Helen and Randall on the road

A bit about our adventures 2011-2012

Saturday 21st – Monday 23rd April: Agra

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Agra is not really a place one wants to linger – it’s hassle-y and doesn’t have much to recommend it except the standard tourist sights, so we planned to get in and out in two days.

We arrived on the train in the morning, checked in to our hotel, and headed out for breakfast at a nearby rooftop restaurant with views of the Taj:

After a hearty breakfast and showers we headed out to tourist item the first: Agra Fort.

Randall near the entrance to the Agra fort.

Looking over at the Taj Mahal from the fort

A baoli or step-well, also used for chilling out (literally) in the summer – note the little cubbies for sitting in. Goes down 25 metres.

Courtyard in the Agra Fort

More courtyard

Carved stone detailing

Looking over at the Taj Mahal

Looking over at the Taj Mahal

Looking down from the marble pavilion to the Char bagh (Persian-style formal garden)

Char Bagh

Marble pavilions and gold domes.

The Char Bagh again (Char = 4, Bagh = Garden)

Time to go – it’s getting a bit hot now!

The audio guide was very good – recommended if you find yourself there; also if you go to the Taj first and keep your ticket you get Rs50 off the price of the entry to the fort.

Then it was back to the rooftop cafe for late lunch and a spot of blog writing and Skypage before watching the sunset from the top terrace:

The top terrace at the Hotel Saniya


The South Gate of the Taj, taken from the rooftop cafe, looking over the rooftops of Taj Ganj.


Looking down at the main roof terrace from our VIP top terrace.

Looking across to the next roof terrace restaurant.


The terrace at nightfall

The next day we got up early to be at the Taj for opening time at 6am (not ‘dawn’ as stated on all the published information!). We tried to go to the South gate, but it doesn’t open until 8am so we had to traipse back past our hotel to the West gate. Still, there were no queues at that time of the morning so we were straight in, and here is the main entrance to the Taj Mahal gardens:

Looking through the main gate.

The beautiful Taj Mahal

Looking back up at the main gate – beautiful calligraphy in stone inlay.

The classic reflection shot!

The main gate from inside the gardens.


So beautiful.

Looking at the Taj from inside the ‘dummy’ mosque built to be symmetrical to the real mosque.

Unbelievably, loads of graffiti by Indians

Inside the mausoleum.

The mosque.

Back in Taj Ganj we were curious about these strange huts, which we think were stalls / sleeping spaces but we never really found out!

The Fatehpur Sikri (by Randall):

We planned a trip out to the now derelict (but ‘Archaeological Survey Of India’ protected) palace of one of the Mogul Emperors which is an hour’s drive outside of Agra. We negotiated with 3 different drivers to find the cheapest. The price started at 1500 rupees (approx. £20) and we got the all-inclusive trip for 1000 rupees. This is cheap if you work in £s and UK costs which is what most tourist are still doing when they make their very first stop at Agra to visit the Taj Mahal; and what the tourist industry are banking on. To recap, this deal was supposed to be all-inclusive but I’ll first explain what would have happened to a first-timer tourist.
After an hour’s drive the car would stop at a café owned by a friend of the driver who would significantly overcharge for fizzy drinks and the driver would get a kick-back. There is a toll road to the palace complex and the tourist would be expected to hand over 100 rupees for the toll although the toll is actually 20 rupees (the driver would expect the tourist not to notice and to keep the change). At 2Kms out from the palace the car parks are situated (understandably no parking at the palace). The road would be blocked by car park attendants competing to direct the car into their lot, and the tourist would have to pay the parking charge which is higher for foreigners. The tourist would then have to hire a rickshaw (again at inflated costs) to take them the final 2Kms. If the unofficial blockages by the car park attendants didn’t stop the tourist’s car, the Rickshaw union roadblock attended by police would.

Now Helen has been to India several times and doesn’t take kindly to being ripped-off or bossed around. What actually happened is this: As usual when the taxi came to collect us it wasn’t the person with whom we had negotiated. I have yet to understand why these trips are always outsourced and what the original driver is doing instead. The new driver messed about a lot as we left Agra – taking phone calls and stopping to pick-up personal stuff. Helen made her displeasure keenly felt and we were soon zipping along. We got to the restaurant of the driver’s friend and he turned off the engine and got out; we sat in and insisted we didn’t require any refreshments. The driver looked quite confused as this was not in his script but got back in and off we went with a wave to his equally confused looking friend.
We got to the toll booth and 100 rupees were demanded but Helen insisted forcefully that the price we paid was ‘all-inclusive’ and got on the phone to the original driver with whom we made the arrangement. Needless to say the 20 rupees toll was included. I think the driver was getting the idea about us by now but still when the car was flagged down by early car parking attendants he was a little surprised at the forcefulness with which Helen insisted he drive on. We passed several of these groups who were surprised that aggressively touting of their parking scam was failing, until finally we were stopped by a group of men standing in the road. They remonstrated with our driver but we both intervened from the back seat that the driver was going to drop us and come back to park (at his cost, not ours). Once through this we were stopped again by the Rickshaw driver’s mobile roadblock. There was a very aggressive guy threatening to ram with his barrier on wheels, any unauthorised vehicle that tried to pass. At this point the police office came to see what the shouting and swearing (in Hindi – Helen’s contribution) was all about.

(Helen’s note – thanks to all the books I have read set in India and my Indian friends for the tips on how to…errr…tell people somewhat forcefully to go away and engage in congress with members of their family or indeed animals. Or words to that effect.)

 We explained that the car was going to drop us off and then come back and park, which he accepted but we still needed his police escort to make it through the barrier. One further attempt to misdirect us failed when we got to the fork that leads off to the main palace gate, which is still some way away. A bunch of rickshaw drivers attempted to intimidate our driver into dropping us there so we could pay them for a rickshaw. From the back seat we engaged another police officer to give us directions and thus inadvertently confirm that we were fine to go to the gate in the car.
Finally – at the main gate!
Arrival at the palace means being mobbed by ‘guides’ offering to take us round. These take several forms – those who are just locals chancing their arm; those who have some official status (e.g. driver) and are ‘moonlighting’ as a guide for extra money; and those who have a scrap of photocopied paper which they believe entitles them to insist you have to employ them. Also at the palace are huge numbers of hawkers attempting to sell you random stuff. There are a number of beggars (as everywhere) but these suffer from the crowds of guides/hawkers who both throng so much as to trample their patches, and also crowd the tourists so much as to obscure begging access. The form of begging that has evolved involves small children running up and demand chocolate in varyingly unsuccessful imperatives of broken English. These crowds abate once you enter the fee paying part of the palace and it is a real relief. Once you’ve finished looking round the fee paying part of the palace these same small children come and demand your used ticket. We realised that this was so they can get in (or they sell the ticket to a hawker) to do their begging/hawking in that otherwise hassle free environment. Needless to say we decided our tickets were important souvenirs of our visit. One small begging child made his demands in such good English that we spoke to him for a few moments. “Your English is really good. Why are you doing this when you could get a much better job?”. He didn’t say as much but we suspect that he regarded begging as a good business.
The palace complex (it’s actually multiple palaces within a walled complex) sits on top of a hill in a wide flat plain. The centre of India is hot and dry; actually semi-desert. The Moguls had planted lots of trees around the complex to provide shade and greenery. There are gardens dotted throughout which are still maintained, mostly growing vegetables and herbs. Like much Indian heritage, the palace is bare inside. What you see is the architecture unadorned and the remains of the original mosaics and inlay work. This is beautiful and certainly beats the sometimes gaudy adornments that we saw added to some South East Asian heritage sites. What is missing is information about the buildings and/or any indication of what they would have looked like or how they would have been used. There were little plaques with info – mostly describing the types of architectural detail – against most of the buildings. The info about the building’s purpose frequently did not accord with the info in Lonely Planet so we’re not sure what to believe. The palace is built out of sandstone and features lots of pavilions which we imagine would have been covered in rich fabrics and scattered with cushions. There is a very impressive 5 tier pavilion with ‘secret’ tunnels leading from the Harem. There are drained fountains everywhere and channels that would have carried water as the Moguls knew the cooling benefits of running water. It is a fantastically impressive undertaking to have raised this complex from scratch in the 1500’s. We had a lovely visit and I’d thoroughly recommend it if you have a handy Helen to deal with the scams.

View from the Buland Darwaza gate.

The rest of the photos are here.


Written by helenbcn

April 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm

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Thursday 5th – Monday 16th April: Darjeeling and the Singalila Trek

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After 38 degree heat in Delhi we were looking forward to the cool in Darjeeling, however on the 4 hour jeep trip from Bagdogra airport (on the plains) up to Darjeeling at 2100m it became clear that it was a little more chilly than we had bargained for:

Cloud, rain and thunder accompanied us, and didn’t let up after our arrival, although we did manage to get down to the main square to eat some of the great street food on offer; momos, parathas, omelettes, egg and vegetable stuffed pancakes.

The next morning it hailed, rained and thundered so hard that we were trapped in ‘Sonam’s Kitchen’ by a raging torrent running down the street:

Taken from the doorway of Sonam’s, looking up the street towards our hostel.


We spotted paper boats being washed down the street which was quite sweet although probably didn’t help with the major problem of blocked drains that contributed to the localised flash flooding. There was a lightening strike VERY close to us (all those tin roofs!) which may have contributed to the problems we had with electricity, hot water and phone reception over the next two days!

This enterprising small child made a snowman from hailstones.

One of the many dilapidated or derelict old colonial buildings.

To be honest we’d expected Darjeeling to be a bit grander, but although there were a few signs of its past as a colonial hill station it is actually pretty down-at-heel and tatty:

Dogs at Chowrasta, the main square.

After a couple of days of fog, cloud and rain we were actually quite glad to set off on our seven day trek on the Singalila ridge:

We would be walking along the border of India (West Bengal) and Nepal, and at one point almost into Sikkim.

As we knew the trek would be pretty demanding we had booked a porter, so we bought a cheap but rather excellent rucksack to pack our bits and pieces for the week into. The trekking company we had booked with, Trek Mate, picked us up from our hostel where they introduced us to our guide ‘GD’ and took our big bags to their office for safekeeping, and put us into a jeep for the hour’s drive to Manebhanjan, the start of the trek, where we met our porter.

As the trek trail meanders between India and Nepal we had to keep our passports with us, and to sign in at the start of the trek.

After a steep climb up a ‘jeepable’ road (their term!) we stopped for morning tea near the Chitrey gompa. The locals are a mixture of hindus and buddhists and often we saw temples of both flavours next to each other.

Randall on front of Chitrey gompa (buddhist monastery)

At lunchtime we stopped for instant noodles and soup and met a couple of young German hikers.  Their trekking company had planned a 3 day trek for them, with them covering in a single day what we would cover in our second and third days. This sounded pretty ambitious as our third day was a sharp climb up to the first peak, Sandakhphu, at 3600m.

That night we all stayed in the same trekkers hut, the Shikar Lodge, at 2970m (a climb of 850m from our starting point at Manebhanjan).

The path by which we arrived – in the clouds.

The lodge – just on the Nepali side of the border – was run by a huge Nepali woman, and was great:

Well-kept vegetable and flower garden

Our room – basic but clean and cosy.

Slightly alarming frilly pink bedlinen

Inexplicable tile picture of cowboys and indians in the bathroom.

Super hearty breakfast: porridge and Tibetan bread

Cosy common room with open fire

Locally made honey to put on our porridge.

The next morning we actually entered the Singalila National Park:

The following poster lists what tourists are supposed to do when entering the park:

Needless to say we were asked for nothing of the sort.

From Manebhanjan all the way to Sandakhphu peak there was a ‘jeepable’ road that we followed some of the time. While the road provides a vital connection for the people living in the mountain villages, it inevitably means jeep-loads of Indian tourists leaving piles of brightly coloured plastic rubbish in their wake, throwing mineral water bottles out of the back of the jeep as they go, so a bit of a shame from that perspective. GD told us that the guides and porters had been lobbying for the jeep tourism service to be stopped or limited as it obviously affected their business too.

Me and GD

Magnolia tree – we saw these throughout the trek.

Lunch, day 2

 At lunchtime we caught up with Lukas and Theresa, the two Germans. They had started early but slowed down once they had heard that there would be no accommodation available at Sandakhphu that night. Their trekking company had not reserved it, and a number of people there had stayed extra nights as the weather had been bad. As Theresa was feeling unwell this was probably not a bad thing, but not a great reflection on their agency.

Lukas and I at the lunch table.

We were now into the realm of no electricity except for small solar panels, so we wondered about how the locals kept themselves occupied when there were no tourists to run around after. Mainly with knitting and crocheting in this case as it turned out, as every surface and item of cookware was covered in a cosy or doily:

The hostel for this night in Kalapokhri was a bit grim:

Communal toilets and tiny rooms with wooden cots, no fire or heating in the common room, generally a bit miserable.

GD insisted that we tried the local poison ‘raksi’, a fortified wine made with ginger. Brrrrr! He also rather randomly asked everyone’s weight in kgs, and nearly fell off his chair when Randall told his…he then proceeded to tell everyone in earshot. This turned out to be a pattern – everywhere we stopped, GD would have a couple of ginger wines and then tell everyone around him, in three languages, the incredible fact of Randall’s great weight.

That night it poured with rain and hailed – in the morning we awoke to find snow on the mountain top where we were headed:

View of Sandakhphu from Kalapokhri, morning of day 3.

We hung around for a couple of hours waiting to see if the weather would improve as we had a short but steep walk: 3200m down to 3000m then up to the peak at 3600m, all over 7km. At around midday we decided to go for it, in full wet weather gear:

Gaiters and all.

We left the village in relative good weather – this is the view back down to where we had stayed.

The walk was fine – the final 2km were very steep but we stayed dry until the last ten minutes before arriving in Sandakhphu; about half a km away the cloud came down and the snow started!

Our hut in Sandakhphu

Snowman outside our hut!

The whole point of coming to Sandakhphu and walking the ridge is to see the amazing views of the Kanchenjunga range and Everest, so it was a bit of a disappointment to only have cloud and snow. Still, the next day was a 21km walk along the ridge (although actually quite a lot of up and down!) so we hoped for it to clear at some point.

Up above the tree line on the ridge between Sandakhphu and Phalut – pretty wet and cold!

The long and winding road (trail, anyway)

Wet, cold, but happy!

Weaving back into the trees

Once again, we arrived in cloud with no views. The hut stood up to the gale force winds and horizontal hailstones over night with only a few leaks in the ceiling!

The next morning GD knocked on the door to get us to come up to the view point – the clouds had finally lifted, at least partially.

The hut, night 4, Phalut.

Heading up to the viewing point.

GD looking out at the Kanchenjunga range

Randall trying to spot Mt Everest in the distance between the clouds

The sleeping buddha formation in the Kanchenjunga range, sadly mostly obscured by clouds!

Randall and Kanchenjunga (left)

Brrrr – time for breakfast!
Yak yak yak…

Breakfast in the sunshine! What a treat! Randall feeding his toast to the puppy.

The walking on day 5 was beautiful, not only because we finally had sunshine but also because we were walking down – a descent of 1300m – through lush forest.

Arriving in Gorkhey for night 5

Our hut on night 5 was in Gorkhey on the border of West Bengal and Sikkim – over the river at the bottom of the valley was Sikkim.

Empty bottle put in our rucksack at 3600m, squashed at 2300m.

Our hut, looking over the river to SikkimOur hut – the ‘hotel paradise’ 🙂

Inside the hotel owners’ kitchen where we ate. This is the same concrete/clay fire/oven arrangement we had seen everywhere in the previous three days.

The view around Gorkhey

The pretty river running down into the valley

Day 6 walking – Gorkhey to Sirikhola. Stopped in the yard of a primary school to admire the view across the valley.Morning tea break in Raman

Raman buddhist temple

Our guest house in Sirikhola – very civilised.

Fooding and lodging.

Bridge over the river at Sirikhola

Crazy locals ‘fishing’ with bamboo, wire and a generator, trying to electrocute the fish!

Day 7 walking – Shiva temple

There really IS an ice cream van (or shop!) around the next corner!

Arriving in Rimbik in the late morning of day 7, we were fed momos and tea before the 3 hour car journey back to Darjeeling. Phew!

After checking in to hot showers we headed to the Windamere hotel for their high tea.

Non-residents lounge at the Windamere

Drinking our Darjeeling tea

Sandwiches, shortbread, marble cake, flapjacks and scones.

We finally got some sunshine on Sunday:

View from our hotel window

And on Monday we finally got the amazing view over the mountains that is so famous:

Before heading to Keventners for their savage breakfast:

Happy man awaiting his breakfast.

The BIG breakfast.

Between hair and beard Randall was starting to look more than a little scary so he had decided to have a shave and haircut by a local barber in the marketplace:

The chair of doom.

Something for the weekend, Sir?

Randall getting in a lather

Being brave…

That’s a VERY sharp razor!

A very satisfactory result for less than a pound!

Now back down to the plains to catch the overnight train to Varanasi.

Sunday 1st – Thursday 5th April: Delhi

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After a day of relaxing and some minor shopping on Connaught Place

Tamsin outside the legendary Wengers on Connaught Circus (hello Charlie!)

and Janpath – FabIndia for pretty tops – on Tuesday we headed to Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk to visit the wholesale spice market on Khari Baoli we’d been told about.

The remains of the gracious mughal city of Shahjahanabad can just about be traced behind the chaos of Delhi’s wholesale markets selling everything from paper to car parts, but the graceful courtyards and terraces have been filled with packed-in dwellings and shops housing the traders, rickshaw drivers and sweepers who live here, New Delhi’s down-at-heel neighbour, these days.

We took an autorickshaw to Chandni Chowk itself then persuaded Randall that it really would be OK for all three of us to get in a cycle rickshaw:

‘Rocky’, ‘Rickshaw Pilot’ (his description!) trying to squeeze us between two buses.

As luck would have it, ‘Rocky’ actually lived in one of the tiny one-room apartments in the chawls that have sprung up inside the spice market so knew his way around. He took us up onto the roof (via some terrifyingly precarious stairs) from where we could see down into the building itself on one side and the courtyard of the mosque on the other side.

Top of the spice market – you can see the classic mughal-style building around the courtyard, and the warren of buildings cobbled together inside it.

To the far side is the mosque, where the courtyard looks more as these buildings were meant to be. Even there, the roof terraces have been put to use for drying flowers, herbs and spices:

The old courtyards have been built up and filled in to house the hundreds of people who live and work in the building complex.

Inside the spice market building the air is filled with the aromas and powders of the herbs and spices, so your eyes water and throat itches. I can’t imagine what living there is like, although maybe you become immune to it.

The market was wholesale only, so Rocky brought us to a shop (where presumably he got a cut!) where Tamsin and I stocked up on everything from vanilla pods to turmeric root.

Checking out our purchases.

Tamsin and I wanted to go sari-shoppping (for decoration, not to wear) so Randall made his own way off and we got the ‘scenic tour’ of Old Delhi with Rocky’s running commentary, which was fun if occasionally a bit alarming. One of our favourite sights was this ‘school bus’ (of which we saw several) – a cycle-powered small cage with numerous tiny school-uniformed children stuffed (and locked) inside:

Shopping done, we headed back to Paharganj for lunch and to drop off some more tailoring (I’ve said it before, but I love how you can get ANYTHING fixed in India!) and to package up various things to be posted home. Quite exhausted from the heat and hecticness, the only answer was a night in watching TV and drinking the remains of our gin!

The next morning Tamsin and I were up early to visit Kairali, an Ayurvedic spa we’d been recommended by a woman we’d met in McLeod Ganj. We took the fabulous Metro out to Qutb Minar stop in Mehrauli – although this did involve having to shout at the security people to let us over the footbridge to reach the New Delhi metro station. Bizarre system – the only other way to reach it from the main thoroughfare Chelmsford Road is to go through the main station, which entails queueing with all the potential passengers to be security scanned and having ticket to travel. Classic bureaucracy-gone-nuts.

Still, the Ayurvedic centre was very relaxing:

Tamsin in the reception of Kairali, just before we both had Elakizhi treatments.

After the treatment – quite unlike anything either of us had had before, with two therapists really going for it with the firm massage and battering with herb-filled muslin bags – we both felt shiny and invigorated, and ready for lunch.

We met Randall at Basil & Thyme, a restaurant recommended to us by Christopher, who was sadly unable to join us. It was a lovely restaurant – all smoked salmon carpaccio and light Mediterranean main courses – a bit River Cafe, although sadly no wine as it’s not licensed. The glamorous maitress d’ even told us where the recipe for the delightful strawberry and cinnamon torte came from.

Randall headed off while Tamsin and I nipped to the salon next door for a leg-and-other-bits wax. This turned out to be an interesting experience as, before either of us realised what was happening, we had got rather more (or, indeed, less) than we had bargained for. Some cultural differences really are quite unexpected and enlightening!

To round off Tamsin’s trip we went to meet Daleep and the elusive DJ (both friends from when Charlie and I were first in India) at Aqua, the poolside bar at The Park Hotel. Nice bar, good music, good mezze menu, but the most uncomfortable selection of furniture! A good night of catching up on the past and planning for the future, topped off by Daleep having to leave because his twin sister had just gone into labour! DJ drove us back to Paharganj, very nobly not turning his nose up (much!), for a few hours sleep before an early start for the airport.

Randall and I dropped Tamsin off at the International terminal before catching our flight to Bagdogra for Darjeeling. This made us laugh:

Casual (or indeed overt) sexism of any kind not dead here yet!

Written by helenbcn

April 5, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Thursday 29th March – Sunday 1st April: Jim Corbett National Park

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This is our beautiful lodge accommodation at Jim’s Jungle Retreat, Daleep’s lodge in Corbett National Park. The lodge accommodation is upstairs, with the downstairs sections being ‘researcher accommodation’ or in some cases not yet developed. You can just about spot the solar water heaters on the roof – they take their eco-credentials pretty seriously.

Inside, the rooms are beautifully furnished  and decorated…

…with beautiful fabrics and textiles designed by Daleep’s twin sister, and lovely touches like this funky antique phone (that worked of course) and photos, either wildlife ones (mostly taken by Inder, Daleep’s dad) or historical ones related to the park.

Why send your trophies home for taxidermy?

The seating area on our verandah – perfect for sundowners.

Steve Irwin reincarnated?

Tamsin posing on one of the winding paths around the property.

When they started building the property it was all cultivated fields, so they consulted a naturalist and a botanist to get the right mix of plants and trees for the grounds. The result is a series of shady pathways with the odd hammock slung between trees; not too manicured but very pretty.

We woke up early on our second day for the dawn jeep safari to Jhirna, the nearest reserve area in the park, we left before dawn which meant we saw the beautiful sunrise over the forest as we were entering the reserve.

Our guide was fantastic, particularly once he realised that – unlike many of the visitors to Corbett – we weren’t only obsessed with seeing a tiger. After that he went out of his way to point out all the other wildlife, including some amazing birdlife. We saw a kingfisher dive from midair for a fish – incredible. He was also good at identifying sounds – we heard a leopard calling to another across a dry river – and spotting animal sign:

Recent tiger prints!

This astonishing tree on the way to Jhirna from the lodge had over 60 bees’ nests in it.

Langur being, well, languorous .

Spotted deer. We also saw barking deer and sambar.

One of the hides managed by the forest reserve staff (a bit ricketty!)

Trying to spot (ha ha) the leopard we could hear.

The reserve closes to visitors at 10am (opening again later) so we were driven back to Jungle Jim’s in time for breakfast and a little light nap before leaving for our sunset safari to Bijrani reserve, this time a half-hour drive from the lodge with only our driver from Jim’s, as we were to pick up a forest reserve guide at the entrance to the reserve (them’s the rules).

This sign amused us on the way:

Here we are looking intrepid:

On this safari our guide was less interested in other wildlife and definitely a tiger-hunter. We still spotted plenty of cool birds including a jungle owlet and a brown fish owl, plus a mongoose, loads of deer and monkeys – both langurs and the ubiquitous rhesus macaques. The highlight was being only a few metres away from two tigers – we couldn’t see them as they were in a dry river bed not visible through the undergrowth from the road, but we listened to them growling for about half an hour. It was eerie; after the warning calls from the langurs and barking deer the entire area of forest went completely silent except for the tigers.

When we arrived back at the exit of the reserve we spotted a jungle cat too, which was beautiful (apparently they have been cross-breeding with the local domestic-type moggies) but a couple of the other people waiting there showed us a photo of the tiger we had been listening to shortly before we arrived – it crossed the road right in front of them…eek!

When we were almost back at the lodge we saw a couple of jeeps had stopped at the side of the road – it turned out that a herd of wild elephants was feeding just a few metres into the forest; a small tusker plus the matriarchal group, a couple of young and two nursing babies…SO CUTE!

Don’t mess…

The next day was a bonus extra  – we’d been planning to head to Delhi but we were invited to stay another night as we hadn’t really had time to catch up with our hosts. We spent the day doing some really hardcore relaxing:

Evening G&T on the verandah, before Inder summoned us to pre-dinner drinks with him by banging two bottles together. How well he had got to know us in such a short time!

After a lovely evening chatting, eating and drinking around the pool we retired as we had another early morning safari – this one a walking safari in the area around the park. We didn’t see anything big – plenty of deer, monkeys and birds though, and it was a glorious morning walk and sunrise.

Finally it was time to pack, have breakfast, and then head for Delhi by car.

The rest of the photos are here:

Monday 26th – Thursday 29th March: Dehra Dun

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A return to Dehra Dun after our last visit in 1996 and after living in the nearby village of Salangaon for months in 1994 was always going to be a bit emotional. We were very fortunate to have been invited by the lovely Daleep to stay in his family home, a beautiful turn-of-last-century house that they are in the process of converting to a high-end guest house/homestay. When it is up and running I HIGHLY recommend it!

When we arrived on Sunday night we were the only guests (although of course the full complement of cook, bearers, sweepers etc were installed) but the next few days were akin to a house party from Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward as people dropped in and out for meals, overnights, and the partaking of gin and tonics/scotch and sodas.

The beautiful home, built by a great-grandfather early 1900s.

View from the back

Our suite – four-postered bed, small sitting room and huge bathroom.

Breakfast on the verandah, back of the house

The back of the house – the central roof terrace courtyard around which the upstairs rooms are arranged can just be seen.

The next morning we headed into Dehra Dun itself to drop off some clothes mending, pick up some phone credit, and have fresh lime soda at the Hotel President (one for Charlie:)

Fresh Lime Soda in Presidents. Menu open to Veg Sizzlers.

When we got back, Dilsher (another house guest and old friend of the family) had arrived. By coincidence, he is the son of Mady Martyn who set up the John Martyn Memorial Trust and started the village school where Charlie and I volunteered in memory of her second husband and Dilsher’s stepfather, John Martyn. As a result Dilsher is one of the board members of the trust and very familiar with the school, so he was only too happy to volunteer to take us for a visit the next day.

Later on Daleep and his father Inder arrived, bringing Daleep’s new puppy – a 6 week old golden cocker spaniel – with them. We spent a happy evening on the rooftop courtyard drinking wine, chatting and playing with the puppy before dinner was served. The food was great and Inder had a brass bell on the table for summoning the servants, to our great delight. Tamsin asked to have a go – Inder said she was very welcome provided she paid the servants for the day too!

Randall is in love.

The next day were were out and about with Dilsher – first we called into the Forest Research Institute, The building is astonishing (possibly the largest brick structure in the world?) and both Dilsher’s father and Daleep’s grandfather were involved in the construction, as chief engineer and contractor respectively.

This is only about half the size of the building – on either side of the cupolas there is another huge wing, and it goes back the same distance.

The institute is set in formal grounds obviously planted with lots of trees, and with the various arboreta, nurseries and research areas (into insects, plant diseases etc) set around the edges. It is a real oasis of calm away from the traffic noise of Dehra Dun – it must be a delightful place to study, particularly if you get the opportunity to live onsite.

There are many research areas:

As well as a fantastic if idiosyncratic insect museum, and a huge slice of 704 year old Deodar tree with historical events marked on it.

We also visited the Doon School next door, where Charlie and I visited our Doon School friends in 1994 several times, and whose estate we learned had been the original site of the FRI before it was moved to the current building. The estate was then purchased and the Doon School was started, later becoming a member of the Round Square Conference (see also: Round Square) founded at Gordonstoun, hence my link with Doon and subsequently with the John Martyn School. The campus is quite beautiful with a number of new buildings since we were there last including a new swimming pool and a fantastic art school.

Then after lunch we all headed off to Salangoan village to the John Martyn School, where Charlie and I lived and taught English in 1994:

.John Martyn Memorial School main building, 1994

John Martyn Memorial School main building, 2012

This is me on the verandah where I used to teach my classes.

Here is me in 1994 teaching class on the verandah!

From the verandah looking into Charlie’s old classroom

In Charlie’s old classroom, now the library!

I brought copies of photos taken back in 1994 – they caused quite a stir, particularly this one:

The little girl on the right, Himani, is now the teacher in the middle of the photo above (the one with her hand to her mouth in embarrassment!)

Tamsin, Helen, Dilsher, and Asha. Asha was the school helper/dinner lady/cleaner in our day and now takes classroom assistant duties, kindergarten classes etc.

A second floor has been built onto the old classroom block.

Evidence of previous Round Square involvement.

Inside the new extension/top floor – a creative space used for the kindergarten and early primary activities.

Our old house! This building was new when we arrived. We had the flat on the bottom right.

Our old doorway. The two ground floor flats are now teachers’ accommodation, and the top floor is, of all things, the computer suite!

Where we used to hang our laundry and bury our rubbish there is now new play equipment.

With Asha. She was very emotional as I had brought her a photo of her with her sister Shashi, our friend too, who died shortly after we came home.

Asha in 1994 with her children Nitin (far left), Rekha (now a policewoman) and Amit.

Nitin now!

The school staff and me. The new headmistress is Ms Savitri and is an absolute star. She has all kinds of plans including adult education classes.

That concluded our visit to the school – I was very sad that Charlie wasn’t with us; even more so the next day as we planned to go rafting. We only had a day so we planned a half day trip (not the full 7 days on the Bhagirathi and Ganga that we did back then!) but still…

Dilsher kindly arranged for us to go to a rafting camp run by friends of his – Himalayan River Runners – as we had been trying to find a good outfit after being told how many camps are on the river now. We left Dehra Dun around 10 with Daleep’s driver taking us up to the camp some 17km above Rishikesh, and arrived in time for lunch:

This was the glorious riverine beach on which the HRR camp is based. It’s next to the spot where Shaukat had his camp back in 1994 (note for Charlie!).

The view downriver. It’s a residential camp and runs hiking trips etc as well as rafting, and seemed really well managed.

Lunch under canopies as the sun was beating down (it was 36 degrees!).

With our raft guide and one of the owners.

Helen and Tamsin, kitted up and ready to go.

Go Team!

Safety Kayaker

Happy Tamsin!

Happy Helen and Randall!

On one of the flat bits, Tamsin braved the (very chilly, despite the heat) waters of the Ganges, and is thus apparently cleansed of all sins and going straight to heaven/nirvana. Or something.

Jump rock! The green and red thing in mid-air is Randall.

View back up river – safety kayaker grabbing a couple of our ‘swimmers’ who turned out not to be!

It was all over way too soon – just before Lakshman Jhula we got out of the river, changed our clothes in the handy (changing tent) brought down by the HRR crew, and drove off with Daleep’s driver who had come down to meet us, waving a happy farewell to the rest of the crew who were busy packing the raft and kit into their own jeep.

By the time we got back to Dehra Dun and got warm and clean it was time for evening drinks and chats, this time in the drawing room where we admired the beautiful interior decor by Christopher Moore (who had also been a house guest for the last few days) and played with the puppy some more:

 Both flat out!

 Finally on Thursday morning after another wonderful breakfast on the verandah it was time to head off to Jim Corbett National Park, to once again be hosted by Daleep and family.

Byeee Everyone!

The rest of the photos are here:

Thursday 22nd – Sunday 25th March: Shimla

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The drive to Shimla from Dharamsala, although it took the estimated 7-8 hours, was a revelation compared to the previous car journey, partly due to a competent driver and partly to the brand new Toyota Innova belonging to the Pink House.

As we arrived late we booked into a guest house of which we will not speak as it was horrible – have duly slated it (with photos) on Tripadvisor! Luckily we only had to sleep there, so in the morning after a middlingly successful breakfast at a hotel on Mall Road and a complete failure to find somewhere to do our laundry (more on this later) we summoned a driver from our next port of call, the Cecil Oberoi:

The atrium around which the hotel is set, with a piano bar/lounge.

Detail of the bar, with grand piano tinkled every second evening as entertainment.

Pool area – we had it to ourselves as no-one else seemed to be interested. Lucky us!

Sunny lounging by the pool.

The sitting room of our suite.

Randall and I were upgraded to a suite for free again (after I complained about some minor communications issues regarding our arrival) – that makes us two for two on the 5* hotels of this trip because we were upgraded in the Taj Lake Palace too…so it’s down to the Imperial in Delhi at the end of the month to make it three for three!

Because we had loads of washing and hadn’t found anywhere to leave it we availed ourselves of the (horribly expensive) hotel service. It was *almost* worth the expense to see our scruffy t-shirts, socks and pants returned folded into tissue paper and placed gently inside two beautiful wicker hampers.

The chocolate pudding at dinner. Worthy of a photo, we thought.

The next morning I felt a bit rough so sent Randall and Tamsin off to climb up to the Jakhu / Jackoo temple (a temple to the monkey god Hanuman).

It’s a short but very steep climb – apparently the hotel was horrified that they were going to attempt it and tried to insist on sending them in a car with driver. In the end they were furnished with a couple of stout sticks (necessary monkey-proofing) and allowed to proceed as planned.

Lots of teeny George W. Bushes

Randall at the start of the walk.

Short pause

Ringing the bell of the temple at the top.

Shoes must be removed to enter the temple, so imagine Tamsin and Randall’s delight when some monkeys stole one shoe each of a couple who had decided not to make use of the proper storage facilities.

Annoyed monkey.

The shape of things to come?

Tamsin peering up Hanuman’s skirt.

Huge Hanuman statue on top of the hill.

Classic upskirt shot. Perez Hilton would be proud.

Written by helenbcn

March 25, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Friday 16th – Thursday 22nd March: Dharamsala

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We had a very cunning plan that involved an early flight from Bombay to Delhi, meeting Tamsin from her international flight (from London via Doha) and then taking a connecting flight to Dharamsala. Sadly it was not to be as our connecting flight was with the ailing Kingfisher airlines (yes THAT Kingfisher). Around 45 minutes before take-off the flight was cancelled so we booked ourselves into a car at the airport pre-paid taxi booth for the supposedly 10 hour journey. This turned into a 13-hour marathon that included a blown tyre, changing the wheel in the dark (by the light of our various head torches!), a short detour to the driver’s village to pick up a new spare, arguments with state border officials about ‘taxes’, a stop at a roadside dhaba where our driver ate dinner and Tamsin threatened (from afar, thankfully) the cook with tearing off his hat and ‘throwing it in the wee patch’ if he gave our driver another chapati, with a final exhausted arrival in Mcleod Ganj after midnight. We’d been in phone contact with the hostel though so they kindly sent people to carry our bags down the steep set of steps (in the dark) to The Pink House. In the morning we got to see it:

Indeed, tis VERY pink!

REALLY pink.

Heath Robinson plumbing, everywhere in Dharamsala.

We liked this sign.

After a full day of recovery on Friday we walked to Bhagsu Falls on Saturday. Bhagsu was a tiny hamlet with a temple 16 years ago, but now is full of hotels and Indian tourists with attendant psycho taxi drivers and appalling litter problem. McLeod Ganj itself was much bigger and more built up than we remembered; there were very few buildings over one story 16 years ago, and now everything is built up. The little lawn and garden next to our old guest house now has a huge hotel built on it.

View across the valley. You can just about see our very pink guest house.

The bottom of the Bhagsu falls where 16 years ago we saw monks sunbathing in their pants. No monks in pants this time although they *were* drying their robes.

 The short hike up to Bhagsu falls is now a wide footpath with railings and a tea stall every few metres, but the walk and the views are still so pretty. Once again it was a shame about the tourists dropping rubbish where they stood; even the tea shop owners were getting mad about it.

The falls – tea shops abound

View up to the falls

Presumably unintentionally humorous sign.

Beers on the roof terrace of the McLlo

Tamsin and I decided to learn how to make momos – at this point Randall was very grateful of Tamsin’s presence as it meant he was let off a cooking class.

Rather pleasingly all the boring bits (chopping and such) had been done for us. A bit like on Blue Peter:

Our cooking teacher was Llamo, and he was VERY strict!:

Tamsin’s mixing skills were up to scratch

Kneading the dough was also performed suitably.

Once the dough was ready we had to practice making the momo casings without filling, and this is where the whip was truly cracked, as our first few offerings were deemed unworthy and were brutally scrunched back into dough-balls.

Finally we got proficient enough to be allowed to use fillings in our momos with the following results:

After 15 minutes of steaming we happily ate the results although we did save a few for Randall.

This was the view from the steps to our hostel when we returned from the class:

The next day we took a walk to the Dal Lake a few km out of town. The supposedly ‘holy’ lake was surrounded by concrete walls and the inevitable rubbish, but that said the view wasn’t bad:

We spent another couple of days mooching, eating and doing some gentle walking, and found Tushita, the monastery and meditation centre where Charlie, Tamsin and I took an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism course back in 1996. It was a long time ago, so the things we remembered most about it were the VERY steep walk up the hill each morning to get there, gentle farting in the meditation sessions, and teasing the westerners who were there on ‘silent retreat’. Very spiritual, us.

On our last full day we did the ‘big hike’ to Triund, 9km in distance and 1km in height away from McLeod Ganj:

The first hour, a gentle climb through pine forests

Some time into the second hour we came across the first patch of snow.

Hour 3 – time for a tea and chocolate stop:

The last hour of the hike was a steep climb up through the snow:

It was at this point that we met a party of young Koreans, many of whom were hiking in Crocs or flip flops, and one of whom was carrying a guitar.

The incredible views from the top:

The Koreans got there first and were having a sing song when we arrived.

We made it! Four and a half hours up!

Stretching at the top

Drinks and noodles in the inevitable tea stall.

Back through the snow on the way down

The long and winding road

Tea stop on the way down (another 4 hours of walking)

The yellow bag behind me in this photo is significant – a local action group Mountain Cleaners (started by a Brit) give them out so that hikers and the stall owners can collect the plastic rubbish that gets generated. The Mountain Cleaners then collect them and send the sorted contents for recycling. All kudos to Jodie ‘Garbage Girl’ Underhill for setting this up.

Randall on the terrace of Kunga Guest House where Charlie, Tamsin and I stayed in 1996 for a few days. It now has a second block and a huge outdoor terrace (Nick’s Italian Kitchen).

The other hostel we stayed in during our 1996 is no longer a hostel, and the little garden that surrounded it is now built up with bigger hotels. We popped in on the off chance though, and found Champa, one of the couple who ran the place back then. We had printed some photos of him, his wife and their little boy from 1996. Unfortunately we missed the latter two, but Champa was so pleased with the photos, and he gave us a loaf of his fabulous sourdough bread in return.

Tamsin and Champa 2012

Champa 1996 – making Tibetan bread.

The rest of the photos are here.

Written by helenbcn

March 22, 2012 at 7:17 pm