India – The palaces of Rajasthan

The first stop for any traveller to Rajasthan is usually Jaipur, the capital of this much-visited state. This busy city has some wonderful palaces and architecture.

My first experience here, however, was quite chaotic. As soon as I  got off the bus, scores of people and rickshaw drivers were trying to conduct me to budget hotels, for their big commission. They were chasing after me everywhere to pretend they had taken me there. It took me like 2 hours to give all of them the slip and find a place. While this happened in all Indian cities, in Jaipur they were, by far, the most pushy.

The city centre is known as ‘The Pink City”. You might well imagine the reason: every building is painted in pink!! Apparently, this tradition goes back to 1876, when the whole city was painted pink to welcome Edward, Prince of Wales.

The flagship building of Jaipur is the -pink- Hawa Mahal, with its very unique and elegant facade. It was built with small windows to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life in the street below without being seen. The Hawa Mahal is close to the other important buildings of the city, particularly the Royal Palace.

Hawa Mahal

The streets of the pink city were full of life and buzzing commerce. After all, this is the capital of one of the most important and populated states in India. I only saw a few foreigners, far less than I expected for a city so much on the tourist map. Later on, when I entered the Royal Palace, I understood why: they come in buses or vans and only get off the bus on the palaces, hotels or the per-arranged tourist restaurant.

Move up there!!

Other inhabitants of the Pink City are this monkeys that I hated, called Langurs :). As you can see, this man was having a few words with one of them who was sitting on a motorbike and probably trying to steal the guy’s produce 🙂

The streets, busy as always in India, were populated by street vendors, cows, motorbikes, rickshaws, autos, cars, and pedestrians alike.

Busy streets

A few kilometres outside of Jaipur lies Amber, where the Majarahas’ capital used to be before the scarcity of water forced them to move to Jaipur. The palace here is very impressive, and no less its setting. wow! If you are too lazy to climb the few stairs to the palace, no worries, elephants take tourists up, although of course for a hefty fee.

Amber Fort

From Jaipur I took a train to Ajmer and the neighbouring sacred city of Pushkar. I already wrote a bit about those in the previous post, so I won’t bore you with that again.

And from there, I advanced towards Udaipur, the other high-profile destination in Rajasthan. Many travellers describe this city as their favourite in Rajasthan (or even in India), but to be honest I wasn’t all that much impressed. However, the Maharanas’ City Palace is stunning and the fact of being on the bank of the lake makes it very photogenic. And sunset is beautiful over the lake. The area around the lake is VERY touristy though. Unlike in Jaipur, tourist do wander around this small area, buying souvenirs from persistent vendors.

Udaipur

The lake also features another palace, which is on an island -the aptly named Lake Palace. It has been converted to a 5-star hotel and is closed to visitors. It is otherwise known for being the setting of James Bond film Octopussy, as you will be reminded by places in the village that project the film every single day.

For me, the highlight of Udaipur was the religious festival that took place while I was luckily in the city (see previous post)

My ‘animal pick’ for Udaipur is this huge elephant, who was being driven down the street by his owner (no idea where to). Where on earth do you find elephants in the street?? When it stopped near a banana stall, several people started to feed the camel with bananas, that the animal quickly bolted down.

Walking with his elephant

With this post I close the ‘India chapter’ of my trip. Will come back with new countries and experiences. 🙂

India – The amazing Taj Mahal

After a couple of weeks in India I arrived to the most visited site in the country, the world-famous Taj Mahal.

This impressive monument was built by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor. Actually, the Mughal dynasty was founded by Babur, a descendant of Timur (Tamerlane) and Genghis Khan, so its history is very much related to that of the great cities of Central Asia that I visited before.

The building stands out even more if you consider the history behind it. In 1631, Shah Jahan was grief-stricken when his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child, and decided to build this beautiful mausoleum for her. Thus, the Taj Mahal is frequently associated with love.

And it is BEAUTIFUL!!!. Just see:

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal is located in the city of Agra, and the other big draw to this city is the Agra Fort. It is frequently described as a walled city, as it contains many buildings inside.

Agra Fort

Walking around Agra, I found one cow dead in the street. Indians had put a white sheet to cover her dead body, and people were leaving money and flowers as offers. This shows how much respect Indians have for cows.

Dead cow

India – A mosaic of religions

India is a very spiritual land, you can clearly feel that when you’re there. Indeed, four of the world’s major religious traditions trace their roots to India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

The religion we often identify with India is Hinduism, followed by 80% of the population. This is very evident when you enter the Mc’Donalds and you notice they don’t serve their flagship beef burghers :). But it is also very obvious whenever you happen to come across a Hindu celebration or festival. This happened to me several times, but the biggest was one in Udaipur. There were processions everywhere in the city centre, with religious images, incense and scores of people.

Festival in Udaipur

In cities like Varanasi, Udaipur or Pushkar, there are impressive ghats (steps leading to a river), where Hindus descend to perform ritual bathing in the Ganges or other sacred river. There are also specific ‘burning ghats’, used for cremation, and then the ashes are washed away by the river. Seeing some of this ghats is for many a highlight of their visit to India.

But India is not all about Hinduism. One of the other legendary Indian religions is Sikhism, practiced by almost 30 million people mainly in the state of Punjab. I visited the ‘Mecca’ of this religion, which is called Harmandir Sahib, but better known in English as the Golden Temple. This glimmering temple is located in Amritsar, near the frontier with Pakistan. I was really impressed by this visit and spent almost all day inside the temple. Everybody is invited inside, as Sikhism is inclusive and welcomes people from all creeds and castes. No entry fee, you just have to leave your shoes to the attendants and cover your head. The complex is huge and receives thousands of pilgrims and visitors of the most diverse kinds. There are people doing whatever, from taking a nap on some rugs in the floor (which I joined, going with the flow :)) to people bathing, preparing offerings or just chatting, and of course praying. It’s like a second home for Sikhs and others.

The Golden Temple

For lunch, you need not go any farther. Sikh temples or gurdwaras have a langar (canteen), where everybody is invited to eat for free regardless of wealth, religion, race or caste. And the one at the Golden Temple has been referred to as “the world’s largest free eatery”, as it serves 80,000 people on weekdays and double on weekends (not to mention festivals). I lined up in the queue, got directed to the appropriate row, sat in the floor and the volunteers started serving vegetarian food for all. Eating here is an amazing experience. The place embodies inclusiveness and universal kindness towards all humans. Just to give you an idea of the scale, see the number of volunteers (Sikhs or not) who are washing the dishes at any random moment:

Washing-up in the ‘Langar’

I also visited some sites of India’s second religion: Islam.

Dargāh Sharīf of Khwāja Mu’īnuddīn Chishtī

The most memorable was the Dargah Sharif of sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, in Ajmer (Rajasthan). Not a mosque, but a shrine where the grave of this revered man lies. Although Ajmer is predominantly Hindu, within perhaps 500 metres of the dargah all you see are muslims.

I couldn’t explain the energy of this place. Full of pilgrims from all over the region, the dargah is packed all day long. You really need to elbow your way in among the crowd. Just getting close to Muinuddin Chishti is a deep experience for these pilgrims. Their deep spirituality and excitement is highly contagious. They can’t wait to get into the dargah, and they sit on the floor praying. You need to go there to experience the atmosphere.

Inside the Dargah

India – Arriving in Delhi. First impressions

Arriving in India for the first time!! I had heard so much about India from friends and fellow travellers. Some rave about it, whereas others were put off by the sight of poverty just off the airport. INDIA: LOVE IT or HATE IT.

India Gate

Delhi was my first stop in India. This buzzing city has a lot to offer. As the capital of the country, there is quite a variety of people and food from all over this diverse subcontinent.

This is a hectic and overpopulated city. There are always hordes of people everywhere, especially in the markets and narrow alleys in the city centre.

One of the things that first strike you is the sheer number of festivals, processions, religious celebrations or gatherings of every kind that you come across in India. It just adds to how colourful India is. Music, displays of colour, sometimes religious images, and always lots of people.

Celebration in Central Delhi

Other Indian sight that would be inconceivable in developed countries are the streets themselves. Walking down the dirty street, there can be in just 5 metres around you, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, rickshaws, autorickshaws (tuk-tuk), cows walking slowly, children playing, a guy releasing incense, and so many other things. Actually, it is impossible to assimilate everything that’s going on around you, it’s too much. A festival of the senses. They all seem to share the public space remarkably well, no matter how chaotic the situation gets.

There is a variety of animals making their way, seemingly undisturbed, amongst the crowd. The most visible are the cows, wildly respected by everybody. There are also lots of stray dogs and, what I hated the most, monkeys. Occasionally, you see the rare camel, like this one below, walking on the street, or the odd elephant driven through the street, that everybody helps to feed.

A camel on a stroll

I will expand on animals in subsequent posts, I also did a bit of sightseeing in Delhi. One of the best known landmarks is the Red Fort. The whole exterior wall is made of sandstone, which gives this building its distinctive colour.

Red Fort

In Delhi I also had the chance to meet a new generation of young wealthy Indians. They only speak English (apparently fancier than Hindi) when they go out to fashion clubs. The first questions are always: “What do you do?” and “Where do you live?”, like clearly aimed at knowing if the person comes from a ‘good’ background. However, looking European, I was quite exempt from their scrutiny. They also remark immodestly how successful they are in their careers/businesses in their 20s and how good qualifications they have. My impression -again this is just a first impression from someone who’s been there just a few weeks, I might be wrong- was that this wealthy Indians are snobbish and disregard poor people in their own country. Or as one of them put it to me: ‘Delhi is a show-off’.

Delhi is also the transport hub for the North of India and actually all around the country. From there I could take my trains/buses to Rajasthan, Punjab and Agra. Keep telling you about that in the next posts.

Silk Road 12 – Mission accomplished: Arrived in Xian!!

After 3 months on the road, I finally made it to Xian, the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Mission accomplished!!

I arrived happy for having been able to complete the whole journey from Istanbul. Looking back, I could appreciate how different those two cities were, yet there are no discontinuities between them. That is the advantage of travelling overland: you can see how the world changes little by little from one town to the next, with slightly different racial traits, slightly different food, culture, etc. That’s as opposed to flying. If you flew from Istanbul to Xian, you’d suddenly arrive to a completely different world and wouldn’t make any sense of your journey or how things connect.

Xi’an is the quintessential Chinese city. Sprawling and with a population of over 8 million and growing, it is becoming one of the Chinese megalopolis. But in the past it was even more populated in relative terms, actually it was one of the world’s biggest cities and capital of the Chinese empire. It was then called Chang’an.

As a testament to its former glory, the city preserves the city walls and a beautiful bell and drum tower. These two, however, seem stifled by the ever-growing shopping malls and traffic jams that surround both monuments.

The city is also well-known for an attraction nearby: the Army of Terracota Warriors, which is usually one of the highlights of any visit to China. I assume you have all heard about this.

Bell Tower, Xian

Already finished with my Silk Road accounts in these 12 episodes, I hope you enjoyed it. Next post will change course: India.

Silk Road 11 – Tibetan flavour on the Silk Road

Hundreds of kilometres outside of Tibet and still you can find beautiful Tibetan villages and monasteries. Actually, the consensus among travellers is that it is better to visit Tibetan villages outside of Tibet proper, as it is not so much controlled by the Chinese army and visitors can travel independently and talk to people easily.

So, still in the province of Gansu, I visited Labrang Monastery, one of the six great monasteries of the Geluk (Yellow Hat) school of Tibetan Buddhism. It is located in the town of Xiahe, which I really liked for being very laid-back. Here, it really feels like being in Tibet, with Tibetan pilgrims and monks everywhere, Tibetan restaurants, houses, prayer flags, prayer wheels, etc.

Labrang Monastery

Pilgrims running the Kora at Labrang Monastery

While in Xiahe, I received a message from ‘Tom’, whom I had met in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu. He studies in Lanzhou but was now in his hometown of Hezuo, the capital of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (to which Xiahe belongs), and invited me to visit his city and stay at his place. As it is only a couple of hours bus ride away, I was there by the afternoon.

Tom exemplifies a modern generation of Tibetans in China: very much merged with the Chinese lifestyle but still proud of their own culture. He speaks Tibetan at home with his parents and grandmother. Educated, he also speaks and writes English fluently. Still, with a whole Chinese education, he cannot write his own native language.  He is a Buddhist and goes to the temple and runs the Kora when he’s at home, but not as often, as he says he is “busy” with studying (or internet :)). The family lives in a modern, middle-class apartment, far from traditional Tibetan homes, while they also add some Tibetan decor. Most meals are Chinese style, but for breakfast they never miss yak butter tea and tsampa.

Milarepa Monastery

Hezuo also has a famous Tibetan monastery, Milarepa. He took me to visit it. He showed much devotion to all the images inside but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) explain to me much about what they represent. I could remember some of them, though, from my visit to monasteries in Tibet two years ago.

Also here, I ran the ‘Kora’, always clockwise as it is required. Praying wheels contain the sacred scriptures inside, so rolling them is a proxy for reciting, even if one cannot read.

Me running the ‘Kora’

In the evening, we had a great meal in a local restaurant with his cousin, who doesn’t speak a word of English but was very welcoming.

In the Karaoke

And after dinner, the favourite entertainment in this part of the world: Karaoke. Not that I’m a good singer!! With a bottle of Chivas and free flow of beer… They wouldn’t let me pay for anything in my whole stay, no matter how much I insisted.

Finally, Tom received a phone call from his mother: there was no running water in the house. Before I even knew, they had booked and paid a nice hotel room for me, and would pick me up for having breakfast back home.

After lunch, they took me to the bus station and I went back to Lanzhou. After so much kindness, I could only invite the family to visit Spain, although in the knowledge that it is very unlikely that they will ever travel abroad.

Silk Road 10 – The edge of civilization

Continuing through the Hexi Corridor, I reached Jiayuguan, a pass in the narrowest point of the corridor. It was long thought of as the extreme western edge of Chinese culture and civilization, even if Chinese domains sometimes extended further. To the West, only feared empty steppes, deserts and nomadic tribes. It also marks the west end of the Great Wall of China.

The fort here is one of the most recognisable images of western China, and I saw many Chinese visiting it.

Jiayuguan fort

Marco Polo

After a short visit to Jiayuguan, my next stop was Zhangye, in the middle section of the Hexi Corridor. Marco Polo spent a year there in his way to Xanadu, and local authorities have erected a monument of the great Venetian traveller. It is in the middle of a roundabout though, so taking a picture is quite risking your life :).

The city also has a bell tower and drum tower, as other Chinese cities, and some nice parks and big squares.

Zhangye is best known for the Dafo Si (Great Buddha temple). The building is one of the oldest wooden structures still standing in China. Inside, the pagoda houses a huge 35 metre-long reclining Buddha.

Dafo temple, Zhangye