Varanasi, India

Varanasi is beautiful, chaotic and overwhelming.  All human life is here – Hindu pilgrims visiting their holiest place to bathe in the River Ganges, bereaved families cremating their dead by the side of the river at Manikarnika Ghat and countless boatmen ferrying everyone along the river at dawn or dusk.

Manikarnika Ghat at dawn

River Ganges at dawn

Preparing to bathe in the Ganges

We explored the city by boat and by taxi, encountering acts of worship – cremations, prayers, singing, offerings of flowers and food – everywhere we went, from large temples and ghats to tiny shrines.  It’s hard to describe the haunting and powerful atmosphere in a place that’s so centred on devotion, with a constant flood of people arriving in the city to worship just as they have been doing for thousands of years.

More prosaically, we had a few close encounters with the cows that wander the streets in Varanasi, often causing traffic jams as pedestrians, rickshaws and scooter riders screech to a halt to let them pass!

Cow in the streets of Varanasi

 

Udaipur, India

Swoon, sigh . . Udaipur is, without doubt, the most romantic place I’ve ever visited.  I thought I was just coming for a couple of days, but fell head-over-heels in love with the city on the day I arrived.  Five days later, I’m already feeling nostalgic for this glorious, dreamy lake city as I prepare to jump on the night train to Delhi.

Flowers in the lake

There’s been a fair amount of sitting in lovely lakeside or rooftop restaurants, gazing at the lake and its palaces:

Lake Palace hotel

City Palace

I’ve also made like a Maharaja, exploring the palaces belonging to the Mewar dynasty and enjoying a truly delightful “fake it till you make it” few hours at the Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel’s marble outdoor swimming pool (which I had all to myself for the afternoon!)

“My” swimming pool

On Jagmandir Island

Bagore-ki-haveli

Me & the Maharaja’s MG

Back in the real world, I’ve got lost in the overgrown Sajjan Niwas Gardens (where I briefly became a celebrity as lots of excited children decided to try out their English on me: “Hel-lo!  Hel-lo!  Hel-lo!”)

Sajjan Niwas Gardens

Continuing on this theme, I then went and got lost in the city’s colourful bazaars, until the nice boys in Udaipur’s premier brass instrument shop set me on my way via some delicious jalebi sweets, a cup of chai and a coconut juice.

Udaipur bazaars

Brassed off

Memorably, I also stumbled upon an evening of dancing at the fairy-light-tastic Jagdish Temple, which was just amazing – seemingly the whole city was gathered in the courtyard, singing along and clapping as the DJ spun tracks and a few brave souls got up to dance in front of the crowd.

Jagdish Temple

And that’s without even mentioning the, um, significant contribution I’ve made to the local economy.  Sigh, swoon . . . Udaipur, miss you already.

Markha Valley trek, Ladakh, India

Nine days, sixty-five km, two new blisters and a lot of Ladakhi pasta and milk tea later, I’ve completed the Marka Valley trek.  It was such a great adventure, hiking through spectacular mountain scenery from tiny village to tiny village in a fairly remote part of Ladakh with no roads.

Thanks to our lovely guides, we learnt the Ladakhi for “it’s sunny” (“nima duk”), “it’s raining” (“cherpa tang duk”) and “it’s snowing” (“kha tang duk”), all of which came in handy at various points along the way.

On the way to Ganda La pass

Skiu monastery

Between Skiu and Markha

Snow on faraway mountains

Sunshine on our last day of trekking

We crossed some high mountain passes with lovely fantasy-novel names – Ganda La (4850m) and Gongmaru La (5260m).  Relevant Ladakhi vocab: “I’m tired” (“nan nal ta ra”) and “This mountain is difficult!” (“Ri dulces ma kakspo duk”).

At the top of Ganda La

Our group at the top of Gongmaru La

Accommodation was in more cosy homestays, with the exception of one rather chilly night in a tent at Nimaling, 4740m above sea level.  I slept in three pairs of trousers, five tops, two pairs of socks, two sleeping bag liners and two blankets, and was still not all that warm . . .

Nimaling tented camp

I did the trek with an amazing group of women who endeared themselves to me forever by singing as we hiked (Adele, The Beatles, “I Will Survive” and The Twelve Days of Christmas) and by laughing obligingly at my trek jokes:

“A cow crossed with a yak walks into a bar.  ‘How’s it going?’ asks the barman.  ‘Ah, dzo-dzo,’ he replies.”

Dzo

 

 

Leh, India

Reasons to love Leh:

  • Beautiful views everywhere:

Leh Palace at sunset

  • The donkeys hanging out at the bus station:

You wait ages for a donkey, then two come along at once

  • The fact that if they don’t have coins, shopkeepers occasionally give you your change in chocolate bars or cough sweets.
  • Leh Festival, which I have been very much enjoying over the past couple of days:

Mask dancer, Leh Festival

Polo players, Leh Festival

Sham Valley trek, Leh

Well, I’m back from my first trek in Ladakh with the blisters to prove it.  I’ve walked through the Sham Valley, starting at Likir and finishing at Tia, aided and abetted by the fabulous Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company.

The scenery was entirely unbelievable, like something from a different world.  Vast, arid mountains interrupted startlingly by bright patches of green at each village we visited.

View from Tia Monastery

Between Likir and Yangtang

Stones marking our path

Windswept and happy at the top of a mountain pass

We stayed overnight in homestays which was really fun, helping to shell peas and make pasta in the farmhouses by the fire before crashing out on mattresses under lots of blankets.  My Ladakhi homestay vocabulary is coming on a treat: I can now say “hello”, “goodbye”, and “thank you”- admittedly all expressed by one very useful word, “Julay” – as well as, crucially “mmm, the food is delicious” (“Ma zhimpo”).

Homestay in Yangtang

Homestay accommodation

Cooking dinner after a hard day trekking

We also visited several Buddhist monasteries en route, many of which were in truly spectacular locations with the mountains forming a backdrop to ancient prayer wheels or brand new gold statues of Buddha.

Gate to Temisgang monastery

Tia monastery

Prayer wheels at Likir monastery

Statue of Buddha at Likir monastery