ūüöė Over the Hills and Through the Valleys on Ruta 40

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Our route

After an overnight stop in Salta we headed toward Cachi driving through the ” Valle Encantado” ( Enchanted Valley) and San Fernando de Escoipe Ravine. This area is a National Park with thick foliage crowding the roadsides. The lush green valleys far below are home to huge “fincas” (farms) with terraced rows of corn, oats, peas or beans on the slopes of the hills located on the sides of the road.

Our plan was to do a loop on Routes 33, 40 and 68 (~500+ km) and return to Salta where we rented our little road runner. Route or “ruta” 40 (iconic and likened to Route 66) runs between Cachi and Cafayate joining these two interesting districts while at the same time providing dazzling scenery with the unusual and colorful geographical features of the Calchaqu√≠ Valleys. Our rental agency recommended that we tackle this trip early in the day and get off the road before 3:00 pm in order to avoid low cloud coverage and reduced driving visibility on the twisting and winding roads. ¬†As we headed through the magnificent and winding Cuesta del Obispo (Bishop’s Slope) at 3400m above sea level the landscape became more barren, the air colder and all of a sudden the fog started rolling in, despite the fact it was just after lunch.

All of a sudden the road plateaued and we entered Parc Nacional Los Cardones. This desert area is named after the large cactus or “cardones” the park was set up to protect. These cardones grow very slowly, typically 1 to 5 cms each year so needless to say, given the giant size of most, we knew we were in the presence of some very old flora. The road running through the park is 12km long, straight as an arrow and is known as the Tin-Tin Straight.

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After a day-long drive through beautiful and varied landscape we made it to Cachi, a lovely traditional little town with white buildings and adobe houses. As in the typical Argentine style, the town is centered around the main square/plaza containing a park, the Cachi Church and Archeological Museum. Cafes and restaurants circle the park and in the evening the local women cook empanadas on open grills, our dinner that evening. After a walk about around the town it was time to relax for the evening.

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Maybe not such a great idea!

Driving from Cachi to Cafayate is a long ride, mostly on a gravel road, but what a surprisingly wonderful experience! We started early and it took about 5 hours before we arrived in Cafayate. An old Inca road, the area is full of historical and archeological sites, wild nature and small settlements along the way. Adobe houses, some with solar panels, cultivated land, animals, spectacular¬†coloured mountains with interesting formations, no wonder we wanted to stop and take pictures all the time. The road is okay, some places are very narrow but passable. We could see some repaired areas that had been washed away by heavy rain and the many shrines on the roadside made us wonder if they were to protect us or set up in mourning for lives lost. Thankfully there wasn’t much traffic, but enough to feel safe if something should happen, plus they have numerous 911 stations since cell phone coverage is non-existent.

The wine production is most important in the Valles Calchaquíes. The wines produced in the region benefit from the low-humidity mild weather of the valleys that receive an average of less than 250mm of precipitation per year. The most characteristic type of wine cultivated in the area is a white wine called torrontés (delicious).

The town of Cafayate is an attraction by itself with its laid-back rhythm, colonial style and wine cellars open to the public. We were able to walk to one such winery and of course purchased a couple of recommended bottles. Unfortunately they will not be making their way back to Canada, soooo tasty and smooth!!! Gosh, just realized we didn’t even take pictures of our stash!!! ūüėč

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Cafayate finca-one of many

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imageWe eventually headed back to Salta completing  our tour through the Cafayate Ravine, with  displays colorful rock formations, carved out over time into interesting shapes and  offering an unprecedented show. We dropped our rental off and took the overnight bus to Cordoba, a stop along the way as we head to Mendoza, home of the famous vino tinto Malbec!

Road Trip Time ūüöó

 

imageSalta, in northwestern Argentina, was our kick off point for a road trip through some of the most interesting scenery yet. The area is home to the Andes Mountains, deep colourful canyons, arid deserts, impenetrable jungles, wine producing valleys and small culturally rich towns. Just when you thought the scenery couldn’t get any better, we were greeted with more spellbinding views.

Salta, the capital of Salta province, is a very clean, well-preserved colonial city with many beautiful buildings, churches, cobblestone streets and an unhurried way of life. Its name comes from the Aymara word “sagta”, which means ” the very beautiful one” and it is probably one of the nicest cities we have visited, aside from Buenos Aires.

As with all towns and cities we have come across, regardless of size, the town is centered around a main square/park or Plaza containing a church, or two, the town hall, museums, stores, cafes and restaurants. The city is vibrant early morning; the afternoons are usually very quiet with most things closed for siesta between 1:00 and 5:00 pm. However in the evening the city come alive, streets and parks are packed, kids and people are out and about and the activity continues late into the night. It was such a delight to see the locals out enjoying the many parks and activities offered. The other thing to note is most restaurants don’t open until after 7:00 pm, actually most Argentinians don’t have dinner until 9:00 or 10:00 pm.

After a three-day stay in Salta we rented a car for a week heading first to the huge and diverse northern region, an area consisting of dramatic landscapes, high in the Andes. Tilcara, Humahuaca and Purmamarca, our first stops over the course of three days, are little Andean villages where time seems to have stood still. The indigenous folks living in these villages have strong aboriginal roots and continue to make and sell pottery, sweaters and ponchos made of alpaca and llama wool, carpets made with looms and traditional musical instruments in the town squares. The area is also a great place for exploring the “Quebrac¬†de Humahuaca”, a narrow mountain valley about 155¬†km (96¬†mi) long and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Grande River (R√≠o Grande) flows through the area, however most riverbeds were dry or reduced to a trickle even though this is apparently rainy season.

We travelled the same route the ancient Incans once did, marvelling at the serrated canyons and ever changing array of colour rippling down the unusual rock formations. It was here that we took the first of many nail biting, white knuckle, ear popping, cheek puckering drives up mountain hugging roads (no guardrails) with hairpin turns, praying we didn’t meet another car coming the opposite way. Little did we know each day would see us travelling higher and higher, up and down through the mountains! I always knew Bob had a Mario Andretti side to him, he loved the roller coaster driving, me as a passenger, not so much!! ūüėĪūüėĪūüėĪ

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Tilcara woman

Our first destination was “Garganta del Diablo” or Devil’s Throat, an area sitting high above Tilcara that offers a hiking trail along a riverbed to a small waterfall. Our next stop was Serrania de Hornacol, a range of mountains aka the 14-colour mountains about 25 km from the town of Humahuaca. We braved the climb reaching an altitude of 4,350 meters (14,271 feet) above sea level. The air was thin and cool, our balance a little wobbly, definitely had helium head (no altitude illness, thank goodness) and again the views were absolutely stunning.

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No small feat at over 14,000 feet!

Purmamarca is home to the Cerro de los Siete Colores (7-colour hills) and a quaint little village boasting colourful handicraft markets. Again we were delighted by exceptional hills, formed by rocks of unique and different colours, illustrating various geological eras. The town is centered around Santa Rosa church, built in 1648 in the typical adobe style seen throughout the area.

As local folklore has it, when the first inhabitants populated the area the mountains were plain and without colour. While the adults were perfectly fine with this the  children of the village were not happy. They made a plan to paint the mountains and snuck out their beds painting the hills with a different colour each night. When the adults woke up each morning they were surprised to see that the hills had a different colour added to them. On the 7th morning the adults woke up early and found that their children were missing from their beds.  Panicking they searched all over the village, but to no avail. Suddenly the children started skipping down the hillside laughing, playing and singing pleased with their handiwork, hence the 7-colour hills.

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The long & winding road…..

Another harrowing ride through the Cuesta del Lipan cliffs (reaching only 4,200 m)and canyons led us to Salinas Grandes, or the great salt flats. This vast expanse of white salt flats is located 3,400 m above sea level and continues to be a major mining site for harvesting and refining the salt.

We finished our sojourn in the north and headed back to Salta. Our next venture was exploring the southwestern areas, stay tuned for part two.

Uruguay vs. Argentina

Our next stop on the journey was a four-day visit to Montevideo, Uruguay. What we thought was a one-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires turned into three, a slight miscalculation on our behalf due to our translation ineptness when booking online. Oh well, the sun was shining, weather warm and the ferry comfortable.

Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, is a much smaller version of BA and is home to half the country’s inhabitants. The revived colonial quarter, know as ¬†Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), has a pedestrian friendly grid of narrow streets dotted with plazas, restaurants, bars and shops. It is a port city with the trendy port area bustling during the day, however the carpets are rolled up around 6:00 pm and tourists warned not to venture into the area due after dark due to the petty crime.

Tourism is a major contributor of the country’s economic stability. The interior has rich farmland to support various crops and of course the lucrative beef industry, a major export.

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Canadian Embassy in background of Plaza

img_20170126_125602386_hdr.jpgSeveral beaches lie on the River Plate along a 30-km coastline and is connected with a wide, pedestrian/bike friendly circuit called La Rambla. While the historic area is beautiful, many areas appear unkept and dirty with excessive graffiti disfiguring the buildings. Even the cemetery, no doubt once grand, was sadly neglected. The economy has also been suffering – high inflation and less tourists, no wonder we found it much more expensive than BA. The one thing we did find quite interesting is that marijuana¬†is legal¬†in Uruguay. People smoke it openly on the streets, although we didn’t see many doing this. The head shops advertise and sell many different varieties of weed, seeds, paraphernalia, etc. and no one seems phased one way or the other. Life goes on!

We headed back to BA and with a bit of hesitation (given our past experiences) took an overnight bus to Puerto Iguazu, home of the famous Iguazu Falls. Bus travel is one of the main methods of transportation in the Argentina and offers different classes based on seat type. We bit the bullet and opted for first class with seats, (similar to airline business class), that fully recline to a bed, each seat has a monitor with a choice of current TV shows and movies (in English no less) and we even had a descent dinner that included wine! (Miri and Yossi, you would be very impressed).¬†Our 16-hour journey was offset by watching movies, our current favourite show, “Game of Thrones”, some shut-eye and we arrived the next day refreshed and none too worse for wear.

To say the falls are magnificent really falls short in describing their magnitude and pictures just don’t capture the experience. These monster, roaring falls are a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. An added benefit is the setting: the falls lie in a large expanse of national park, much of it rainforest teeming with unique flora and fauna.

The Iguazu Falls are arranged in a way that resembles a reversed letter “J”. The border between Brazil and Argentina runs through the “Devil’s Throat”. On the right bank is the Brazilian territory, which has just over 20% of the falls, and the left side are Argentine, which make up almost 80% of the falls. The¬†system is made up of 275 waterfalls, “cataratas” in Spanish, depending on the season, with the tallest waterfall called the Devil’s Throat. It drops more than 80 meters into a milky abyss creating a permanent cloud of mist with shimmering rainbows. Putting this all into perspective, Iguazu Falls is almost twice as tall as Niagara Falls and rivaled only by Zambia and Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, which is taller at 108 meters. It’s nearly three times as wide as Niagara Falls and significantly wider still than Victoria Falls. The amount of water pouring from these falls to the Iguazu River is equally staggering.

The Argentinean side offers a walking route along a series of boardwalks that take visitors close to the action. With the majority of the waterfalls located here, there’s plenty of opportunity to get up close and intimate with the falls getting soaked in the process. We took all five pathways spending several hours hiking from one series of falls to another. We hopped a local bus the following day to see the Brazil side of the falls, which apparently offers a more panoramic view, but got turned away at immigration, (or kicked out), no visa. Another lesson in not believing everything you read!

We ended up staying four days in Puerto Iguazu in order to catch a 1-1/2 flight to Salta, our next destination. Cashing in some air mile points saved us a 24-hour bus ride! Did we mention how vast this country is?

To fill in the extra day waiting for our flight we headed off again on a local bus to the Wanda Mines, known for open-pit mining of gemstones such as quartz crystals, amethysts, agates and topazes. The little town called “Wanda”, (pronounced Vanda), is about 40 km from Puerto Iguazu and was founded by a polish immigrant who escaped Poland during WW2. He apparently named it after a polish princess who loved gemstones. We met a local man of polish descent¬†while touring the mine; Bob was able to exchange some basic pleasantries in Polish/Ukrainian which thrilled the guy, the only common language between English and Spanish!

The first layer of gemstones were discovered in 1976 by a farmer tilling the earth. Needless to say he didn’t have to dig down too far to find the deposits and is no doubt laughing all the way to the bank! We had a great geology lesson and tour and as hard as it sounds,¬†I was able to refrain from parting with any argentine pesos, violet is just not a colour I wear often!

As mentioned previously, we are heading to Salta, a city located in the Lerma Valley, at 1,152 metres (3780 feet) above sea level in the northwest part of Argentina sitting at the base of the Andes mountain.

San Telmo, Recoleta, Palermo & Beyond

It’s a toss up between historic San Telmo and Recoleta as to what our next favourite barrio is. Historic San Telmo, with its beautiful architecture, borders La Boca and was once an elite residential area until yellow fever drove the more affluent families to higher ground (Recoleta, Palermo and Belgrano).

San Telmo is the area most identified with tango with various clubs offering high-priced lessons followed by night shows. The quaint, cobblestone streets are¬†quite sedate during the week, however every Sunday the streets are closed for pedestrian traffic only and a huge antique, craft and flea¬†market, several blocks long, lines the street. We were again fascinated with the fancy footwork of the tango dancers entertaining tourists in Plaza Dorrego. There is certainly no shortage of entertainment and we quite enjoyed the various street performers and musicians. Of course we couldn’t pass up the street food, parrilla¬†(barbecued beef) and chorizo (sausage).

Originally the site of a Franciscan convent, Recoleta urbanized quickly after the 1870 yellow fever outbreak. ¬†It is internationally known for “Cementerio¬†de la Recoleta” with elaborate crypts and mausoleums, one of which is Argentina’s sweetheart, Eva Peron. Other notables have their final resting place¬†here and it is considered Buenos Aire’s most famous address. We stayed in Palermo¬†our first week and moved to Recoleta for our second. We enjoyed the numerous parks, or plazas as they are known here, each with huge monuments honouring heros or heroines of bygone days, the easy access to museums, shopping, cafes, restaurants, etc.

Recoleta is also home to one of the most impressive museums we visited in BA, “Museo Nacional De Bella Artes”. We marvelled at works by well-known Europeon artists and their Argentine counterparts-a wonderful collection with the added bonus of free admission everyday. ¬†Other museums offer free admission on Wednesdays, something to consider when travelling on a budget!

Another notable place of interest included the “El Ateneo Grand Splendid”, an elegant bookstore in a renovated cinema. The stage is a cafe, the curved walls of the upper story are lined with bookshelves and readers can kick-back in the opera-style boxes.

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Spending a couple of weeks in Buenos Aires was a pleasure and gave us the time to leisurely explore the city and outlying areas. It is very easy to get around whether on foot or metro, it also has some of the best subway art. It truly is a beautiful, diverse city, each barrio has its own small town feel with a definite European flare. Green space is plentiful, there are great bike paths, shopping and of course superb dining and ūüć∑, definitely ¬†something for everyone.

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Colourful La Boca

La Boca is one of Buenos Aires most colourful barrios with a riot of colours coming at you from all sides as you enter the main tourist area. The centerpiece is the cobblestone strip, El Caminito, or little walkway. The one-time railway route is lined with the bright facades that make La Boca postcard perfect. Named for a 1926 tango song, the pedestrian lane features an outdoor fair where an eclectic group of artists sell their wares and tango dancers prance along the sidewalks and, in between photo ops with tourists, give impromptu shows moving sensually to heart retching ballads blaring from boom-boxes.

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El Caminito

Needless to say it is very touristy with lots of restaurants, coffee shop, bars and stores selling cheap souvenirs. Lifesize caricature statues  hang off the balconies and effigies of Pope Frances (the native son) are found on street corners.

Like all big cities the metro system is great so we bused it to the area but we were strongly warned not to veer off the main tourist path. The area is great to visit during the day, however you are hard pressed to find a taxi that will venture into the area once the sun sets due to its dangerous reputation.

Located in the city’s south-east near its old port at the mouth (“boca” in Spanish) of the Riachuelo River, the area was originally a working-class neighbourhood of Genoese immigrants who worked the packing plants and warehouses during the beef-export boom. According to folklore, there were so many Genoese in La Boca that immigrated in the early 1800s the name is thought to be a spin-off of the name Boccadasse, a neighborhood in Genoa. The influx of other immigrants from France, Spain, England, Ireland, Greece and other parts of Europe provided the¬†cross-cultural mix that gave birth to tango, although the term wouldn‚Äôt be coined until the end of the 1890‚Äôs. Factory and port workers would gather to dance in the central halls of the tenements and vie to grab the attention of the few women available at the time.

wp-1485224479256.jpgThe ramshackle, colourful, corrugated tin buildings aren’t the only thing ¬†though that draws the crowd. This barrio is also home to one of the most successful soccer teams in Argentina, the Boca Juniors. This working-class community is fanatical about their team with fans pouring into the La Bombonera stadium to see their hometown favourites. On game days it is apparently difficult to move around the neighbourhood as fans eagerly fill and overflow the 49,000 seat stadium.

Next stop on the tour, the barrio of San Telmo.

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From the Himalayas to the Pakistan Border

The first view of the Himalayas is spellbinding! Spending 10-hours on a train, followed by a 2-1/2 hour car ride in the middle of the night may sound crazy to most people, but the long trip was rewarded with vistas that we have no other words to describe but magnificent.

One of the first views of Himalayas
One of the first views of Himalayas

As mentioned previously, Bob wanted to see the Himalayas, so off we went to Dharamsala & the hill station, McCloud Ganj. It just so happens also that McCloud Ganj is the home of the Dalai Lama. There is a large Tibetan population in McCloud including many maroon-robed Buddhist monks & nuns (Marlow you would love it here). It was almost unimaginable that we were still in India with the Tibetan people, culture, food & handicrafts – it is actually likened to a mini-Kathmandu.

Driving up the steep mountain side in the middle of the night to an elevation of around 1800M, Bob kept saying he was seeing snow-capped mountains, I told him they were just clouds Рwrong again! We had left a sweltering Rishikesh so it seemed unfathomable that we would be seeing snow. Finally arriving at our hotel, we crashed for a few hours of sleep; when we woke up & stepped out on our balcony we were awe-struck with our first view of the mountain range Рabsolutely breath-taking! Pictures just cannot capture the majesty & beauty. The elevation also afforded us with much cooler & crisper air, such a nice change, we even required our light jackets again in the evening.

Buying prayer beads
Buying prayer beads

There are great opportunities for trekking, be it long or short in this area. Our first day trek found us at ‘St. John in the Wilderness’ Anglican Church. It was Easter Sunday & we were welcomed to join the Easter service by the small community of Christians living here. Of interest we found a Canadian connection, the final resting place of the 8th Lord of Elgin & former Governor General of the “Province of Canada” – small world. On another day we did a steep hike up to Bhagsu waterfall with small temples scattered high on the mountain-side, havens for meditating monks.

Top of Bagshu waterfall
Top of Bhagsu waterfall Рthe town is very far below!
Majestic Himalayas
Majestic Himalayas

Needless to say we visited the Tsuglagkhang Complex the site of the Tibetan exile community’s main temple & home to the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately we didn’t see his holiness, however it was interesting to observe life at the temple with the monks in lively debate sealing points of arguments with a foot stamp & theatrical claps of the hands.

National pride

There was one last thing we (I) wanted to see in India, so we hired a driver to take us to Amritsar in the Punjab. Our niece Jenny sent us a YouTube clip earlier in our travels of a ceremony held each evening at the Attari & Waugh borders separating India & Pakistan, our interest was piqued. The only fly in the ointment was a suicide bombing that took place in Lahore, Pakistan which killed 70 people 2-days previously. Lahore is about 12 miles away from the border crossing, we were thinking of cancelling but no one really seemed concerned, so off we went. Besides what better time we figured, security would be on high alert!

Time to boogie

Each evening a flag lowering ceremony is held at the border with much pomp & ceremony. The soldiers must be hand-picked since they are all very fit, well over 6′ tall, wear smart dress uniforms & turbans topped with fan-like plumes. The gates open & the performance begins just before dusk with lots of marching, stomping, chest beating & high-kicking, with the military of each side trying to outdo the other. Actually the high-kicking was phenomenal, we saw them actually kicking higher than the plumes on their turbans!

The India soldiers
The India soldiers in full regalia waiting for the show-down
Golden Temple during the day
Golden Temple at night

Amritsar itself is nothing to write home about, but it is home to the famous ‘Golden Temple’, the holiest religious place for Sikhs. The stunning gold temple¬†is surrounded by water & ringed by a marble pathway. The water is thought to have healing powers so once again we saw public bathing., primarily by men. We visited twice, once during the day & again at night to see the lights-the place was packed both times. Protocol is strict, head covering is required, shoes/socks must be removed & feet washed in a foot bath before entering the complex. The lineup to get inside the temple itself was very long so we decided to forego the 2-hour or more wait.

 

Another train ride saw us back in New Delhi. We have such a good handle on the railway system now, a far cry from our first experience! We headed directly to the airport arriving in Goa a few hours later for the final days of our sojourn in India. Here we are enjoying the beach, relaxing & decompressing for the next few days before heading back to Mumbai to catch the long flight home.

You aren’t quite finished with us yet though! We plan to do one final blog giving you our final thoughts travelling¬†India.

Beach time
Chilling on the beach in Goa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Misadventure in Rishikesh

Rishikesh, east side view
Rishikesh, east side view

Sometimes a preconceived notion can just blow up in your face! Thinking that it might be interesting to have an “ashram experience” & do some yoga for a couple of days, my dear husband only agreed to my whim as long as he didn’t have to participate. “Not a problem” was my response, we made a booking & off we headed to Rishikesh, the “Yoga Capital of the World”. This place is yoga central with yoga studios & teaching centres everywhere; the International Yoga Festival is also held here for a week each March.

Now Rishikesh may be familiar to some of you for another reason. Back in the late 60’s the Beatles followed Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to his ashram in Rishikesh to learn transcendental meditation. They lived at the ashram (now known as the Beatles Ashram) for several weeks writing music, studying TM & writing most of the songs on their “White Album” & a couple for the “Abby Road” album.

Finally dipping my toes in Mother Ganga
Finally dipping my toes in Mother Ganga РRam Jhula in background

Anyway, back to the yoga story. We arrived at the ashram & thinking we were checking into the usual hotel-type reception. We walked in, gave a big “HELLO” only to be quickly told “SHHHHH” & directed to a sign indicating “SILENCE”. To boot I was scolded, not once but three times by a security guard, sadhu & receptionist for my bare arms/legs & told to cover up (I was less than impressed by this time & wondered if they thought I could just snap my fingers & have a new outfit materialize!). Who knew that dressing modestly meant head to toe – there was certainly no mention of this on the website. A bit shocked & taken aback we looked at each other, shrugged & I whispered to Bob “not feeling the good vibes here”. We were directed¬†¬†to our small room, bare bones, cell like – hard twin beds, a desk, chair, bathroom & the “SILENCE”. “What no TV”, whispered Bob, “geez¬†even the inmates have TV in segregation”.

Well the list of “rules” kept growing. Long story short, we (I) didn’t plan on a monastery experience, I just wanted to do yoga. ¬†I told Bob if I ever get a genius idea like this again to give me a shake. We stayed the night & checked out (escaped) early the next morning, realizing that we are definitely not ashram material. I cut my loses & unfortunately didn’t get to do any yoga – I’ll stick with Anna at GoodLife. ūüėĬ†Oh well, another lesson learned – in retrospect it is all quite humorous now, but at the time…

Waterfall
We enjoyed our 3K uphill hike to this waterfall
Rafting on the Ganges
Rafting on the Ganges under Lakshman Jhula

Recovering from this misadventure, we quickly rebounded & had ample chance to explore the area & even got a glimpse of the Beatles ashram, now abandoned & overgrow by the forest.

Look closely, can you see the egg shaped dome at the Beatles ashram?
Look closely, can you see the egg-shaped dome at the Beatles ashram?

Sitting in the foothills of the Himalayas, aside from yoga, Rishikesh is considered one of the 7-holy Hindu places in India, with pilgrims visiting the source of the Mother Ganga to do penance. An interesting aside, the whole area is designated vegetarian & alcohol free due to this.

Water from the mountains flows into the Ganges River, so much cleaner than the grossly polluted water we saw further downstream in Varanasi. Two jhula (suspension bridges) cross the river, Ram Jhula & Lakshman Jhula, with the temples located on the east side. We once again saw people bathing along the ghats & collecting Ganges water to take home. Contradiction abounds in India & this place is no different. Aside from the pilgrims, this is also a backpackers haven with a huge outdoor (trekking, bungee jumping, white water rafting) business happening here. Jeeps are continuously shuttling those eager for adventure from one location to another non-stop.

Temple of Hunamen, the Monkey god
Temple of Hunamen, the larger than life Monkey god

With the Holi Festival & Easter weekend the town tripled in size which surprised us, it was chaotic, who knew Hindus celebrated Christian holidays, with an extra long weekend to boot! It time to move on & we decided it would be interesting to head deeper into the Himalayas, adding another check-mark¬†on Bob’s bucket list.

On the pathway to the Beatles Ashram

Spy!
Monkey spying on my new friend & me.

 

Note: The wifi has been really poor since the last post, so haven’t been able to post this blog for week.¬†

 

 

 

Rajasthan, The Love Affair Continues

 

View of Brahmen from the fort
View of Brahmphuri  from the fort

Our Haveli in the old city was literally at the base of a huge mountain topped by the massive Mehrangarh Fort, the largest in Rajasthan, overlooking the city below. Founded in 1459 AD by Rao Joah, the city was built as the new capital of Marwar. It is also know as the “Blue City”, an apt name since most of the houses in the old city are painted various shades of blue. The¬†Brahmin caste of the Hindu society have historically painted their houses blue but the use has now spread to, well anyone wanting to paint their home blue. This is particularly prevalent in the north part of the town called Brahmphuri, for the many Brahmins living there.

Day 1, was spent living & breathing Rajasthani history. Moving through the old living quarters vivid images of the past & present came alive as our imaginations swirled wandering the Fort & numerous palatial rooms –

huge doors with spikes stop enemies elephants crashing into the enclosed palaces, cannonball imprints on the thick walls leave lasting reminders of long past battles, opium fuelled soldiers heading to battle, women in purdah see the world through the carved stone lattice windows, widow’s freshly hennaed hands leave the last imprint before courageously walking through the Fort gates one last time to self-immolate on their husband’s funeral pyre, sitting bravely & quietly committing sati (suicide), mirrors & mirrored walls reflect light, richly woven tapestry canopies, the delicious aroma of jasmine soaked silk blinds move gently in the breeze, colourful stained glass adorn rooms used for bedrooms & dancing for the maharajah & his harem, men with brightly coloured turbans, curled moustaches & pointy curled shoes standing guard, dazzling bangles on brown arms, beautiful silk saris, gold jewelled maharanis, veils of yellow, orange, red, pink covering the women’s faces…

Last handprints of widows on Fort wall

Day 2, navigating deeper into Brahmphuri we discovered alleys off the typical tourist beaten path & found ourselves at the back of the palace, alone. The locals directed us by pointing the way, so hospitable & friendly, yet curious we would venture the area without a guide. Bobby, a brave young woman in her early 30’s, invited us into her humble shop showing us tapestries & other crafts sewn by tribal women & widows. Getting ‘permission’ from her husband to run a business, she assists these women by selling their crafts, providing an income to support themselves. It was here that I finally succumbed to getting a henna arm design while listening to her stories of disenfranchised Indian women, including herself, forced arranged marriages & the quality of life these women lead. Despite her lot in life she is very upbeat & was most interested in discussing Western women’s lifestyle, work & education. When it was time for a picture she grabbed my sunglasses pretending to be a Bollywood star, we all had a good laugh.

Wandering further Bob had yet another superb hair cut, followed by Indian head & neck massage, masala tea for us both, for the huge cost of 110 rupees ($2.25).

Time for a trim
Time for a trim
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Clock Tower in Sardar Market

You can find your heart’s desire around the bustling Sardar Market, located by the clocktower in the centre town. We enjoyed more masala tea as shopkeepers tantalized our senses with various spices & teas. Rajasthani people are so hospitable & eager to please.

Another train ride found us heading further west, to the final frontier, Jaisilmer, aka “The Golden City”, a mere 120K from the Pakistan border. Everything here is made of sandstone – intricately carved buildings, Havelis, temples & of course the Jasilmer Fort all casting their golden glow regardless of the time of day. The Jasilmer Fort, a massive sandcastle rising above the desert, is a “living Fort” with a palace, many shops, restaurants, hotels, temples, twisting lanes & home to about 3,000 inhabitants.

The long awaited “camel safari” was going to be the high point here. Who hasn’t dreamed of being a camel jockey for a day, okay not everyone, we get it! ūüź™ Arriving the night prior, we had a chance to get a quick glimpse of the town. We headed into the desert the next day for our 24-hour sojourn.

“Midnight at the oasis, send your camel to bed”… this song by Maria Muldaur has always been a favourite of mine. Introduced to this songstress back in the day as a young nursing student in Ottawa, who would know then that I would be doing likewise with a small group of young 20-somethings (my age at the time) in the Thar Desert with the stars shining brightly above – Karma perhaps? We had a blast riding our respective camels, such funny, arrogant looking creatures & didn’t suffer any major after affects from straddling the saddle for a few hours. Camels are tall creatures & while getting on was pretty easy, getting off was another story! Camels have to kneel, one leg at a time & then lay on their legs; a bit a bit scary the first time & could catch you off guard (no instructions provided). Pitching forward Bobbalo, my camel, quickly¬†collapsed all his legs sinking to the ground, thus sparing me the embarrassment of rappelling forward & doing a face plant in the sand, bonus!

We rode the camels for a few hours, headed back to the main camp where we were entertained by desert gypsies, danced, enjoyed dinner & then headed back into the desert for the night. Sleeping in the desert was a great experience with the moon & star shining brightly above, amazing.

Prahu & me

A couple of interesting things have happened while in India. I have had my palm read twice & surprisingly the info conveyed was very consistent, no spoiler alert here though!
The other was while walking through the Jasilmer Fort a young Indian women asked if I had my henna done in Jodhpur by Bobby. She looked vaguely ¬†familiar & as it turned out it she is the sister of Bobby who we had met a couple of days before in Jodhper!¬†We took her picture with my sunglasses on & will share it with both sisters….karma at work again?

Unfortunately Bob came down with Dehli Belly & was out for the count for a couple of days. While he was recuperating I headed out on my own to browse the bazaars, do a little retail therapy & visit some Havelis. I wandered for hours along the narrow cobbled alleyways in where little has changed over the centuries. Traders sit cross-legged on the floor at the entrances to Lilliputian shops. Chewing betel nut, a popular stimulant in southern Asia, they spit streams of brick red saliva on walls long stained with splashes of crimson. Their merchandise ranges from shawls & silk carpets to hand-painted miniatures & camel bone opium canisters.

Once again, being in the right place at the right time made possible the opportunity to watch & participate in the first night of Holi.¬†Holi or the “Festival of Colours” is an ancient Hindu religious festival that celebrates spring. Renowned for its fun & rowdiness, everyone gets into the action throwing brightly coloured powder & water at each other. Heading for dinner on the last evening I found myself smack-dab in the middle of the merry-makers. ¬†Managing to avoid too much powder, (good thing I was wearing pink), I was taken under the wing of ‘Lalo’, a very kind man, who first thought I needed a little colour then escorted me safely to my destination. On this particular night all the men were heading to the maharajah’s home to “play Holi”. This festival continues for the next several days so Bob will no doubt get a chance to join in at our next stop, Rishikesh.

 

 

 

 

Maharajas, Palaces, Lakes & Hillside Forts – Welcome to Colourful Rajasthan

Cleaning woman inside City Palace
Cleaning woman inside Amber Fort

Where do we begin? Everyone we have crossed travels with in India has told us we would love Rajasthan; we are not disappointed! Exiting the Jaipur rail station we first saw the red turbaned porters, such a great contrast against their white garb. Navigating through the streets we continued to see many more men sporting turbans of all colours with such great moustaches (Bob fits in quite nicely here).

Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan & gateway to India’s most flamboyant state. The city of Amber, about 11k from Jaipur, is home to the Amber Fort & ¬†was once the former capital. The Fort outgrew its¬†population & resources so the then maharaja, with the aid of architects, planned a new grid-like city, now known as “The Pink City” (although it looked more terra-cotta to us). This city was well planned with streets & boulevards. We¬†learned that “pur” means town/city & this city is named after Jai Singh II, hence the name Jaipur.¬†Jai Singh liked astronomy even more than he liked war & town planning, so he built an observatory with giant bizarre sculptures to measure the heavens, tell time & do calculation of upcoming monsoons. These sculptures are quite scientific for the time period &. continue to amaze astronomers.

The elephant trail up the Amber Fort
Elephants heading back down to the street
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Amber Fort main courtyard
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Jaigar lookout uphill from the fort

Visiting this formidable old Fort is a must. Built from pale yellow & pink sandstone with abundant marble throughout it truly is a palace within a Fort. Our visit started off with an elephant ride up the rocky mountainside & through the Sun gate to the main courtyard.

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The Pink City nickname originated when the maharaja had the whole city painted pink, the colour of hospitality in India, to welcome the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII). Even today all residents of the old city are required to preserve the pink facades.

Bazaars on Amer Road
Bazaars on Amer Road

The old city it surrounded by gates, with new city bulging out around it. We spent the majority of our time wandering the bazaars & alleys of the old city, making sure we saw the many marvellous old building & palaces. One of the more fascinating was the Hawa Mahal, one of Jaipur’s most distinct landmarks rising 5-stories above the bazaars below. It was constructed to allow the ladies of the Royal court to discretely view the street action below. So very interesting to see all the little shuttered viewing windows & carved lattice-worked screens, imagining the women scurrying to their viewpoint, giggling at the activity far below. This palace was so intriguing & really resonated for me for some strange reason! Other notable sights included the still functional City Palace (painted yellow for royalty) & the majestic Amber Fort.

Mirrors & glass ceilings
Mirrored walls & glass ceilings
Such beautiful artwork
Magnificent  artwork


Giant sun dial
Giant sun-dial

Stop 2 on the tour, Udaipur, named after maharajah Udai Singh II, it is also known as “The City of Lakes” or “The White City”. Very romantic, with many natural & man-made lakes, fine palaces, a bit smaller so less hectic, wonderful winding streets, alleyways & remarkably clean. Culturally rich with numerous fine art galleries, shops & performing arts we loved roaming the narrow streets, viewing the street art & once again dodged the cows (dung), goats, motorbikes, cars, people, etc. This & Jaipur where a couple of the filming locales for the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” & for those James Bond buffs, the location of “Octopussy”, circa 1980, which plays at many restaurants every evening.

Udaipur
Udaipur

We arrived early in the morning, checked into our hotel, took one look & quickly checked-out making alternate arrangements – not sure who rated this hotel on booking.com (perhaps the staff working there), what a dump! We found a beautifully restored Homestay in the old town known as a “Haveli”, the first time we have encountered one, A Hindu word meaning “private royal residence”, they are¬†tucked away behind the palace in a secluded area. Very old, ornately decorated houses are passed from one generation to the next & are home to multigenerational extended families. The current family has restored it into a beautiful 6-room boutique hotel with a lovely courtyard & rooftop lounges giving us a bird’s eye view of the city below with the City Palace a stones-throw away.

The shop keepers in Udaipur are delightful & invite you in to see their treasures “for only a minute”, yet keep you mesmerized as they pull out treasure after treasure tantalizing you to part with your rupees. We headed to Sunset Point one evening hoping to take a cable car to a temple high above the city with the “most very best view ever”. Arriving with plenty of time to spare, we encountered over 200 school children hoping to do the same. Plan B kicked in, we cashed in our ticket, found a park a few meters away & enjoyed the sunset with the locals, much better than our original plan & saved us several rupees, perhaps even our lives as the cable cars didn’t look very well maintained.

Almost everywhere we walked in Udaipur we saw amazing art work on buildings & homes. It looks as if it has become a trend to have horses, elephants, dancing men & women on walls inside & outside your house. Must say, I am in love with this art form! The wall art is completed by local artists & supported by the city corporation.  The above are a small sample of some of the artwork we found.

Lake Palace (now a high end hotel)
Lake Palace (now a high end hotel)

There are so many “Kodak moments” to share in Rajasthan with the scenery outstanding, ¬†buildings so grand & beautiful, even those needing a lot of TLC. ¬†We have only scratched the surface; your tour of this region will continue in the next post, stay tuned.

Sunset over Lake Pichola
Sunset over Lake Pichola

 

The Magnificent Taj Mahal

Our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal
Our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal

Arriving in Agra by overnight train, well before sunrise, we took the opportunity to head to the Taj Mahal to witness this magnificent monument greet yet another day. This is apparently the best time to view the Taj & our very first glimpse is breathtaking. We were awestruck with its absolute beauty & symmetry, casting a pinkish glow in the early morning light. Definitely worth giving up a bit of sleep & avoiding the crowds.

This famed mausoleum complex, built on the south bank of the Yamuna River & is one of the most outstanding examples of Mughal architecture which combines Indian, Persian & Islamic influences. We marvelled at this architecture in Delhi, but the Taj is the icing on the cake & agree it is the most beautiful building ever created. Taking 20-years to build, it is the lasting testament of love for Shah Jahan’s favourite wife (3rd of 3), Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child.

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Looking back at the red sandstone entry arches

Entering through a red sandstone gateway, you first see the translucent marble structure, elevated on a marble platform. The only backdrop is the sky, further emphasizing the grandeur. A reflecting pool leading up to the Taj is flanked by gardens, laid out with avenues of trees & fountains. As you get closer two identical looking red sandstone buildings, one a mosque & the other, thought to be a guest house, provide further symmetry to the grounds.¬†There are several additional mausoleums on the grounds, including those of Shah Jahan’s other wives, and a larger tomb for Mumtaz’s favourite servant.

Mosque
Mosque
Mosque interior archways
Mosque  interior archways
Koran inscribed archway
Koran inscribed archway
Light filters through cut marble
Light filters through cut marble

A¬† little bit of architectural trivia is always warranted in this blog, so here goes. The beautiful white marble walls are inlaid with semi-precious stones (jade, crystal, lapis, amethyst & turquoise) forming intricate designs in a technique known as “pietra dura”.¬†The central dome or “onion” is 240 feet (73 meters) high, is surrounded by four smaller minarets & four towers on each corner.¬†Light filters into the central dome through beautiful perforated, finely cut marble screens.

Pietra dura & exterior carved marble wall

In accordance with Islamic tradition, verses from the Koran are inscribed on the arched entrances to the mausoleum, as well as numerous other sections of the complex. It is directly below the main dome that the Cenotaph of Mumtaz Mahal, an elaborate false tomb, lays with the Shah’s cenotaph to the side. The less elaborate main tombs (Muslim tradition forbids elaborate decoration of graves) are locked in the basement inaccessible to tourists.

While this love story is quite enchanting, there is a darker, less well know side. Some people are just doomed; the Shah’s third son (by Mumtaz) overthrew his ailing father for power placing him under house arrest in a tower at the Agra Fort. The Fort itself is very grand & while originally built as a military compound, it was later upgraded to a palace. Imprisoned & heartbroken, the Shah spent his remaining days with only a distant view of the majestic resting place he had constructed for his wife; when he died he was buried next to her in the mausoleum at the Taj Mahal.

Exiting the Taj
Exiting the Taj

Back to reality, Agra itself is a dirty, dusty town. Other than the Taj & the Agra Fort it has little else going for it, such is a shame really. Once you’ve seen these two tourist attractions, it’s time to get the heck outta Dodge!

Agra town
Agra town
Entrance to Agra Fort
Entrance to Agra Fort
Agra Fort with Taj in the distance
Agra Fort with the Taj Mahal in the distance, perhaps the Shah’s view
Camel taxi to the Taj
Camel taxi to the Taj

Our next stop was Ranthanbore for a jeep safari. The claim to fame here is a National Wildlife & Tiger Reserve. Well, the only tigers we saw were painted on the walls at the train station! So we decided to cut our stay short & head to Rajasthan, first stop Jaipur.

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Alive & well at the Taj Mahal