India: Pushkar

India - Pushkar yoga Swamiji and us
Pushkar is the holiest city in Rajasthan, and although the ghats and temples didn’t impress us, we had our own spiritual encounter with Swamiji.

India - Pushkar Fancy hotel
Pushkar is a small town but it has over 500 temples and attracts a lot of Hindu pilgrims. We expected a lot of Indian tourists, but the center of town is surprisingly full of foreigners, tourist restaurants, and gift shops.

India - Pushkar
As a holy town, meat, eggs, and alcohol are off limits in Pushkar, which makes it one of the most vegan friendly places in India. Tofu, falafel, and rare cheeses were very popular. We ate world class vegetarian at Cafe Nature’s Blessing and amazing Tibetan food at Tyagy’s. I could have stayed in Pushkar for a few more days just for the food.

India - Pushkar Lake
The center of Pushkar is a small lake, believed to have been created by the Hindu creator god, Lord Brahma. It is surrounded by ghats (steps) where Hindus bathe to wash their bodies and souls. It also has the reputation for pushy priests asking tourists for donations. We never had any problems, but we only visited in the middle of the day when it was quiet and stayed away from the popular Brahma Ghat.

India - Pushkar
Other than eating, visiting temples, and a few hikes there wasn’t a lot to do in Pushkar. Emily found a yoga course offered in the old temple near our hotel by Swamiji Kapri. It was more than we ever expected. The yoga was traditional ashtanga with a lot of focus on breathing and concentration.

India - Pushkar yoga
But the real highlight was our instructor and the sage advice he gave us during the theory and chanting classes. It was the first time we’ve really come to understand the full breadth of what yoga is about, including guidelines for how you treat others and maintain your mind body and soul. The ultimate goal is happiness (can’t argue with that), but it needs to be worked at with a plan. We’ve started laying out some things we want to do when we get home, like morning sun salutations and evening stretching and meditation. We also had a guest visit from a sadhu who is over 100 years old. He shared his secret to long life with us.

India - Pushkar yoga
Swamiji is an amazing man. 70 years old and full of old-world wisdom mixed with new-world pragmatism, and always brimming with happiness and joy. Truly an inspiring man to just be around. He would quote ancient Sanskrit texts and then take out his cellphone to snap pictures of us. We have promised to keep in touch with email and Facebook.

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India: Jodhpur

India - Jodhpur
Jodhpur went by in a blur. Maybe it was the opium and marijuana lassi I consumed.
India - Jodhpur
Jodhpur was a relaxing stop for us. When we arrived, Emily was running a fever, so we spent the day in the hotel. She slowly gained energy, but it was so hot during the day we never felt like doing anything too strenuous.

India - Jodhpur
The main attraction in Jodhpur is the massive Mehranghar Fort – the most impressive fort in Rajasthan. It towers over the city and the blue painted houses below. The inside wasn’t as interesting as the Amber Fort in Jaipur, but it did have an excellent audio guided tour.

India - Jodhpur
We also went on a car tour of the nearby Bishnoi villages. The Bishnoi are a local religious sect known for their fierce defence of plants and animals. They are real tree huggers and refuse to cut down trees. In 1730, a confrontation with the maharaja over tree cutting lead to 363 Bishnoi, led by the women, sacrificing themselves to protect the trees. As a result of their sacrifice, no tree cutting is allowed in the area to this day.

India - Jodhpur
The tour wasn’t great, but we visited a new Bishnoi temple under construction (the first new temple we’ve seen in India) and a memorial to the 363 Bishnoi who sacrificed their lives. We met a local family and shared some ceremonial opium – ingesting a piece too small to cause any high. We also had demonstrations from traditional potters and weavers, and then got ushered into their gift shops, of course. We bought a nice block printed table cloth.
India - Jodhpur

The neighborhood we stayed in was out of the tourist area and the local kids took delight in circling us whenever we walked by. They convinced me to join their pickup cricket game one afternoon. I enjoyed it, but I need more practice before any of the big kids invite me to play. We also got drawn into the big Shivaratri festival. When walking to dinner a group of young kids ran by and sprayed my face with a perfumed water. I thought they maced me at first, but it didn’t sting and they offered me nuts and dried fruit once the hazing was over. On the way back, a group of young men, partying at a temple with a rocking sound system, got a little too excited when we walked by. It was intimidating at first, but they really wanted to share their culture with us. They gave me a milky drink, that they assured me was just a regular lassi. I’m pretty sure it was a bhang lassi (made with marijuana), which is traditionally consumed during religious holidays. I didn’t consume enough to get a buzz, as I was more worried about the lactose. All the religious fervor is just a taste of what we can expect during Holi (the colour festival) in a few weeks.

India - Jodhpur

India - Jodhpur

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India: Halfway

February 11th was the halfway point in our trip. Two months in, two months to go. Feels like we’ve seen a lot already, but we still have moments when we have to remind ourselves in disbelief that we’re in India.

We’ve made a few stops in northern India and are starting to get a taste for the region. We had been told that there are a lot of differences between north and south. So far, we’re finding some of them to be true and others not. The weather is different, the food, and our fellow travelers, but we’re not finding the touts and scammers to be more aggressive as we’d been warned.

India - Fatehpur Sikri

Agra was chillingly cold weather (at least it felt like that to us), but now we’re in the desert and it’s getting hotter fast (it’s dry and 33 degrees). I’m glad I didn’t buy a second sweater. It’s still reasonable at night and in the shade, which we’re very thankful for. But you really can’t do anything in the middle of the day.

Hindi is widely spoken amongst locals and that will likely be the case until we’re in West Bangal. So we’re finally taking the time to learn the basics. So far we have hello/goodbye, 1 to 5, OK, and thank you. Generally everyone is appreciative and actually seems to understand what we’re saying. Somehow it seems that people’s English is better too, probably because there are more foreign tourists.

India - Jaipur

The food has changed – more wheat, meat, and dairy; less rice and fresh fruit juice. We’re happy that it’s still easy to find vegetarian food, but are having to be more vigilant about paneer. We’ve sampled a bunch of new kinds of deep fried bread and sugary sweets. Our favourite new kind of food is anything done in the tandoor oven, like tikki vegetables, kebabs, and naan. Tandoori is not just for carnivores in India.

India - Taj Mahal

A lot more foreign tourists visit northern India, especially on short term trips (less than one month). This tends to change the dynamic of restaurants, activities, and sites. People are willing to spend more money because they are constantly converting to their home currency. There are more coach tour buses and quick ways to “experience” quintessential Indian things. But we’re generally on a different path (sometimes literally) than these folks except for some of the big, must-see sites.

India - Jaisalmer haircut

Our bodies and our belongings are managing to hang in. No more stomach issues (knock on wood), but we keep catching colds. I think I’m on my third and this one really knocked me out. Our skin is getting brown, or at least the tops of our feet and back of our necks. After a few weeks of looking pretty shaggy, Chris got a haircut at a roadside barber. Our clothes have mostly survived hand washing, wringing, and sun drying. Chris got his sandals sown up the other day where they were beginning to tear. We’re starting to take bets on which items won’t make it home – odds on favorites include Chris’s underwear and Emily’s sandals.

India - Jaisalmer

A few people have asked what our travel plans are for the remaining time. We have sketched out a plan to March 9 and then have some things we want to see with no specific dates. Our friend Dan is probably going to join us for 2 weeks which might alter our course slightly. This might not mean much if you don’t know India, but here is goes:

Jodhpur
Pushkar
Udaipur
Bundi
Varanasi for the Holi colour festival
Darjeeling
Sikkim
Sangilila trekking
Kolkata
Corbett National Park
Rishikesh
Amritsar
Delhi

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India: Jaisalmer Camel Safari

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours
The two days we spent trekking through the Thar Desert on camel-back and the night we spent sleeping under the stars might be the highlight of our trip to India.

India - Jaisalmer
The launching point for our camel safari was Jaisalmer, the last stop on the train from Jaipur, at the edge of the Thar Desert and close to the border of Pakistan. It’s a dry, dusty town, with an imposing fort towering in the middle, and a great place for wandering. The fort is full of shops and temples, and the town has elaborately carved, yellow sandstone buildings (including some spectacular havelis) crowding its twisting, narrow streets.

India - Jaisalmer
After the aggressive sales tactics and tourist traps of Jaipur, Jaisalmer was surprisingly relaxed and easy-going. When we arrived at the train station, there were a number of sign carrying hotel operators trying to lure guests. Instead of rushing tourists, they waited politely off to the side. Even when approached, they calmly bargained with tourists. It was very un-Indian.

India - Jaisalmer
Most tourists rush through Jaisalmer – a quick visit to the fort and then an overnight trip to the desert. We took a more leisurely approach with a full 2-day/1 night camel safari with Mystic (highly recommend). We were definitely saddle sore after all the camel riding, but we didn’t regret it.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari
We traveled in a group of 6 tourists with two desert guides. We really enjoyed the company we traveled with, which is good because it was the most time we’ve spent with the same strangers all trip. Everyone in our group was on multi-month backpacking trips and we enjoyed swapping stories and getting advice on places to travel.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours
The trek took us as far from civilization as is possible in India. The only people we ran into were goat shepherds. The ride was mostly through dry scrub bush with stops on the edge of large sand dunes. We noticed the vast amounts of animal poop before we spotted the wildlife – mostly blue bucks and lots of domesticated animals like goats, sheep, and cows. The area is surrounded by a huge wind farm, one of the biggest in the world. It was surprising how loud the turbines are. It often sounded like jet airplanes were flying overhead.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours
During the day, the desert sun was oppressive. We spent most of the time from 11-3 hiding under giant shade trees, playing cards, and eating lunch.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours
At night, the temperature plummeted, but we kept warm with a small bonfire and thick blankets. It was awesome sleeping in the desert without a tent. There was nothing but a sky full of stars above our heads.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours
The camels were better behaved than I expected. No spitting or biting, and they were usually happy being scratched behind the ears. They sometimes get grumpy, but never in a scary way.

India - Jaisalmer
We spent an almost romantic Valentine’s Day touring Jaisalmer’s sights, including the Jain Temples and City Palace. There are a number of old havelis (elaborately carved urban mansions) open to the public. We toured one of the cheaper ones that was unfurnished but full of bats. I thought it was a fabulous photo opportunity until one attacked me. That might sound overly dramatic, but it had sonar and still flew into my armpit.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours
Our Valentine’s Day dinner was at a lovely restaurant set in a garden with live music, dancing, and puppetry. Our table was candle lit and it was as romantic as India can be, with kids running around on the stage, wobbly chairs that threatened to dump us on the ground, and a bird pooping in Emily’s hair from the tree above.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours

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India: Jaipur

India - Jaipur - Amber Fort
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and one of the most visited cities in India. The city bustles with urban life and the locals are accustomed to taking advantage of the bus loads full of turbaned tourists on 10-day Indian trips The attractions are overpriced and every rickshaw driver wants to take you on a day tour. Needless to say, it wasn’t our favourite place to visit.

India - Jaipur - Amber Fort
There were some highlights. Amber Fort was awesome. The city has a number of walled forts perched on the hills around it for protection, but Amber Fort was the most impressive to visit. It was busy with bus loads of tourists, but there are numerous side passages and stairways to explore that took us to quiet areas. We found an ingenious system that transported water from the lake below to the palaces and gardens above using gears and pulleys.

India - Jaipur - Jal Mahal

India - Jaipur

Jaipur city palace
There were a lot of other sights scattered in and around the Jaipur’s old walled centre – known as the Pink City. It was an interesting area to explore, with bazaars and old buildings, but the traffic was bad. We checked out the Royal Albert Museum (mediocre collection of artifacts but beautiful building) and Hawa Mahal (Wind Palace where the Maharaja’s harrem could watch city life out of small windows), and Jantar Mantar (old astronomical observatory with bizarre collection of giant sundials). The most disappointing attraction we visited was the City Palace, which charged a relatively hefty price of 400 rupees to see the interior of the palace, which was rammed full of gift shops.

India - Jaipur - Elefantastic
The highest rated attraction on TripAdvisor for Jaipur is an outing to Elefantastic, where for 4000 rupees ($80) you can spend an afternoon getting up close and personal with elephants. It seemed expensive to us, but the reviews were unanimous. People raved about it being the best part of their trips. So we went. It won’t be the best part of our trip, but it was a unique experience. We were paired with a pregnant elephant (8 months into a 20 month gestation) named Chandra. We fed her, petted her, painted her trunk, and went for a ride around the area. The highlight of most people’s trip is usually bathing with the elephants, but we didn’t get to because it is too cold in the winter months. Rahul, the owner, was great about answering questions and ensuring we enjoyed our afternoon there. I think he sensed that we were underwhelmed by the experience because when we went to pay he gave us 2000 rupees back.

India - Jaipur - Elefantastic

Our next stop is Jaisalmer where we’ll be spending more time with animals. We’re booked in for a 2 day camel safari in the desert.

India - Jaipur

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India: Agra

India - Taj Mahal
It seems like a waste of time posting photos of the most photographed site in India, but here they are.

India - Agra
India - Taj Mahal
We spent 3 days in Agra checking out the Taj Mahal and other sites. Before this trip, I thought Agra was only home to the Taj and a bunch of tourist trap stores around it. But as a former capital of the Mughal Empire, Agra has a lot of history.

India - Agra Fort
The city feels like anywhere else in India (although it was colder than most places we’ve visited). It wasn’t overly touristy like Goa, Hampi, or Mamallapuram. We were warned about aggressive touts and being charged inflated prices, but didn’t have any problems. Agra is part of India’s golden triangle (with Delhi and Jaipur) and attracts a lot of foreign tourists, but we only noticed them at the Taj Mahal. I think for a lot of people, Agra is only a day trip, which is a shame.

India - Agra
As a prelude to the Taj Mahal we visited the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah (often called the Baby Taj).

India - Taj Mahal
Then we visited one of the seven wonders of the world. The Taj Mahal really is perfect. You really need to visit it to appreciate how big it is and how it fits with the gardens and other buildings on the site in complete symmetry.

India - Agra Fort
We also spent an afternoon at Agra Fort, which is a massive red sandstone fort with a maze of old palaces and mosques inside of its towering walls. It was interesting but the best parts were off limit to tourists.

India - Fatehpur Sikri
My favourite non-Taj attraction was our day trip to Fatehpur Sikri, which was similar to Agra Fort, but better. Fatehpur Sikri was briefly a Mughal capital before it was abandoned. The ruins are in good shape and contain a public audience court, the the royal palace, and women’s harem. Walking around the site you can imagine how it would have looked when thousands of people lived there.

India - Fatehpur Sikri
We took the train to Fatehpur Sikri (10 rupees) and the bus back (60 rupees). On both trips we were the only white people. There were other foreigners at the site, but they all arrived in big tour buses. We’ve officially left the land of independent travellers and have entered the world of 2-week tour groups.

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India: Ellora and Ajanta Caves

India - Ellora Caves
The Ellora and Ajanta Caves are two fabulous sites in Maharashtra, India, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. Other than some dark passages and bats, there’s very little cave-like about them. They comprise a collection of monasteries and temples carved into cliff walls by artists hundreds of years ago. The oldest caves at Ajanta were carved by Buddhists in the 2nd century BC. There are also caves excavated by Hindus and Jains at Ellora.

India - Ajanta caves

It is really impressive what they were able to create with their carvings. Whole buildings and ornate temples loaded with sculptures, created from a single rock. There is no room for error.

India - Ellora Caves

India - Ellora Caves

India - Ellora Caves

The caves at Ajanta have some of the original paintings on the walls. Some are hard to see but they are in surprisingly good shape for their age.

India - Ajanta caves

India - Ajanta caves

India - Ajanta caves

India - Ellora Caves

India - Ellora Caves

India - Ellora Caves

There are more picture on Flickr.

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