Thursday, 28 February 2013

Wednesday 27th - Back to Delhi

The latter part of our final proper train trip for this visit is rather tame. We all have a good night's sleep and wake to the cry of the chai seller. D now considers himself to have moved up a level when it comes to Indian Railways expertise as he manages to unfasten one of their deadly fiendish compartment door locks with one hand. He also gets in a spot of door riding and a row with a Dutch couple who want to smoke in the lobby. He sort of wins as they move off down the train in the hope of finding somewhere without objectors.    

Progress is very stop start but we are only 20 minutes late when we pull into Delhi Cantt. station where a car is waiting to take us to Lutyens Bungalow.  We are welcomed with hugs and a cup of tea and while away half an hour watching the birds in the garden until our room is ready. There are still plenty of parakeets around and they rather bully the pigeons and the squirrels.

After a shower and a change of clothes we head out to the metro for a two leg trip to the Lajpat Nagar market, on the south east side of the city. This market is traffic free and there is very little hustling by the stallholders. There is one very persistent young man selling alleged Rayban sun glasses. Even when D's total apathy has brought the price down to 200 rupees (about £2.50) he insists that they are the genuine article. There is a truly excellent nuts and sweets stand and it is D's turn to expand his wardrobe.

We get back to base in time for afternoon tea on the terrace and we get a couple of clear sightings of a pair of Indian Grey Hornbills who have become regular visitors. As usual D is too slow with the camera. We sit out in front of our room with a cold beer in the hope that they will return but no luck. Dinner turns into a party as we are all together on one table - two French ladies, an Englishwoman and her Dutch husband who live in the south of France and their fellow travellers, a Belgian couple. There is a very lively conversation that switches from English to French and back again with a little Flemish thrown in for good luck. The four of them are taking a 2.30 a.m. flight to Brussels and have a good go at drowning the misery.

Tuesday 26th - D's Halo Slips.

On our way home from the desert we were offered a very generous late check out by Anil and Arvind  who run the Desert Boy's. As long as we leave our bags packed so that they can show the room to prospective punters we can use it until we leave at 4 p.m. D is definitely recovered and enjoys a hearty breakfast (tea, omelette and toast if you must know). He is so recovered that he suggests touristic activity in the form of a visit to the Jaisalmer Fort Palace. We get lost yet again but in due course find our way to  the main square. We climb the steps, pay our admission fee and don the audio guide equipment. It seems like an interesting place.

Then the coach parties arrive. Quite the rudest and most inconsiderate people we have encountered anywhere in India outside A/C Chair class. They appear to have no interest in the museum or its exhibits and are intent on getting round it as quickly as possible using tactics such as jostling, pushing, shouting, stamping and gouging. They should have been at a football match or some kind of political rally.

The final straw is that the Stamp Collection is closed for viewing. D has been looking forward to seeing some of the Princely States collections that are held here. The big attraction appears to be the splendid all round views of the city available from the roof of the Palace.

 We abandon the culture and go for a long, lingering lunch at a rooftop restaurant, opting for the shade of the tented section. D takes no risks with his digestion and orders kathi roll and chips, while R goes for Veg Jalfrezi. We have a last stroll through the bazaar and up the hill into the fort. At last we manage to find the DB's without touring the entire neighbourhood. Our room has not been let yet so we can freshen up and at last get the wifi to work.

What a disaster! D checks the PNR for our train and we have not got the coupe. R threatens legal action. Before we leave we are asked to take chai with Arvind and the team. It is very good and a nice way to part. They arrange an auto down to the station. The train is in but locked and there are no vendors, only a meagrely provisioned chai stall. Supper will be crisps and water. Another blot on D's battered escutchion.

When the man with the glue and the other man with the charts arrive it becomes apparent that R will have to have an upper bunk. The last time this happened she swore that it would be the last time. We are sharing the cabin with Mr & Mrs Gupta who clearly have clout as their entries on the chart are marked HO. (Head Office, High Official - something like that.) The coupe has gone to a couple in their 70's so perhaps age is the clincher. The Guptas are good company and we talk about a range of subjects. He is a retired Civil servant from the Finance Ministry and she a teacher on a part time basis. Today the new railway budget was announced so we spend time discussing the financial mess that the system is in.

We turn in early and R manages her upper berth without any real fuss. Mr G has ordered the attendant to turn down the A/C so we are not blast chilled and we have a pretty comfortable night.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Monday 25th - The Desert Song

It's a fresh sunny morning when we go for breakfast just along the balcony from our Arabian Nights room. Today's plan is to wander the city a little, find an ATM and also a cyber cafe as the Desert Boys wifi only seems to have any bandwidth in the middle of the night. We can see an ATM from our room and a walk around the foot of the city walls does not take too long.

Jaisalmer is very tourist driven and everybody tries to sell something but a good natured "Not today" or "No thanks. We've already eaten" seems to keep the touts at bay. There is one guy that we keep seeing who says "Hello. When you see me in Jodhpur you buy me a beer". In Jodhpur there was a similar looking chap who tried to claim that we had promised him a beer when we were in Jaisalmer. Full marks for trying.

D has been having a minor attack of tummy trouble and is feeling below par, so after the chores are done and we have had a cup of tea we return to the room for him to lie down. At least we try to but get thoroughly lost yet again and find the Desert Boys by accident. D is awarded the "Weedy Wet of the Week" award for this.

Today is the third and final day of the Jaisalmer Desert Festival and we have signed up for a trip out into the desert to see the spectacle. There is some confusion about departure time but eventually we are under way in a full jeep. It looks like we are subsidising the Desert Boys staff outing. When we get to Sam there is a milling mass of people, cars, jeeps and camels. Forget the solitude of the desert  - everywhere you look there are compounds of canvas cabins and even roadside off licences. There are some fine examples of opportunity marketing.

First up is a camel racing event, with commentary by an Indian man who sounds as if he has been taught English by Michael O'Hare. It is chaos. The result is announced and then the judges are asked to make clear where the finishing line is. The crowd seem very happy though. We notice that people are drifting away to the west so we follow to see what is happening..

In a hollow there is some kind of jam session going on with an ever expanding group of musicians giving it their all on some energetic percussion numbers. A bit like Santana without the bass. Most entertaining and over all too soon. Some soldiers are laying out green mats on a patch of desert and eventually it becomes clear that this is the seating area in front of the main stage - a flat piece of desert. There are markers for different categories of audience including an area for foreign tourists. We decide to look for somewhere more comfortable to sit and find a sandy slope with a view of sorts.

Behind us all the fun of the fair is going on with various vendors selling ice cream, chai,noisy toys, balloons, water at 3 times par and roasted peanuts. D's tummy has settled a little so we have 30 rupees worth of the latter, a huge bag. We shall probably be bringing some home. The sun is setting and the moon rising over this desert melee.

The event is due to commence at 6.30 p.m.  At 7.15 the lights go on and they do a perfunctory sound check. Then nothing.  Eventually the first act is introduced (at great length in two languages). By now we have to stand to see the stage which is frequently obscured by photographers. The lady entertainers have colourful and sparkling costumes. One of the acts is a Sufi band. Sufis are the original whirling dervishes and the climax to their performance is some dextrous twirling by a spectacularly clad lady dancer.

We are just starting to tire a little when our hosts phone to ask when we might want to leave. Now seems like a good idea so we make our way back to the road, warding off the chaps who want to sell us a camel ride. There is chaos on the road but amazingly R spots our hosts and their jeep in the darkness and we are soon on board for the ride home. We stop to pick up two German girls who have got stuck without a lift somehow and it is a very cosy trip back to Jaisalmer. We need no rocking to sleep tonight.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Sunday 24th - Cranes, trains and lunch

D wakes early from a nightmare about trying to get luggage onto a coach full of elephants. We dress warmly and make our way down to reception. The hotel staff are sleeping on the floor and although we try to be quiet they rouse themselves. At exactly 6.30 our auto arrives , driven by a very smart young man who takes a different route to Khichan - one with a much better road surface. He also takes us to a different spot in the village. A man ushers us throough a gate and up stairs onto the flat roof of a house that overlooks an enclosed area where a man is tipping grain out of sacks onto the ground. There are also a couple of injured cranes in the enclosure.

There is a Dutch couple already on the roof who stayed here in a homestay last night. They had looked at Phalodi and decided to move on. We are joined by our host and then suddenly we see cranes flying out of the early morning mist. They overfly us and disappear to the south. Soon there are hundreds if not thousands above us flying in groups. It really is a spectacular sight.

 We are given chai by the owner of the house who is a passionate campaigner for the cranes, having even won a court case against the Rajasthan Electricity Board. He has meticulous daily records of what time the birds appear, what time they start to feed in the enclosure and when they leave. For the past couple of weeks there have been no evening sightings so we were lucky. Feeding usually starts between 8 and 9 so we will have to miss that if we are to breakfast and catch our 10 a.m. train. We make a contribution to the bird seed fund and return to the auto.

 Our driver has been talking to a young local man who is offering to take us to another place where the birds can be seen. We say that we have to be quick and he leads us to a couple of enclosures on the south of the village where the cranes are thick on the ground and less than 50 metres away. Brilliant. The man who recommended coming here is totally forgiven (you know who you are VA).

As always when you are in a bit of a hurry everything slows down. Mr and Mrs Grumpy at the hotel have upset the breakfast waiter who is on go slow. We order just tea and toast in the hope that this won't take too long. Fat chance. When we go to check out Mr G is there again to argue about each line of his bill. We get sorted and they summon an auto for us. The same smart young man appears. At the station the floor of the booking hall/waiting room is mostly covered in cow poo. There is only one booking window open and a longish queue, most of whom seem to be clutching several ticket request forms. A local asks where we are going and advises that the unreserved window will open in a few minutes. He is right and we don't have to adopt R's suggestion of ticketless travel.

 The train is a Bikaner-Jaisalmer local that has fairly recently been downgraded from having reserved accommodation. By a fluke we get into a coach where there is an empty luggage rack so we can dump our bags there. People shuffle up a bit and make room for R to sit on a fourperson bench that has at least six on it. D is engaged in conversation by a man with very good English who wants to know why we aren't visiting Bikaner. He also tells us that most people on the train will be getting off in about 40 km at Ramdevra - apparently famous for its temples. D has to stand for an hour or so but gets a turn at the door so it is no real hardship.

The man is right and we get a pair of facing window seats which include the emergency exit window which can be fully opened so there are no bars. The country is getting progressively drier and sandier and we get covered in a fine dust. Behind us are two Austrian ladies who were so totally wrapped up in scarves and blankets that we didn't notice them. Our train was late leaving Phalodi and loses more time waiting to cross eastbound trains at some of the passing loops. Normally this wouldn't matter but today we have a lunch date. One of the trains we cross actually has a few people sitting on the train roof, apparently quite rare these days. R declines to follow their example.

  Once the road is clear our loco pilot makes a valiant effort to regain some time but is thwarted just outside Jaisalmer station where we wait for several minutes before crawling in at a snail's pace. The "Palace on Wheels" is in the station but there is no time to linger. We drop lucky and get a car for a reasonable price to the restaurant where some of D's India Mike forum pals are waiting for us. After handshakes, introductions and a very welcome cold beer a jolly lunch party ensues.

A couple of hours flies by and it is time for us all to go our separate ways. Our hotel has said that if we phone them they will send an auto for us. Good job too as we would never have found the Desert Boys amongst the winding lanes and alleys of the Jaisalmer Fort. our room is small but interesting with stone steps up to a bed recess. We dump our bags and realise that we are exhausted. After a short stroll around we call it a night and by 9 p.m. we are sound asleep.

Saturday 23rd - Third Class Ticket

R has volunteered for an extra train trip today rather than a trip in a hired car. This involves a 6.30 alarm and an early start for the station. We have been promised packed breakfasts but when we get up we realise that there has been a very heavy storm overnight. D goes up to the rooftop to find out about things. They are very apologetic but forgot as they were having to deal with a marquee that blew away. That must have come a shock to the clubbers.

The streets are covered in puddles and cow poo and it takes a few minutes to find an auto. The weather still looks more like Scotland than Rajasthan. At the station R is parked with the luggage while D queues for tickets. This queue is better behaved than either Old Delhi or Sealdah and D is soon at the window to request 2 tickets to Phalodi. "Only General Sir. No A/c" The clerk seems worried about our choice but D persists and hands over 50 rupees (62 pence) for 2 tickets for a journey of 110 km. Our train is at the platform and starting to fill up but we find a pair of window seats facing each other and get comfy. The chai we buy on the platform is particularly good and breakfast is completed with a packet of butter biscuits.

  Departure is due at 8.30 which comes and goes. The train keeps filling and by the time we leave at 9.15 there appear to be no seats left. We get our first view of a Hirja who is extracting money as he/she progresses along the coach. We are rather surprised when we just get ignored but are relieved to be spared the expense. The first stop is only about half a mile and quite a lot of people get on. By the time we leave the next station, on the outskirts of the city, the coach is jammed full, with people sitting on luggage racks and the floor and others standing. Personal space is a non starter but most people seem to be polite and reasonably considerate. D makes a new friend.

By the time our three hour ride is drawing to a close the crowd has thinned a little and D is able to draw up a cunning plan to extract our luggage. At Phalodi this works well until D gets to the coach door. The widest lady we have seen in India insists on climbing on board. D cannot retreat as there is a crowd behind who also wish to leave the train. There are some strong views exchanged and somehow D, trolley bag, and rucsac squeeze past Mrs Elephant.

 We have booked with the Lal Niwas ( red stone) hotel and we take an auto. Inevitably we pay twice the going rate because we don't know where we are headed. The hotel is a very nice old haveli that is undergoing renovations. Our room is very quaint with numerous doors off. The bathroom window opens straight onto a busy street. Fortunately the shutters can be secured.

 Lonely Planet says very little about Phalodi while the Rough Guide is positively rude about the place. At first it seems like the latter may be right until we find ourselves in a maze of streets away from the station and the main road through. The town has countless barber shops (a bit like Linlithgow really) and more urban cows than we have seen anywhere. More urban cows = more urban cow poo. As we stroll the back streets everybody wants to say hello and many to have their photo taken. It appears that Western tourists are still a bit of a novelty in this part of the world. R is adopted by a group of school girls who want her to come home with them but their dad doesn't think much of that idea. She finds a sweet seller who has orange flavoured boiled sweets and gets 3 times as much for her money as she has anywhere else.

Eventually we find ourselves back at the hotel and make ourselves a cup of tea. We read the guidebooks again to see what they tell us any more about the Desmoiselle cranes that we came here to see. They don't even agree with each other on the very little information they have so we decide therefore to make a foray to the village of Khichan to see for ourselves.  We are told that the birds come in to the village at 5.00 p.m so ask an auto driver to take us there. He is delighted with this huge fare (200 rupees) but keeps stopping to ask the way. Eventually we are guided to a pond where we wait and watch.

After a while a large group of cranes appear in the sky, circle and fly back whence they came.  The flock wheels again and comes back overhead, quite a sight, before turning round and disappearing. Can that be it? The auto driver comes down to the pond with young man from the area and he said yes, that's it, when we spot a lone crane which lands on the other side of the pond down in a dip.  We walk over to the far side of the pond from where we can get a clear view. We console ourselves with the thought that at least we have seen something and curse the man who recommended this visit. The sun is sinking rapidly and there is a very cold breeze coming from somewhere so we call time on the ornithology.

 Our boneshaking ride back to the hotel has earned us a refreshment. The bar is opened specially for us. Judging by the decor it was last open in 1976. At least the beers were nice and cold after 37 years in the fridge.  In contrast the hotel's vegetarian restaurant was so newly refurbished that we could smell the paint. The sevice and the food were both very good according to us. The other diners were an Indian couple who did not like anything and complained loudly and often. R had sought advice about the cranes from the front desk and as we ate a man came to the table to confirm that our auto had been booked for 06.30 (Groan - D)

When we got back to our room R came over all Indian and hammered on the connecting door to the next room who had the TV volume up to painful. It worked.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Friday 22nd - The Long and Winding Road

Relaxation time is over and we are back to cross country road travel. Davendra was going to arrange things for his friend to drive us but then decided that he would do it and take the chance to spend a couple of days with his family. No flash Innova this time but a perfectly seviceable Tata Indigo.  We have a final breakfst with a view then make our farewells at the Jaiwana Haveli and settle in for the ride.

The road is quite good at first and even better when we join a toll motorway. This doesn't last for long and we are then on a narrow and winding cross country road but it does have a decent surface. We head roughly north and climb steadily. Davendra tells us that we have crossed the summit between the Mewar territory and that of the Marwars. The Marwars appear to lack basic road maintenance skills. We jolt down a winding, pitted road through forested valleys getting an occasional glimpse of the temples below.

We arrive at Ranakpur at about 11.45. This gives us time to purchase our camera permit and study the various conflicting sets of rules for the admittance of tourists. At noon prompt we are given the OK to climb the temple steps. bShoes and water are left at the bottom. At the security check we discover that we should have also left our phones and R's stash of sweeties (for the chilren says R). The phones have to go back to the office while the security people take charge of the goodies.

Inside we are greeted by a youth who tells us that his family have looked after the temple for over 400 years. He takes us for a whirlwind tour, explaining some of the key features and telling us where we can and can't photo. At the end of his talk we are tapped for a donation. D ignores the prominently displayed Rs 500/- note and pitches for a lesser heaven. We are then free to wander and photograph as we wish as long as we do not take pictures of the idols.

After an hour or so we return to the car and resume our journey to Jodhpur. Pretty soon we are out of the hillsd and on the plain. The roads are not great and when we join the main highway it becomes positivelt dangerous. There is upgrade work going on to make this a dual carriageway but so far not much of this is open. Most of the traffic is heavy trucks and some of the car drivers perform near suicidal manouevres to get past. Davendra doesn't try anything silly but he is clearly frustrated by the slow progress. R now confirms that she wishes our onward travel to be by train rather than car. Harrumble!

At last we turn off the main drag and onto a reasonably good road. Almost immediately we cross a bridge over the railway and see a train of flat cars carrying about a dozen metre gauge or narrow gauge coaches. presumably they are headed to the breakers yard. Just as we are getting thoroughly sick of car travel we see the familiar site of the Meherangarh Fort which dominates the city of Jodhpur. Davendra knoews our hotel which is the Haveli Inn Pal, not the Pal Haveli Inn. The two hotels are apparently owned by brothers and share an entrance and courtyard.

6210 We book in and are shown to our room which has a rather splendid four poster bed but no window. The duty manager has instilled a certain apprehension by saying that there is no 8.30 train to Phalodi. A check with Indiarailinfo is needed but there is a fault with the wifi which is being repaired. We head out into the bazaar around the clock tower and then along the main drag in search of a couple of beers and some incense. R resists the offers from the incense stalls in the shadow of the tower and buys from a scruffy bloke with a handcart halfway up the main street for less than half the price.

The Lovely Wines" Off licence takes scruffy to a new level but does supply a couple of cold Kingfishers after D positively refuses to buy some other beer that they were keen to sell. Presumably it was about to hit its sell by date.

Back at the hotel R goes to book dinner while D eventually gets the wifi up and running. There is an 8.30 train to Jaisalmer via Phalodi. We do some online catching up until it is time to head for dinner at L'Indique on the roof of the Pal Haveli. This gives a great view of the fort and much of the city. R cannot now decide whether this is the most stunning dining location she has been in or the one yesterday. D votes for tonight's venue as the train hooters from the station are clearly audible and exerting their magic.

R notices that there is some sort of coloured light display at the fort, which we later discover is part of a Sufi music festival. Because of our early start we settle our bill and are promised packed breakfasts will be ready for our departure.

We are glad that we did not go clubbing tonight.

Website is playing silly bloggers at the moment so we can't finish off our latest post. Normal service will be resumed asap.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Thursday - Lakes and gardens, but mainly lakes

R was so impressed with her yoga class that she decides to go for another one this morning.  She says that she is learning a lot and hopes to pass on some new stuff to her class back home. As a result we join the sluggards for a late breakfast. Today's plan is to look at some of the bits of Udaipur that we missed last time round.

We start by heading for the markets area but we find this a bit disappointing compared with some places so move on by auto to Saheliyon Ki Bari. There is a very modest admission charge (5 rupees) to these well maintained gardens that feature a number of fountains. The garden is shaded by trees and the foliage and floral colours are beautiful. After the hubbub of the town it's a welcome break although a few more benches would not go amiss.

Our next target is Fateh Sagar, the upper of the city's two lakes. We are navigating using a map pulled out of the centre of a  tourist brochure and it isn't very good (says D). We have a lengthy route march via a very upmarket housing area. There is clearly some serious money around here. The locals try to be helpful but their directions are a bit vague. Eventually we get there and it is worth the effort.

We stroll along one of the retaining walls which has been converted into and esplanade and currently has a traffic ban while the road surface is repaired. There is a lovely cooling breeze and the only irritant is the piped music that emanates from every lamp-post.

The Udaipur auto drivers must have an association with the Chennai branch as their idea of a cheap auto ride is much the same - and they all want you to visit their brother's shop. What these people need is some competition from Ahmedabad. We eventually get a quote for a ride across town to the Garden Hotel and Vintage car museum that does not give D apoplexy.  The Garden Hotel is another of HRH's establishments but the prices here a little more in tune with reality and we take a refreshment whilst watching the squirrels.

We decide that vintage cars are not really for us and opt for a an afternoon siesta before a farcical half hour on the terrace trying to take a worthwhile picture with the time delay on D's camera.  This is the best that we managed. Don't laugh. We had out to our chosen restaurant - the Ambrai - voted the most sensational location possible by R. We have no booking and are told that we can only have an hour but that's OK by us. We must have been green last time that we were here as the prices seem horrendous in comparison with Gujarat but the food is excellent and the views sensational..

Another night without going clubbing.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Wednesday 20th - Beer and bagpipes

Our car awaits outside Udaipur station and whisks us away to the Jaiwana Haveli  where we are given the same room that we had the first time we stayed. It is a lovely cool room with marble floors and fittings and its own roof terrace overlooking the lake. We realise that it is exactly two years to the day since we were here last. Breakfast is still being served so we descend three flights and climb four to enjoy omelettes, tea and toast whilst taking in the view across Lake Pichola to the Lake Palace.

R hankers after a yoga class so once we are fed and showered we go to check out a place that the hotel has recommended. She likes the look of it so that is on for this evening. We walk up through the old town to the City Palace, musing on how much more adventurous we have become since last time we were here. We don't plan to tour the Palace this time although we did find it very interesting. Our plan is to slake some of the thirst built up in Gujarat. The cold beer is wonderful but the bill comes as a bit of a shock. We could have been drunk as skunks for a week  in Diu for the price of a single bottle of Kingfisher here. Really we went to look at the elephant nests which are quite impressive to look at but don't photograph too well.

On our way out of the Palace complex we hear the sound of bagpipes.  Bagpipes being played in the most excruciating fashion.  Auld Lang Syne being murdered. Even D's Sassenach tin ear could tell that there is something wrong.  Why teenage boys in Rajasthan are playing the pipes is a bit of a mystery but they do confirm that they are "Scottish bagpipes".

After an afternoon snooze and a catch up session on the internet it is time for R's yoga class. This is handily situated near an off licence that would not look out of place in Possil. D gets acquainted with the local ne'er-do-wells whilst queuing for a couple of sun-downers.  There is a great deal in common between India and Scotland when it comes to the morality of drink.

When R returns from class we lounge on our terrace, beers in hand and watch a spectacular sunset.  The haveli's rooftop restaurant serves up an excellent supper. We did not go out clubbing.