I don’t think I can really add much to this blog entry with lots of words. Fatehpur Sikri on a sunny afternoon and the Taj Mahal at 6.15am – simply incredible.
Khajuraho is a tiny, sleepy town where everyone potters around on bicyles, amid leafy green fields and little ponds where cows cool off from the midday heat.
It’s also home to three groups of spectacular temples built around AD 1000. The exteriors of the temples are covered in beautiful sculptures of gods, nymphs and, erm, sex (although as my Lonely Planet advises rather sternly: “The erotic content should not distract from the great skill underlying the sculptures.”)
It was lovely to be in such a peaceful place for a couple of days – we even got brave enough to hire bikes to whiz around the different temple sites, winning some impressed (maybe) stares and comments from local residents (“Oooh Madam, you have a lovely bicycle!”)
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.
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!
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.
There’s been a fair amount of sitting in lovely lakeside or rooftop restaurants, gazing at the lake and its palaces:
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!)
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!”)
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.
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.
And that’s without even mentioning the, um, significant contribution I’ve made to the local economy. Sigh, swoon . . . Udaipur, miss you already.
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.
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”).
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 . . .
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.”
Reasons to love Leh:
- Beautiful views everywhere:
- The donkeys hanging out at the bus station:
- 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:
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.
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”).
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.
Ladakh is full of gorgeous gompas (Buddhist monasteries) and stupendous stupas (Buddhist monuments), and I’ve spent a good part of the last few days visiting them in and around Leh. They’re often located at the top of big hills, which makes for exhausting sightseeing but brilliant views over the countryside and the mountains.
I also took a trip to Pangong Tso, a beautiful lake located on the India-China border. The drive there was pretty memorable – six hours of bumpy, winding mountain roads, ascending to a height of 5289m above sea level at Chang La, where we stopped for a cuppa at the world’s third highest cafeteria before descending to the lake.
Plus we met some local wildlife en route!
The mountain scenery was absolutely spellbinding and the lake itself was equally lovely. Once we’d arrived, we spent the rest of the afternoon watching the colour of the lake change from azure to darkest navy to grey as the sun went down, then got up at 5.30 the next morning to watch the sun come up over the lake before hitting the road back to Leh.
You know how sometimes you feel like you’re going to love a place even before you arrive there? Ladakh is one of the places I’ve been most looking forward to visiting on this trip, and the major city in the region, Leh, is just wonderful. It’s set 3500m above sea level in the most stunning mountain ranges, covered in colourful prayer flags and Buddhist temples.
The sun is shining; the views everywhere are spectacular; I ate delicious dhal and mint naan bread last night by the light of Chinese lanterns and candles (every now and then just by candlelight when the rather erratic electricity supply gave up the ghost), listening to the evening call to prayer from the mosque compete with Sandy Denny on the stereo; I’m staying in a cosy guesthouse in a room with the most enormous bed I’ve ever slept in; and once I’ve acclimatised to the altitude, I’m going to be trekking all over the place – can’t wait!