Delhi to Delhi (and not Kathmandu - doh!)
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Friday Night in Delhi. What are are a group of 20 Western travellers supposed to do? Find a bar of course! And I have to say Delhi is very good in this area - in case anyone is thinking of coming......
We hit a small 'rock' bar (dive bar as the Americans would call it) called Regency Blues in Connaught Place and basically took over the bar and dance floor. We perfected our Indian-style moves to a song that's all the rage over there (imagine Michael Jackson on speed!). This was helped along by James introducing the well-known Indian chill-out tune, The Progidy's SMACK MY BITCH UP. Went down a treat, especially amongst the old-skool amongst us (Johnnie - you know who you are!?!). The night became a true Western classic, with plenty of gossip being generated on & off the dance floor. Of course, what goes on tour, stays on tour (but we are willing to spill all for the right price :) - don't worry, Ricky - we won't mention the rash...).
With one of us nursing a slightly sore head (Pam was in Delhi-Belly recovery so can be discounted), we decided we should perhaps see some of what the capital city has to offer. With this in mind, we donned our walking sandals and headed for the wide-open plains, otherwise known as the Main Bazaar, i.e. backpacker's shopping paradise. Being the complete travellers that we are, and not willing to pay the exorbinate rickshaw rates (that's 15 pence in layman's terms - every penny counts (spot the Northerner)), we ran the gauntlet of the hawkers and rickshaw entrepreneurs, and trudged for a few hours in the heat of the day across town. Perhaps not the most sensible idea...to give you an idea of how persistent the hawkers are, 1 driver in particular followed us for a good 1/2 hour insisting that he gave us a free lift (in India nothing comes for free), until he finally understood the meaning of f*** off! Was the hassle and the walk worth it, you may ask? 'No' is probably the sane answer, but the roast chicken and steak at Sam's Cafe were!
Before leaving Delhi for Agra, we hit the dizzy heights of Delhi's nightlife once again to celebrate Ricky's (our co-driver) birthday. Not wishing to disappoint, Ricky directed us to Q-Ba, a very swanky restaurant-cum cocktail bar. The kebabs were awesome and the very gay Champagne Supernova cocktails were sublime. Who says travelling has to be tough!?! Pam decided she was bored of being sober (after only 2 nights on the wagon I might add) and decided that the only thing to kill or cure Dehli-Belly was G&T. Let's just say it killed her the next morning! Death, unfortunately, was only the beginning.
Diverting on the way to take in another temple/palace at Fatehpur Sikri - enough said (photos are available), the next place on the itinerary was Agra, and the much anticipated Taj Mahal. You've all seen the pictures and heard the hype, but nothing can prepare you for the sight that awaits you as you pass through the main gate, especially if you get there for when the sun rises over the temple, which we did. The Taj Mahal is truelly an amazing place. It is very difficult to explain why; perhaps it's the stunning white marble out of which it is built, perhaps it is it's serenity in comparison to the madness that is the rest of India, perhaps it is the perfect symmetry? Who knows, but it is so very difficult to capture it on camera alone. We could have just sat and stared at it for hours.
With this in mind, we felt it our duty to recreate the one photo synonomous with the Taj, and thus Pam executed a very good Princess Di pose (and then so did James). Life's too short to be serious all the time! After leaving the Taj in disgrace, once again we were invited by our then guide for breakfast in his family home. A lot can certainly be said about India, but we certainly couldn't dispute their hospitality. A great start to the day was complimented with a great finish; James playing cricket with the locals behind the Taj as the sun went down (especially when I hit 2 huge sixes, thanks to Glen's rather generous bowling, but it made me look good, and that's all that matters in times of international sporting relations ;). I don't care if it was a tennis ball and they were only 8 years old - it's all about the winning).
Leaving Agra and the Taj behind (and the young Indian lads still searching for their tennis ball), we headed for our next hunt for tigers at Panna National Park. En route, we took in Orchha, which was to be our final bushcamp amongst ruined temples on the banks of a river, and ancient porn temples at Khajuraho. Not a lot to be said about this except historically the Indians were very advanced in their sexual techniques, in both groups and with animals, notably elephants!?! The photos will provide you with any questions that you may have...
Having drawn a big blank at Ranthambore, expectations were running high for finding tigers at Panna. Those of us who chose to make the safari were not to be disappointed. We set off in jeeps of 5, taking in the usual stock of Samba and Spotted Deer, as well as the obligatory owl as we entered the park. In addition to the jeeps, trackers on elephants were out looking in the bush, where the jeeps were unable to go. After a few hours they struck gold and what seemed like the entire visitor population descended on the area in question. However, at first this did seem a little fortunate to say the least as this was achieved without the aid of radio. Also worth noting is that in order to see the tiger, we had to get on the elephants which were 600 Rupees (ca. 8 GBP per head, in comparison to only 100 Rupees paid by Indian residents - fact of life in India, but still grates slightly). Coincidence or chance? Sticking to our much discussed principles, we threw caution to the wind and went for it. Thank Johnny Wilkinson we did. The tiger was about 5 minutes into the bush, so we got a decent elephant ride out of it (another tick in the box for the Life CV), and being on the elephant meant that we could get close...really close! Without question the tiger is the most magnificent creature we have seen. Paws like saucepans, a killing machine! It had recently killed as well, so was lazing around, not bothered by us in the slightest, and therefore fantastic for photographing. Awesome!
Tiger count currently at 1, we left Panna and headed for our 3rd and final tiger-hunt destination, Bandhavgarh National Park. Not wanting to be outdone by Panna, Bandhavgarh served up a treat of 3 tigers. This time we came across them naturally, and although we were not as close as in Panna, Pam and I both agree that we enjoyed the sighting more, purely because it did not feel so pre-arranged. Ever the sceptics! The icing on the cake was the sighting of a leopard - that's now leopards in Africa and India. Once again, awesome!
We were able to leave Bandhavgarh on a high, which helped us to get over our disappointment following confirmation that we would not be able to get into Nepal, and onto our final destination of Kathmandu, due to the continuing troubles. Therefore our trip was to complete in Varanasi, a full 16-hour drive away. This was also to be our last drive-day so we all decided to sign-off with a rather large liquid bang! Ricky and the guys sorted the ice for the beer (the fridge was no longer working at this stage, no doubt due to over-use by the beer brigade), Kate & Co organised a quiz for the afternoon, and we just enjoyed the ride. The trip certainly turned out to be an eventful one. Lunch turned into a 2-hour farce that only India could conjure up; food didn't arrive, or was wrong, or cold, or both, and as usual the bills were all wrong - some improvement to be made on the service front me thinks. Then we had a front-wheel blow-out at 90 km/h - the seriousness of this didn't really sink into until we inspected the damage (check out the photos). A quick Big Hand to Ricky who kept us on the road, and away from the rather large ditch. The local villagers then appeared out of the woodwork, not to offer assistance, but to point and stare at the funny-looking people in the big, orange bus/truck. Finally, I lost to Pam's team in the quiz, marred only slightly by the beer-fuelled arguments over whether the first craft in space was Sputnik or Sputnik 1 (I still say Sputnik...!). Comedy!
And then we were in Varanasi, our last stop on the Dragoman tour. This should have been a quiet affair, taking in the religious Ghats by boat at sunrise, and just generally chilling by the pool before everyone went their different ways. And it was, to a point!
We did the Ghats by boat at sunrise. These are points along the Ganges river where people come down to do everything from wash themselves, pray to their many gods, drink the scientifically-proven septic 'holy water', beat their clothes on the rocks (i.e the Indian washing machine) and finally, to burn their deceased on wooden pires (or dump them in the river depending on their age and social standing). Thinking that nothing could surprise us by this late stage, we were naive in this thought. The Indians, being the entrepreneurs that they are and not willing to let an opportunity to literally sail by, filled their boats with tourist tat to sell to us, the tourists, whilst floating down the river. If the nodding tigers and elephants were not a treat in themselves, imagine the seller's disbelief that we were not interested in their 'Guide to Varanasi' DVD that was being played on the floating TV & DVD player - hilarious, but reassuringly Indian!
We did the chilling by the pool, whilst enjoying the odd beer or 3, and the exceptional food that the hotel had to offer for budget prices (it's a hard life), and everyone went their separate ways, but not before we all enjoyed a last party night together (with the obligatory Indian dancing and the soothing tones of The Prodigy) ....and not before I had to prevent someone from kicking in the door of 3 of the girls on our trip. Needless to say too many beers had been consumed, but not really how you want to have to end what had otherwise been an exceptional trip.
On this slightly sour note, we said our own goodbyes and headed back to Delhi by sleeper train, where we hung-out for a few days enjoying a last few beers with the remaining members of the trip, before catching our flight out to Beijing and the beginning of our Chinese adventure.
What are our thoughts on India and the trip? We made the right choice in choosing to do an overland tour as it took away any pressures of how to get around and where to go, but more importantly the truck gave us a haven away from all of the touts and hawkers. It also meant that we got to experience things that we may not have otherwise have done such as visiting our guide's family homes. Most of all, though, and not wishing to sound cliched, is that we met a whole group of like-minded people who we fortunately got on with, and many of whom we hope to meet up with again in the future. On India itself, someone perfectly decribed it as an explosion on the senses; it's crazy, it's smelly, it's noisy, it's dirty, it's religious, it's colourful. It's so diverse and different to what we are used to that we wouldn't be surprised if everywhere else seems a little dull, in an organised and structured kind of way. Would we recommend it to anyone else? Yes, definitely! Would we come back? Probably, but not unless it was on an organised trip.
India behind us, we travel to Beijing, and a whole different ball game; this time we are travelling on our own, and neither of us can speak Chinese ...