the time we were there. It was quite a surreal experience standing above the burial place of Mother Teresa.

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Our day in Calcutta then drew to a close as we anticipated our trip to Goa and saved a few sites for our last day in India when we retuen to Calcutta in 3 week time. 

Japan: Gloriously different.

I have realised that I have not posted on here in a while. This does not mean life has become monotonous in China, but it does mean that I have been a little too consumed with work to post about our weekend adventures around Zhejiang and neighbouring provinces.

However, after an energy-sapping 22 week term, we have now arrived at a holiday and we will be visiting a few selected places in India over the next month. Yet, I had a week before Nicki’s school broke up for Chinese New Year, I decided to go it alone in Japan for a few days.

After attending the school’s annual gala I left Ningbo for Shanghai in the mid afternoon, comfortable in the knowledge that I had 6 hours before my flight. This became a bit of a drama when my train was delayed an hour and then I had miscalculated the distance to Shanghai’s Pudong airport from he Hongqiao station. This meant I arrived at the airport 20 minutes before my scheduled departure. I had conceded that my flight had been missed since the check out desk should have been closed.
As luck would have it, and as is customary in China, my flight was delayed for an unspecified and reasonless length of time. This time, and this time only, I was thankful.
I eventually landed in Tokyo at around 2am local time. I did not expected to be interrogated by the customs officer who asked me lots of questions about Japan that I did not know the answer to. He said that the next time I come to Japan I should know more about the places I want to go. I agreed with him and he let me in.
Eventually I made it to my capsule hotel at the airport in time to agonise over the last 20 minutes of Arsenal’s defeat to Chelsea. The capsule was big enough to roll over in but small enough to limit the use of my legs. Still, I was comfortable.
After a few hours sleep I decided to wake up as I knew my experience in Tokyo was time-limited and that there were unlimited things for me to see and do. I stumbled to the bathroom to find myself in some kind of spa/onsen. It was a communal bathing area were the only requirement was that I was naked. I took advantage of the hot bath before heading to more conventional bathing facilities: showers. This was a male only area but there were still more than a dozen make-up desks with a hair dryer and lighting complimentary to every complexion. This first washing experience in Japan convinced me that Japanese people are both cleaner and more vain than their Asian counterparts. The washroom wonders didn’t end there though: the famous Japanese bidet made going to the toilet far more pleasurable than God intended or any experience squatting over a hole.

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The Tokyo transport system is fantastic and I was able to reach my capsule hostel in the lively area of Shinjuku in no time. From there I was able to start my exploration of Tokyo.
My first stop was the Shibuya crossing as I wanted to see it before anything else. It is basically a giant crossing where you admire hundreds of people adhering to the red man/green man rule by walking across the road in unison at when the green man lights up. It sounds pathetic but it is genuinely impressive. I also thought of this as an iconic image of Tokyo as it’s usually the first thing they show on the TV when Japan is mentioned.
Close to Shibuya is a goat themed cafe. Since The Melting Pot is obsessed with goats I did not want to miss the opportunity of having a selfie in a city cafe surrounded by goats. It took quite a lot of time to find but when I did I was disappointed. It was much less a goat themed cafe but more a normal cafe with a novelty goat left in a small cage outside. I decided to have my hot chocolate in a bunny cafe near the cosplay area of Harajuku instead.

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I was quite impressed with the independent stores in narrow lanes in this area, and I soon found the bunny cafe on the 3rd floor of one of buildings. Unlike the cat safe in Seoul, this was small and had the capacity of about 6 people. There were already 2 couples inside petting a rabbit. I was welcomed in and felt instantly judged as an oddball for being a single man in a rabbit restaurant. Still, I bought my hot chocolate and rabbit food and shared some petting time with a couple of rabbits.

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I the made my way back through the streets of Harajuku and back towards Shinjuku where I explored the lively are before dark. I intended to book tickets for the robot restaurant later that evening but at £50 before food I felt it might have been a place where company was warranted.

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On my first night I headed towards the nearby Golden Gai alleys for a drink. On route I was approached by a few men asking if I would like to enjoy some of the girls they had locked away somewhere. It’s hard to comprehend an openly sexual atmosphere when you rarely see any affection between couples in China. Once I made it to the Golden Gai alleys I initially bottled going in any of the bars. The area has nearly 200 bars in 3 small streets, most of which seating less than 8 people. As I speak absolutely no Japanese I didn’t want to risk walking into one and getting turned away. instead I decided to go for dinner first and then return later.

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I had dinner in an area affectionately known as ‘Piss Alley’. It was now dark and lit only by the lanterns on the street and the light that made it through the curtained doors of the tiny restaurants. The sound of the trains passing over the overground tracks above really gave the area a downtown vibe. I made my decision to enter one of the tiny places and sat between a middle aged man and a middle aged woman at the bar. The man, oddly wearing a sunhat, was immediately chatty and keen to speak to me in English. He recommended I try Hoppy, which I later found out wasn’t beer even though it tasted like it was. The owner gave me a bottle and a glass and then a small jug of what he described as ‘spirit’. I had to mix the spirit with my Hoppy and soon found out that I was too generous with my spirit.
The man soon asked me what I feel about Japanese toilets, as if it was a discussion every Japanese man has with a foreigner and then went on to ask about what life is like in China as he said ‘they are still becoming civilised’. The lady beside me then recommended food to eat. I asked her how people feel about foreigners eating in this area. She said some don’t mind but a lot of the older generation like to eat there and don’t like their peace being disturbed with English speaking voices. I can understand their point and didn’t want to be part of the problem, but I certainly felt welcome where I was.image

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After a few drinks there I was confident enough to to return to the Golden Gai alleys and try out a bar. I chose one and had a whisky before retiring for the night.

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The next day I headed straight for the fish market in the morning. It is a massive place, unsurprisingly full of fish. However, the market outside of the market was far more vibrant. There were streets of restaurants selling the very fish caught and bought from the market that very day. I could not miss the opportunity to try some but didn’t want to queue for an hour outside of the restaurants people had been recommended online. Instead I found a pleasant looking sushi restaurant with no queue and watched the chef roll the sushi himself and deliver it to me. It was really nice, and definitely fresh. image

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I was now in the west of the city so I used the metro line to reach the Sumo stadium. Unfortunately for me, the most recent sumo competition had ended the weekend before (and the winner was lauded on the TV every time I saw a screen). This meant I could not enter the arena, but I was able to walk around the museum made in honour of the most famous and successful sumo wrestler who had suddenly died a few months earlier. During this visit I started to grow in my appreciation for sumo wrestling as a sport. I have come to realise that it isn’t just a couple of fat men holding into each other’s massive nappies. I mean, it is that, but it isn’t just that.

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From the sumo arena I went to what I believe to be the strangest area in Tokyo: Akihabra. This area is known as the electronic city because of its wealth of arcade and electronic games. I first entered Saga and watched over people playing arcade games with playing cards. One of which was a football game where you had to use your collector cards to pick your team. It looked fascinating.
One thing that struck me almost immediately was the representation of girls everywhere. There were men everywhere but they were all seeking to win toy plastic dolls of young girls from the grabbing machines, many dressed as school girls. I know that anime is very popular around the world, but I was beginning to see that I knew existed, but didn’t appreciate its popularity. In fact, I soon came across and adult anime shop selling very explicit cartoon strip books. I understand that these exist everywhere but cannot get my head around why the female characters in these books need to look so young.

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I had been recommended the weirdest thing to do here: visit a maid cafe. When I asked why it is weird I got ‘you’ll see’ as a response. I nearly bottled it but decided not to leave Akiharaba without visiting one. When I walked in I realised that my waitress was basically a live version of the dolls the men had been pursuing in the arcade. She was dressed as a French maid, sat me down and told me that I was her master. She only spoke to me when she was on her knees and even asked me to sing a song and blow a candle with her. I was out of my comfort zone and, as I was by myself, felt like I had become a man like those I had been judging for the past hour. She left me for a while but returned with bear ears that she put on my head before skipping away with a giggle.
I scarpered quite quickly to the elevator back to the road, only to find myself in an adult DVD shop with ‘relaxation’ rooms. Curiously I browsed the DVDs, and I now want to unsee some of the images on them.

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The area was certainly entertaining and it made me want to collect something again. If not Pokemon cards then maybe I should start football stickers again?
Thankfully, most of the things I saw in Akiharaba are actually in good taste and I am sure that anime and manga comics and shows are usually fun. It was, for many different reasons, somewhere I will never forget.
For dinner that night I headed to a local area in Ebisu for some ramen noodles. I found a quite bar where I enjoyed some food and whisky before retiring for the evening in anticipation for my bullet train in the morning.

Tokyo is a spectacular city, and I think I only just touched the surface. I would recommend it to anyone and should probably have spent more time there in hindsight.

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I had previously booked the train at 6am from Tokyo station and didn’t regret it until I had to venture across the city to make it early in the morning. The purpose of getting such an early train was that I knew the morning was the best time to see Mount Fuji from my window. I had even made sure I had mountain side seats on the carriage. This meant that my tiredness was soon forgotten when the super-fast bullet train made its way parallel to the mountain. It stood snow capped in its majesty as if dominating everything around it. I was then glad that I had travelled on the early train to see it and slept as soon as the mountain was out of sight.

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Kyoto was my destination city and I was surprised to find it far less populated and less vast than I had anticipated. This meant I was able to easily navigate myself to my hostel. Unfortunately, I remained unwashed from the day before and the hostel refused to let me shower before my 3pm check in time. I made the decision to explore the city without letting anyone know my secret (although anyone that saw my bed hair would have known I was unwashed).

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As I walked casually around the city I spotted the kaleidoscope museum on my map. Intrigued I decided to search for it and ended up being the in,y visitor in the museum. The woman who ran it insisted I tried every kaleidoscope before putting a film about kaleidoscopes on for me. Without word of a lie, I enjoyed it. (Photos were banned)

It was then getting late so I was finally allowed back to the hostel where I could shower and relax with some sushi for the evening.

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The final leg of my journey began the next day, with a hike up a mountain to see some macaque monkeys. I have had problems with the heel of my right foot recently, which has limited my hiking, but I was not troubled on this short climb.

As I walked along the mountain path I stumbled across a few monkeys play fighting in the path in front of me, and others climbing trees and chasing each other. I was half expecting to see monkeys in pens but had not expected them to be roaming freely on the mountain side. At the top there was a rest area which held the secrets for keeping the monkeys in close proximity without penning them in: food and warmth. Here there were many more monkeys rolling about and causing mischief. It was quite a strange experience and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, it was me that then entered a cage to feed monkeys who were free on the outside. It was odd to see free monkeys hanging on the bars of a cage that I was in, with their arms outstretched for a piece of apple I was holding.

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This was my last experience of Kyoto as I climbed back down and headed back to the train station for my afternoon bus to Takamutsu, where my flight would be returning to Shanghai from.

I wrongly thought that was the end of my trip. However, Takamutsu had a lot to offer in the food sector and I strolled the quiet streets late at night for my fix of tradition. I found a small traditional restaurant serving udon noodles and the owner wanted me to catch up on the latest sumo whilst I ate and drank sake. Stereotyping.

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I was quite smug at myself for booking a flight home with a day to spare before India but it has now turned out to be a blessing. This is because I currently sit in a hotel room because my flight was cancelled due to the weather. This means that packing for India tomorrow night will be a rush.

In all Japan was everything I expected and wanted it to be. The people are nice, the toilets are fantastic, the food is great, and most importantly…the air is a lot cleaner than in Hangzhou.