24.06.2012 - 16.07.2012 40 °C
To view all the photos from India, click here.
India was one of the most fascinating countries we've visited. It was unbelievably rich with culture, the sights were literally awe-inspiring, the people were incredibly friendly and accommodating, and of course the food was delicious. Initially we weren't sure if we would go to India because of horror stories, mostly involving scams and stealing, we heard from fellow travelers a few years back. However, since we left Korea we've met so many people that love India and highly recommended it that we couldn't resist.
We only had three weeks to explore India, which was unfortunate since the country is so large. However, it is monsoon season in much of the country, and the rest is suffocatingly hot. So, our options for places to visit (comfortably) were limited anyway.
We crossed the border from Nepal at Sonauli. We were fortunate to get train tickets to Varanasi, though we did not have assigned seats and were forced to share a bench designed for four with a family of seven. However, we managed to score seats by the window, which made the otherwise hot, long, and uncomfortable journey slightly more manageable.
We arrived in Varanasi too late to do any exploring, which would have been impossible to do after dark anyway. Much of the town is a maze of narrow streets lined on either side by trinket and silk shops and restaurants. (For the entire time we were in Varanasi, we had to constantly ask for directions to and from our guesthouse, which was at the center of the maze.)
We settled into our guesthouse and went for dinner at its rooftop restaurant. We met several friendly travelers all of whom were ecstatic about being in India. Still weary of our decision to go, Leah asked one man why he likes India so much. His reply was that the country is full of surprises. "Every time I leave the guesthouse," he explained, "something crazy and unpredictable happens." Several people offered examples of such experiences, including one girl that had been randomly stopped on the street and offered a free lesson in how to milk a cow.
The next morning we set out hoping for a similar surprise adventure and were immediately befriended by two guys that offered to show us around. We were aware that they were probably touts, but we were willing to follow them nonetheless. They showed us around the cremation site, which Varanasi is famous for, explaining all of the meaning and history behind the site itself, the cremation ritual, and nearby temples and monuments.
Varanasi is the city in India where deceased Hindus are brought to be cremated. Shrouded bodies are carried through the streets (we saw several) in a procession of mourning family and friends, laid on a pile of logs alongside the river, then set afire by the eldest living son or father. The body burns until only one piece remains, which is subsequently placed in the river. Hindus believe that the river water is holy and generates good karma. As such, people pilgrimage to this site to bathe in the water, despite the presence of human remains. Locals also use the river for cooking, drinking, laundry, bathing animals, and depositing trash. It was a strange and surreal sight, but we were fascinated.
After our tour, as expected, our newfound friends asked if we wanted to go to their place to meet a family member, a herbalist that dabbles in spices and oils. This is probably the point where we would've said no if our touting friends were wanting to sell silk or gems, but we were interested in learning about different herbs and spices used in Indian medicines and cooking.
The experience wound up being very rewarding. We learned a lot from the medicine man about oils and their medicinal purposes, sampled some chai made with seven different spices, and even learned a little about Indian cuisine. Overall, the time we spent with our local guides lived up to India's reputation amongst our guesthouse companions for being full of surprises.
Also in Varanasi we took a boat ride along the river, which offered a fascinating new perspective of life (and death) along the ghats. The boat ride concluded just after sunset with a river view of a Hindu prayer ceremony that is conducted nightly. It consisted mostly of several men offering incense and candles in a kind of ceremonial dance, set to the sound of drums. This was equally as interesting.
Because it was the high traveling season in India, we had difficulty getting tickets out of Varanasi. We weren't in a hurry to leave per se, but with limited time, we knew we needed to keep moving. Our only option for traveling directly to Agra was the swanky 2AC class of the train. This was a completely different experience than our first journey had been, complete with sizable beds, and linens and pillows in an icy cold cabin. Albeit expensive, this truly is the way to travel in India.
We only stuck around Agra long enough to see the Taj Mahal, which is basically all this otherwise dirty city has to offer. The Taj was absolutely awe-inspiring and far exceeded our expectations (especially having visited so many amazing sites over the course of this journey). The architecture is stunning, but we were most impressed by the marble inlays that created beautiful, sometimes colorful patterns and floral designs in the buildings.
The only downside to our visit to the Taj was that everyone and their brother wanted to take photos with us. Although we're used to this to some extent, having lived in Asia for so long, it was pretty out of control at the Taj, and we made some enemies by turning quite a few people away. Several people didn't even bother to ask if they could take photos, and just shoved their cameras in our faces. Overall, this soiled the experience, but we loved the Taj nevertheless.
After Agra, we took a surprisingly comfortable non-a/c sleeper bus to Jaipur. The people on our bus were so friendly, and when we made the mandatory dinner stop, one man insisted on purchasing our food.
Jaipur was a great little city, and a perfect example of where old meets new in India. Much of the city was surprisingly clean and well-developed, a noticeable change from most of the places we've traveled. Even though we had been loving Indian food, we checked into the only cheap guesthouse in town and went straight for the McDonald's (don't judge until you've lived in Asia for five years). Not surprisingly, the menu did not offer the usual beef options, so we settled in with some comfort food of Western-style spicy chicken burgers and a side of chili fries that can only be found in an India McDonald's.
Our guesthouse was located close to the old city, so our first day of sightseeing on-foot was mostly of old city gates and palaces. Part of the region we explored, the aptly named "Pink City," consists of several old buildings all of which have been painted pink. This region is also famous for its many rows of bustling markets, specializing in shoes and jewelry.
Another day in Jaipur was spent exploring the nearby Amber Fort, which is actually a centuries-old former palace lived in by maharajas and their families. It was absolutely incredible and we spent hours exploring the many old rooms, courtyards, and a seemingly endless maze of hallways that never seemed to lead anywhere. We were amused by the old sauna room and Colin immediately jumped into an empty stone pool for a pretend scrubbing. Leah was shocked to see toilets inside the 400 year-old building since indoor plumbing is still not common throughout the region today (or at least that's our assumption based on our experiences in Nepal, as well as seeing several Indian men using the streets as toilets). Just when we thought we'd seen the entire palace, we stumbled upon a second, equally-large and impressive palace, which was apparently the original (the second one built later). Surrounding both palaces high in the mountains, there are several actual forts as well.
Overall, we spent several days in Jaipur, admiring its many beautiful, old buildings, dodging traffic along the bustling new city streets, and indulging in some excellent curries and kebabs. Although chaotic, it is a must-see on the list of impressive Indian cities.
Following Jaipur, we headed to Amritsar, home to a beautiful golden Sikh temple that bustles 24-hours a day with pilgrims that travel from all over the country to hear the teachings of the gurus. Although we did not indulge, food and accommodation on the marble floors is free, so hundreds of people stay there for long periods of time, meditating, praying, listening to the teachings that blare from loud speakers across the temple grounds, and bathing in the waters surrounding the temple that are believed to be holy. All throughout the temple grounds are gurus, bearded men in turbans that study the teachings of Sikhism from behind glass walls. The religious fervor of the temple patrons is felt everywhere, and on many occasions we were approached by people who were excited and even insistent on speaking to us about the temple. We found it interesting and visited during the day and at night when it was almost gaudily lit up like a Christmas tree.
Down the road from the temple is the site of a British massacre that occurred during the occupation when a couple hundred people were brutally gunned down in the courtyard outside their homes. Although the site is currently a well-manicured memorial park, several of the brick walls of the old buildings still remain and one can see the bullet holes. Also still standing is an old well where several people jumped to their deaths while attempting to avoid getting shot. Although the museum itself is unimpressive and fails to really explain the events surrounding the massacre, the park is nice and offers an interesting slice of history.
The real treat in Amritsar, however, is the border closing ceremony at Attari/Wagah. This is the border that India shares with Pakistan, and everyday the two countries put on a spectacular display of chauvinism. On the Indian side, the performance begins as several spectators are chosen from the crowd to run the length of the ceremony site holding the nation's flag. Following that about 100 people are allowed out of their seats to dance, and for awhile the ceremony resembles a scene from a Bollywood movie. Meanwhile, the crowd of several hundred more hoot and holler, and repeat various nationalistic chants that are amplified through loud speakers. A similar display of nationalism can be heard from the Pakistan side, although the views are obstructed by the fence, and the two countries seem to be in competition for who can be the most patriotic and spirited. The final people to cross the border from India to Pakistan that day are then ushered through the gate to welcoming cheers. On the day we attended, several more people then arrived to greet the newcomers. These people seemed to be of special rank or significance, though we're not sure who they were. As the cheering and chanting continues, one by one, the soldiers march, moving with bravado but kicking their legs so high it's almost painful to watch. With the border between the two countries still open, the soldiers from both sides meet at the gate, posturing toward one another in staged unison. It really is an astonishing display. When the grandiose bullying finally dies down, soldiers from both sides slowly lower their respective flags and, just as the sun is disappearing behind the Pakistan bleachers, the two flags cross one another in a symbol of harmony. The flags are folded, the gates closed and locked, and the ceremony ends. It is incredible.
From Amritsar, we took a bus to McLeod Ganj, the site of the Dalai Lama's government in exile. It is a small mountain village but a strong political and spiritual center, and the place that several Tibetan refugees now call home; it is truly a special town. While we were there, we visited the temple of the Dalai Lama, though we were unable to see his living quarters. We were hoping for the opportunity to see him speak, but apparently he was away while we were there. Instead, we attended a lecture from a Tibetan refugee that suffered two gunshot wounds at the hands of Chinese soldiers while protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet. On the run from soldiers, this man lived with untreated wounds in the mountains for almost fourteen months before escaping to India. His story was fascinating and heart-wrenching. Equally so, the local museum offered a detailed account of the events surrounding the occupation and the Dalai Lama's self-exile, as well as memorializing the several protestors that have self-immolated. It also gave a glimpse of Tibet pre-occupation, showing actual money, passports, and postage stamps, as well as several beautiful photos. McLeod Ganj was a wonderful place and should not be overlooked by travelers to India.
Our final stop before Delhi was Bir, a tiny little mountain village comprised mostly of Buddhist monasteries. We went because it is a famous site for paragliding, which we are anxious to try, but unfortunately the weather and newly-enforced restrictions made that impossible. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our time in the mountains, exploring the monasteries, and taking walks through the nearby forests.
We decided to head to Delhi with only a day to spare before our flight to Sri Lanka. Neither of us wanted to spend much time there, as we hadn't heard good things and are generally pretty burnt out on big, dirty Asian cities anyway. We didn't do much sightseeing, but we did attend an evening performance by a 10-member Sufis music group that played some instruments we've never seen nor heard before. Their music was great, despite that it was constantly interrupted by sermon-like talking, which we of course did not understand. Nevertheless, it was a final cultural treat on top of an incredibly rich three weeks in India, a country that is definitely full of surprises.
To view all the photos from India, click here.