January 20, 2018 – Day 72. Jan 21-23

Khajuraho to Tala – 284 km (car)

& 62060 Fit Bit steps 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?…(William Blake)

Our driver, Ashok, was careful and  knew where to stop for chai/Nescafé and clean bathrooms. On the road to Tala, we noticed winter wheat planted in the rice fields. Water is available to villagers and for irrigation, but we suspect indoor toilets and plumbing is still generally lacking. We encountered large herds of goats and cattle on the road, and women (and an occasional man) carrying bundles of firewood or dried cattle dung, both important sources of fuel. We also saw an ox-cart, but, like the bicycle, this now seems to be a rarity.

We arrived at Tigergarh resort feeling quite hopeful about seeing our first tiger in the wild. Paul’s desire to see tigers has become a bit of family lore. We had read that, of all the tiger reserves in India, the likelihood of a sighting at Bandhavgarh was greatest, especially at this (dry) time of year. Bandhavgarh has one of the highest densities of Bengal tigers known in the world. We were informed that guests currently at the lodge had all had sightings in the past few days. As we had prepaid for four safaris, 2 morning and 2 afternoon, it looked good!

We were quite pumped, therefore, when the alarm went off at 5:45 the next morning. Dressed in all our layers, hats and mitts against the morning chill and the prospect of an open jeep ride, we headed to the dining room for a cup of masala tea and biscuits. However, we soon learned from the owner, Gagan, that the park guides and Gypsy Jeep drivers had just gone on strike. They were demanding the removal of the park director. Gagan proposed that we go in the hotel  Jeep, driven and guided by Kuldeep, the lodge’s new wildlife expert. As the safari is with the park authorities, this required some negotiation, but we were soon off. We shared the jeep with another couple, PK and Wendy, Sri Lankans living in Australia and travelling around the world. Both IT consultants, TK is hoping to convert a serious hobby of wildlife photography into a second career. They had booked a large number of specific photography safaris, which normally would have provided them with their own jeep to accommodate camera equipment, so they were not pleased with the sudden strike.

Unfortunately, although we saw fresh tiger prints and heard the alarm calls of Chital (spotted deer), which herald that a tiger is on the move, our first safari netted no sightings. We did see Chital, Barking deer, Sambar, jackals, Langurs, wild pigs, Bison and peacocks and other birds, including a Spotted Owlet.

Things then got worse in terms of the strike. The afternoon safaris were all cancelled, as unrest was increasing. The next morning we were informed that no private jeeps or guides would be allowed in the park. It seems that each morning and afternoon the assignment of park vehicles and trackers is normally not a calm process, but the apparent lack of organization was exaggerated by the union action. The park officials were scrambling to find alternative drivers and vehicles to take people into the park (but no guides). Our next morning safari was in a closed vehicle, being driven by someone who didn’t know the park and with whom we could not communicate. Just after entering the park, the driver stopped at a tea stand for chai and then sent someone over to the car to ask if we would pay for the driver’s tea! Our afternoon safari was better, in that we had demanded an open jeep and a more knowledgeable driver, which Gagan was able to negotiate. But, without a tracker, the driver could only rely on known watering holes and other crossing points. We ended up buying two more safaris, in spite of these restrictions and against our better judgment. Sadly, the tigers continued to elude us. But worse, the conflict infected the atmosphere and the frantic efforts of inexperienced drivers racing around the park with the single objective of trying to find us a tiger became ultimately demoralizing. There was not much oppirtunity to enjoy the early morning mist or gathering dusk out in the beautiful jungle amidst the Bandhavgarh hills that we could easy imagine would be home to Shere Khan. In some ways, we were relieved not to see the majestic tiger surrounded by a posse of determined vehicles and onlookers.

We were pleased to see Indian Vultures* in the park. The numbers of vultures in India has declined precipitously in recent years due to poisoning by diclofanac , an anti-inflammatory used in cattle. Its use is now banned so hopefully the population of this important scavenger will rebound.

We also appreciated the helpful and friendly staff and atmosphere at Tigergarh resort. Thanks to Gagan, Kuldeep and the staff!

*The Parsis traditionally left their dead to be consumed by vultures (according to Mark Twain this took only a couple of hours although he did not see this first hand as very few can enter the towers of silence where the dead are laid to rest) but now they are having to resort to cremation.

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January 18, 2018 – Day 71. Jan 19

Jaipur to Khajuraho – 656 km (train)

& 7791 Fit Bit Steps

We had pleasant and interesting company for the first part of our 13 hour train journey to Khujuraho. Adam is originally from Texas, but presently lives in Berlin. He is a travel writer and blogger, his blog targetted at hipsters and the gay community. Alex, a Costa Rican also living in Berlin is doing a PhD on the effect of tourism on European cities, specifically Amsterdam, Venice and Barcelona.

From Agra, where Adam and Alex left us, we travelled southeast through farmlands of winter wheat and mustard (seed used for cooking oil), interspersed with rocky outcrops, often marked by ruined forts.

Khajuraho is the site of a group of magnificent Hindu and Jain temples built between 939 AD and 1050 by rulers of the Chandela Dynasty. Of the 85 temples constructed, 25 remain, these having been abandoned and protected by jungle overgrowth until rediscovered in the 19th C by a British officer under the guidance of local villagers. Dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and other Hindu Gods, the temples are said to commemorate important events, including victories over rivals. In addition to the architectural beauty of the buildings themselves, the temples are known for their exquisite temple art, believed to be among the best in the world. On the outsides of the temples are friezes of finely carved stone sculptures of gods, goddesses, warriors, musicians, dancers and real and mythological animals. Many of the sculptures are representation of female beauty, depicted in everyday scenes such as a woman removing a thorn from her foot, another applying eye makeup, one doing a handstand, another writing a letter or cuddling a baby. A number of the panels illustrate gods engaging in playfully erotic activities, some of which involve animals.

Khajuraho is one of the four holy sites linked to deity Shiva. It has been proposed that the temples’ origin reflect the Hindu mythology in which Khajuraho is the place where Shiva got married.

Each block of stone was sculpted off-site and all pieces of the very large temples were assembled with mortise and tenon joints and no mortar. A top keystone holds the structure together. The structures are remarkably straight and true and must have required very precise planning and sculpting, particularly as the figures are all different and never repeated. The UNESCO World Heritage designation is deserved.

An evening sound and light show provided a creative historical overview of the creation of the temples.

Our accommodation at the elegant Lalit Temple View Hotel was a welcome treat!

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January 15, 2018 – Day 70. Jan 16 – 17

Udaipur to Jaipur – 434 km (overnight train)

& 30483 Fit Bit steps 

Old Jaipur, “the pink city”, laid out in a grid system, appears more recently established than the late 1700’s, when it was designed. Jai Singh II was a man of science and mathematics and the form of the city that he built reflects this. During the rule of Sawai Ram Singh I, the city was painted pink to welcome the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, in 1876.

A walking tour from the Lonely Planet guide took us through the many busy bazaars of the old city, each section specializing in a specific commodity. In the clothing bazaar, we saw brightly coloured sari material being shown to groups of women sitting on the floor of the small open-fronted shops. From the top of the Iswari Minar Swarga Sal minaret, we had a good view of the City Palace and the surrounding Aravali range.The City Palace includes the Mubarak Mahal, a reception centre for foreign dignitaries built with Hindu, Muslim and European styles. The Jantar Mantar is another of Jai Singh’s works. Like one we had seen in Delhi built by him, it is a collection of accurately set sundials and devices to show the positions of the stars and planets and asssociated signs of the zodiac.

The nearby hills are topped by a series of forts and palaces established by the Maharajahs before the capital was moved from Amber. The Nahargarh Fort, built in 1734, and the Jaigarh fort of 1726 are perched on the cliff close to the Amber (pronounced « amer ») Fort, built in 1592. The Nahargarh fort was hosting a very interesting sculpture exhibit, Sculpture Park. The Amber fort is a fine building in pink and yellow sandstone and white marble. It is laid out on four levels, each with its own courtyard, with reception halls and quarters for the Maharajah and Maharanis. An old stone wall joining the forts and other guard posts snakes its way for 15km around the forts. In the valley below, the water palace (Jal Mahal) on the outskirts of the city was believed to have been built by Jai Singh II. It is isolated on a lake with no apparent connection to the shore, which adds to its charm. Today’s India was also illustrated by a new modern temple with attractive stained glass windows, built by a local business person.

We visited these sights on a city bus tour with a group of Indian tourists. Although, we later found out that one of the Sikh men on our tour lives in Vancouver! At ticket booths, the distinction is clear with markedly higher fees for foreigners. This even applied to the simple Thali meal included with the tour ticket!

In Jaipur, we found the best espresso  in India by far at Curious Life. The hipster shop would not have been out of place in downtown Vancouver, apart from the fact that the locally roasted coffee was all from India. Thanks to Longly Planet for this and also for directing us to Anokhi where we picked up some cute clothes for our grandchildren and a shirt for Paul.

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January 11, 2018 – Day 69 & Jan 12-14

Jodhpur to Udaipur – 254 km (by car)

&  25289 Fit Bit steps 

Our road trip across the Aravali Hills to Udaipur was not at all relaxing as the driver ignored our requests to drive more slowly (“I don’t like to follow”, he said, somewhat apologetically), and talked on his cell phone continuously, which meant no hands on the wheel when he changed gears! Luckily, we were able to break the journey at the Chaumukha Mandir Jain temple in Ranakpur. This magnificent 15th C structure, which is a place of pilgrimage for the Jains, includes domes, shiksra, cupolas, turrets and 1444 marble pillars, none of which are alike. Relieved to arrive in Udaipur, we promptly fled the vehicle when our driver was flummoxed with a one-way system near our guesthouse!

Also known as the “City of the lakes”, Udaipur sits on the edge of Lake Picola, one of a series of interconnected artificial lakes, created between the 15th and 19th C by building dams primarily to meet the drinking water and irrigation needs of the city and its neighborhood. Founded in 1559 by Maharana Udai Singh II as the new capital of the Mewar kingdom, Udaipur is overlooked by the imposing City Palace, Rajasthan’s largest palace. We spent a long time exploring many of its constituent palaces, which are joined by zigzag corridors and surround quadrangles and courtyards. On a pleasant  sunset cruise, we could see the extent of the huge City Palace complex. The cruise also took us past the 18thC Lake Palace (now a hotel) and the 16thC Jag Mandir Palace.

A highlight of our stay in Udaipur was a cooking class conducted in our guesthouse by Sushma, a well-known local teacher of typical Indian home cuisine. Also co-owner of the Krishna Niwas Guesthouse with her artist/art dealer spouse, Sushma has been conducting cooking classes for a decade. Her first book on the basics of the best of Indian cuisine has just been published. In the purpose-built modern kitchen, with the assistance of her daughter, who is just beginning a PhD in neuropsychology, Sushma demonstrated how to cook various vzgetarian dishes and then involved us in preparing (and eating!) them. These  included butter paneer masala, dal makhani, jeera aloo, naan and chipati. Also taking the class were two delightful travellers from Ireland with whom we later went for a drink. Lara was soon heading home to Dublin, while Cian was going on to a ten-day meditation retreat, where silence is the rule (and no books or internet). We discussed the possibility of meeting up with Cian in February when he will be joining his parents for an organized tour of southern India.

We also attended an evening performance of traditional dancing and puppetry at the Bagore Ki Haveli. This is a highly popular event frequented by tourists, the majority of which appeared to be Indian. Afterwards,  Paul realized he had left his prescription sunglasses on the sunset cruise boat. The ferry office was closed by that time, but a night watchman who offered to call the company for us, was told they would look for the glasses the following morning. As we were taking a train just after midnight, we enlisted the help of hotel as well. When we arrived in Jaipur, Paul received a voicemail to say that the glasses had been found, the hotel owner ensured that they were picked up and a day and a half later the glasses were delivered to our guesthouse in Jaipur. The hotel refused to accept any payment. If anyone visits Udaipur please patronize the Krishna Niwas Guesthouse!

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January 7, 2018 – Day 68 & Jan 8-10

Mumbai to Jodhpur – 935 km (train)

& 44176 Fit Bit steps 

As we were both keen to see the colored cities of Jodhpur and Jaipur in Rajasthan first, we decided to head north and then make our way clockwise around the country. The 17-hr overnight train ride from Mumbai to Jodhpur was comfortable in our two-berth compartment and we were well-looked after, with people coming by regularly selling chai and snacks. A conductor took orders for dinner, presumably to be picked up at the next stop, which was one of the best vegetarian Thali meals we have had so far.

Jodhpur was still relatively quiet at 6:00 a.m. as a tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) took us through the narrow streets to our guest house. Climbing up to the rooftop balcony of the Singhvi Haveli, we had our first view of the immense Mehrangarh Fort, dominating Jodhpur’s skyline, and now lit by sunrise. The old town with its indigo blue houses looked enchanting in the early morning light. As we were gazing out over this scene and chatting by FaceTime with our daughter and her family in Victoria, the haunting sound of a Hindu morning prayer began broadcasting from a nearby temple. Later, those same streets were bustling with people, dogs, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, barrows and cows and shopkeepers, minding a multitude of very small shops, and sellers with carts carried on their trades.

The Mehrangarh (Mehran Fort) is one of the largest and most magnificent forts in India. Built in 1460 by the ruling Rathore clan of Rajputs when their 1000-yr old fort at Mandore was no longer defensible, it was occupied by Rajput Maharajahs for centuries, although at times under control of the Mughals, the Marathas, and later, the British. While Rajput clans ruled throughout what is now known as Rajasthan for centuries, they also fought amongst themselves, as evident from an expansion of the fort in the 19th century after an attack from Jaipur was repelled. Most of the major Rajput families accepted independence in 1947, but Rajasthan only became fully incorporated into the Indian federation in the 1970’s.

Still owned by the Jodhpur royal family, Mehrangarh is a beautifully maintained and exquisite example of Rajput architecture, with finely carved stone latticework and a network of courtyards. The fort’s former palace now houses an excellent museum, including a display of very fine miniature painting.

Braving the jostling throngs down in the town, we found an oasis of quiet at the Tunwarji ka Jhalra (step-well) and the adjoining Stepwell cafe where we found espresso, before again immersing ourselves in the hectic Sardar Market around the century old Clock Tower.

We booked two day tours from Jodhpur, one to local villages to visit a Muslim potter making traditional vessels for keeping water cold and, in another village, where a family carried on the tradition of making double sided kilim carpets by hand. Our second tour took us out into the scrubby Thar Desert that surrounds Jodhpur. Here, we rode on camels to a remote village, where we had a delightful lunch with the family running the trek and home-stay. The young son is setting up an AirBnB in the family’s village.

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January 3, 2018 – Day 67 & Jan 4-6

Dubai to Mumbai – 1928 km (air)

& 38540 Fit Bit steps

We were very fortunate to be able to spend a few days in Mumbai with Brian and Anne. We so appreciated being introduced to their friends and colleagues who graciously welcomed us and included us in invitations. In addition to meeting some wonderful people and enjoying excellent meals together, it helped us to begin to develop some elementary perspectives of this complicated city and its more than 21 million residents. Our strolls and long drives through the city and beyond also gave us a glimpse of both better and poorer neighbourhoods. The contrasts are huge, and often jarring. For example, across the wall from youngsters playing cricket in the club of an apartment complex where we stayed, is a street market where we saw stalls hurriedly packed up or hidden when tax inspectors suddenly arrived. At least one seller lost all his goods, including tables. We understood that the inspectors personally profit from such raids. One evening, we were privileged to be hosted for dinner by Brian and Anne’s driver from their sojourn here. He and his family are building a temple with their community to commemorate a Hindu saint, this in the middle of a vast area called the Dharvari “slum”. It has an estimated population of 1 million people in 2.2 sq km. Housing ranges from crude shelters to apartment blocks with flush toilets. The teeming streets and alleyways are home to a multitude of small businesses which are said to generate $750M a year. There are drainage ditches full of waste, but we also saw streets in poor neighborhoods swept clean and the garbage picked up and recycled. These areas are not far from more affluent areas, such as those close to Marine Drive. There, we strolled along the waterfront at sunset before going to the National Centre for the Performing Arts to see a play about contemporary life in the city.
Just outside the city, in Sanjay Ghandi National Park, we explored the Kanheri caves, an extensive system of monastic cells and temples intricately carved out of the rock, dating back to the 1st Century BC. The park is said to be the lungs of the city as it purifies much of the air pollution of the city, although our experience suggests that that is a major challenge!

Other highlights:
– Chhatrapati Shrivaji Terminus (train station) – UNESCO World Heritage Site;
– Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji Jain Temple;
– Chhatrapati Shrivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (built to commemorate the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1922) – a fine building and one of the premier art and history museums in India. Our brief visit only gave us an introduction – we will try to return when we come back to Mumbai at the end of February;
– Breakfast treats of samosas and docla brought to us by the very sweet Reshma.

Wildlife notes: chital (spotted deer)

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December 31, 2017 – Day 66 & Jan 1-2, 2018

To Dubai – 2537 km (air, calculated as continuing eastward from Cyprus)

& 34617 Fit Bit steps

Our travels eastwards began again when we flew to Dubai from Paris to visit our nephew, David, and his family, and Lois’ brother Brian and sister-in-law, Anne, who were spending Christmas with their children and grandchildren. Changing planes in Beirut, we arrived just in time to bring in the new year.

Our first experience of Dubai, It was interesting to see how this Emirate has developed and grown over the last 100 years. The foresight of the ruling family assured development of a port for the region, which was a boon when the economy took off after the discovery of oil in the 1960’s. As Dubai oil reserves are expected to run out in 2040, The Emirate is well on its way to becoming a prime luxury retail and tourism destination. There are multiple upscale shopping malls and more on the way, a presumably welcome escape from the extreme heat (average summer temperature is 41oC). The downtown architecture is exciting and innovative and contrasts with the old fort (museum), the bustling old town and water front. It does appear to be a very car-based city, however, perhaps in part a response to the climate.

In contract to the glitzy modern high rise-dominated city, a long cycle ride with David and Yaneth on a new bike path into the desert was peaceful and restorative and a reminder of the desert foundations of Dubai. We also sighted oryx, which was a surprise. It was wonderful to be back on bicycles, especially for Paul who felt good after his first 50km ride since May. The rental Trek road bikes were a treat to ride, even without padded shorts! That evening, we all enjoyed a delicious Indian meal in the beautiful Bab Al Shams’ Oasis.

The next day, we headed off to Mumbai together with Brian and Anne, who were going to see old friends and colleagues from their 2 1/2 year stay in India from 2012.

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