Saturday, 13 September 2008

11 – 13 September 2008: Delhi

Both Jen and I are safe and well in Delhi. We were in an internet cafe in Conaught Place last night when we heard the explosions. Fortunately, we were some distance away. We are travelling to Varanasi tonight.

We expected Delhi to be a super chaotic and dirty capital city, but ended up being pleasantly surprised by it. Delhi has a sparkling clean and efficient metro network that was cheap and easy to use. It meant we didn't have to barter with the auto-rickshaw drivers who appeared to have a price fixing cartel going on outside our hotel.

We started our unofficial tour from Jama Masjid, India's biggest mosque in the heart of Old Delhi. It can accommodate up to 25,000 worshippers in its courtyard. We climbed up to the top of one of the minarets for a good view of the mosque and the city. Women have to be accompanied and covered up, so Jenni-zir Bhutto spent a sweaty 30 minutes following Andy around.

We also did a whistle-stop tour of the Red Fort, which is pretty huge too – extending to 2km in length. The Prime Minister of India does his Independence Day speech to the nation from the fort on 15 August each year. Andy's highlight was meeting a Sikh soldier with his blue turban guarding one of the buildings. The soldier was then inundated with photo requests.

We ventured into the Chandni Chock which is a massive market spreading over several blocks of Old Delhi. We managed to get a taste of jalebis, which are made of dough squirted into a frying pan, fried golden and then dipped into a hot sugar mixture. Very sweet and obviously with a low calorie count too!

While walking to the metro station, Jen was suddenly groped in the chest by a boy barely 13 years old. Jen felt upset, humiliated and violated, especially as this was the second such incident during our stay in India. However, she got some consolation from the fact that she managed to grab his arm and shout at him.

Feeling rather frazzled and in need of a break from it all, we relaxed in the café of the Oxford Bookstore near Connaught Place in New Delhi. The place seemed to be more like a library, with few people paying for the books they were reading over coffee. Further retail therapy followed at a local music shop, purchasing some Bollywood soundtrack albums.

The President's Palace (formerly the Viceroy of India's residence), the adjoining two government buildings and the Parliament House, were a very grand affair. Sipping chai on the lawn, we felt like we had been transported back to Europe. There was no rubbish anywhere and no people begging in the streets.

We walked along the lovely Rajpath (Kingsway) towards the India Gate, which is similar to the Gateway of India in Mumbai. The 42-metre high arch is commemorated to around 90,000 Indian army soldiers who lost their lives in World War I and other conflicts.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

7 – 8 September 2008: Camel safari in the Great Thar Desert

The Great Thar Desert is very much a living desert. There's mud hut villages dotted around here and there, and farmers working in fields of water melon and wheat. There's shepherds with their herds of 200 - 300 goats with a straight, silky coat and long, floppy ears.

Travelling at camel speed was very relaxing, and seeing the dunes and scrub pass by had a therapeutic property. We saw lots of wildlife — a group of vultures eating a dead cow, a wild peacock, lizards, desert jirds (gerbil like creatures), dung beetles and the occasional Mig fighter jet. Passing through local villages, we were greeted by lovely children. However, our interaction was limited to smiling, waving and taking photos (at their request).

Our guide, Mearchu, was very hospitable and couldn't do enough for us. He cooked excellent meals, set up camp and made sure we had enough water. The fresh camel milk he gave us was tasty in the tea, but a little too rich to drink on its own.

Our camels, Baloo and Jeta, were lovely. They had obviously walked this route many times and needed no directions from us. They were very well natured. In contrast, Mearchu's camel complained as he was saddled, had very bad breath and would become distracted by female camels.

We spent the night in the open, amongst the sand dunes. At sunset, the view from the highest point was beautiful, with nothing but the desert for as long as we could see. There was no fiery red sky, but instead the colour palette was very subtle: a splash of pale yellow mixed with lots of dusky pink and lilac. Later on we admired the bright, starry sky from our camp beds. Judging from the amount of tracks around our beds, the desert creatures had been very busy at night. Fifty meters from camp, there were even tracks of a small snake, although it was nowhere to be seen.

Jen thoroughly enjoyed the trip, but Andy had a few gripes. First, he's still in pain. He thinks riding on a camel is like having two pistons battering your behind with each step. Second, when stopping for lunch or making camp, we were often greeted by groups of locals (usually men) who came for a good stare and a free dinner. Although she was baking like a chappati in the +43°C heat, Jen went into a self enforced purdah by covering herself with a scarf. She regretted not packing her burka to hide inside.

Finally, the evening 'entertainment' was a bit intense. The local music man performed for three hours - two songs would have been enough! Each song was an epic, lasting 15 minutes and consisted of wailing and a single chord being strummed on the sitar. Andy intermittently woke to applaud the end of each concerto, before falling asleep again.

Our transport was two hours late collecting us from the desert but we were just glad it turned up. As we drove back to civilisation, we were relieved to be swapping the harshness of the desert for a long, cold shower and an air-conditioned room. We're no Bear Grylls, just a pair of privileged Westerners.