This morning by 8 we were on our way to visit Varanasi. Our guide told us about the Hindu religion and also why Varanasi is so important for Hindus. First our bus took us to the centre of the city, where we transferred to rickshaws that brought us towards the Main Ghat or gate. On our way there we were in what is called the traffic. I am lacking words to describe this pandemonium. There is a melee of cars, rickshaws, scooters, pedestrians and cows and there is an ear deafening concert of every horn constantly being blown and every bell ringing and tinkling. Add to that the little shops on both sides of the road selling just anything, add to that the dirt, dust and smog everywhere and you are starting to get the idea of traffic!
At the Main Ghat we found many merchants and the pilgrims who were preparing for the bath in the Ganges, the were putting mustard oil on their skin and hair. We spoke to a man who told us that he travelled 800 km to come to Varanasi and take a bath in the river Ganges. Then we all went in a rowing boat that was operated by 2 rowers. We went along the river and also past the funeral pyres where no photographing was allowed. There is a strict dress code in colours depending if it's a child or man or widower is being cremated. The cremation costs 5000 roupes because 500 kg of wood is needed. Poor people received an electrical cremation.We also saw the washers along the rivers and all the washed clothing drying along the river on the ground. We passed by a number of the 84 ghats that Varinasi has. After the boat ride we walked through the narrow little streets with our guide Champi. That was quite an experience. We were constantly being surroundedby vendors of all age trying to sell postcards and other stuff we did not need nor wanted. Mix with this all kind of people begging and we needing an extra pair of eyes to look around, and that gives you an idea of how it was. Back to the rickshaws and another ride through the chaos to our bus. There when we wanted to give a tip to Babeloo our driver, he told us "no good" so he didn't receive anything. Then we continued our visit to the Buddhist sacred place of Sarnath about 8km out of Varanasi. We visited the museum where all the beautiful artefacts and statues were kept. It was general. Who was also an archeologist and he was the one who discovered the site and excavated it. After the museum we went to the site and walked around the stupa. During our little stroll back to the bus, we were surrounded by vendors again. After this we were heading for a factory where silk was being woven. After the demonstration, we all sat down to go through some serious business: shopping ! We all bought a scarf or tie, but Ria and Johhny bought 2 beautiful bedcovers after a lot of negotiation on the price. After lunch we got back to the hotel for a break and then set out again at 5h45 to go and watch the evening Aarti Ceremony at the gath gate. We were brought there by rickshaw and it was again Babeloo who brought us. He made it clear that he was expecting good money for his services. The 5 km ride was unbelievable and i don't have enough words to describe it. We went through this hectic, frenzied chaos that is called traffic here. Men, scooters, cows, cars, bikes, pedestrians all mixed in the street. Traffic rules: practically non existant. And we were happy to get out in 1 piece. Yves was the star, since he decided that he was going to be the driver and he did quite well. I hope that he will not try this driving style in Belgium. But we all had fun, the tourists and locals as well. The rickshaw driver was laughing most of all.
The Aarti ceremony was beautiful. It is a ceremony that is being held each evening at the Main Gate to bid goodnight to the Ganga river. It's being conducted by 7 priest who have each their platform. Really impressive. Afterwards we had the crazy rickshaw ride back to the hotel. This time our driver seemed satisfied with his tip. During dinner we realised that our vacation was coming to it's end. This brings both a bit of blues and joy. The blues because we will leave this exotic and intriguing country with it's friendly people after a fantastic bike journey and joy because we will go back home to the cold and snow and our loved ones.
Today was the absolute highlight of our journey. At 6 we woke up to be able to see the Taj Mahal in the early morning light. Our hotel was in walking distance and when we arrived there was already a queue, or rather several queues: one for women and one for men and a separate one for Indian people. After passing security we entered through the east gate. Already through the entrance gate we saw the Taj Mahal in all it's splendour. It's absolutely breathtaking. The is nearing perfection. We all were taking pictures from all angles. The problem was off course that all the other visitors were trying to do the same thing. And there are approximately 15000 to 20000 visitors daily. So we took turns and our time to walk up this monument. It is truly amazing to see the details and the craftsmanship that was used to construct this. This was really the cherrie on our trip. We got back at the hotel around 9h30 and had a couple if hour relaxing time in the sun around the swimming pool. Then we set out at noon to visit the baby Taj before linch. This mausoleum had been built by a poetess in memory of her father. Going there we had to make a bit of a detour because our bus had some of the bikes on top of the roof, we bumped into to bridge, had to back out and drive around. We were on what we would call the traffic ring and it was a real spectacle! Finally we got there and also the Baby Taj is a real marvel. It was built earlier than the Taj and served an example of the Taj MahaL. It's details were even more beautiful than the Taj. We think that it's beauty would have been better appreciated if we would have visited this Baby Taj first and then the Taj Mahal. Anyway after this we went en route for our lunch, in the mean time, the driver and his assistant had removed the bikes from the rooftop and put them in the bus. One looked a bit damaged. After lunch Bob made a small speech to thank Ilse and let her know that we appreciated her organization and logistics. She was heading back to Delhi and then home to freezing Belgium. She left us in the capable hands of Sabir. We were now visiting the Red Fort. Palmyre and myself were without battery in our camera and both used the IPad to take our pictures. We walked around the fort and admired all the beautiful rooms and courtyards. It was a bit of a challenge though as many schoolchildren were running around and making a real racket. At times we couldn't understand each other. Johnny met a man and when we started talking he told us that he was a teacher and that he was there with 2 other colleagues and there classes. He was teaching physics, one of the ladies Hindi language and the other one social sciences. On an average there are 60 to 65 children in 1 classroom. I told them that we all admired them. We finalised our visit to the fort on a funny note. Yves joined the row of school kids who were holding each other at the shoulder and we all were laughing ! Since we had lots of time before dinner, we went to the restaurant anyway where we had aperitif in the garden before our meal. Then we went inside for our meal and after that our driver and his assistant brought us to the railway station of Kundla. And here it was that our Real ADVEnTURE started! Never could we have imagined what was awaiting us. At our arrival 2 porters were there to carry our luggages. They were unbelievably strong. Each one carried 2 suitcases on his head and a big carry bag on each of there shoulders. With this heavy charge the went up the stairs and then down again to the platform. All our luggage was put together and we started our waiting for the train. At first we couldn't believe our eyes when looking around. Rats were everywhere! On the tracks, in the platforms, through cracks in the floor. Just everywhere. And people laying down on a plastic on the ground awaiting their train didn't seem to mind at all. We were there around 21h30 and were told that the train we arrive at 22h00, then 23h00 anf then 01h15 and then 01h55. In the mean time we were looking around so much at the immense rat population that at a certain moment Mieke stumbled over a suitcase and as she went down fell on top of Brigitte who went down as well. It was like a domino game. Both were shaken and bruised.
Around 23h25 Sabir got notice that the train hadn't even left Delhi at this point and since it takes 4 hours for that train to arrive at Kundla he went to look for a solution. In the mean time we met with a young French couple, Jordain and Adele who were in the same mess as we were and seemed very relieved to meet some people speaking their language. We acknowledged for them that we were on the same train. By that time everyone was cold, tired and feeling miserable.
Then Sabir came back to tell us that he found a basic hotel but only 4 rooms were available. We agreed that the couple should come with us. First the porters had to carry all the luggage back out of the station to the different tucks awaiting to bring us to the hotel. All the luggage and ourselves made it to the hotel that was indeed basic enough. All of us spread over the 4 rooms and the available beds. No need to say that we will all snugly squeezed. Palmyre and myself shared with the French couple and Sabir. We all slumbered a bit and i was woken by the calls that Sabir received to keep track of the train's procedings. Then at 2h45 Sabir awoke us and told us to hurry up, we had to go back to the station. He himself hurried so much that he forgot his mobile phone charger. A good thing that Palmyre noticed it and brought it with her. The the whole circus started again. The porters were charging the luggage into the tucks and we had the squeeze in as well. I was in a little seat in front half hanging outside the tuck. Good that there ride was a short one. At the station the porters carried again all the luggage and were waiting until the train arrived. The was at 4 o'clock in the morning. First we had to find our bunks and that was not an easy thing. My bunk was already occupied and Sabir woke the guy and chased him. In the end we all found our spot and i closed my eyes at 4h30. I woke a first time at 7h30 and had another snooze until 10h30. This is being written in the train and as you are reading this we are still speeding to our destination. None of us are looking too fresh and we are all knackered. But this is India, the real India. We arrived at Varinasi after 12 hours on the train with about 8 to 9 hours delay.
As indicated earlier, we arrived around 16h in Varanasi, with some 8 hours delay. There again porters were at our disposal to carry the luggage to the 2 small busses who took us to the hotel. It was a real shock to all if us. The red dust was everywhere and the streets were just a moving chaos of people, cars, bikes, scooters and cows. Commerce is being conducted everywhere and the dirt is just incredible. We did not had enough eyes to take this in. When we arrived at the hotel, the only thing we really wanted was a hot shower.
And for dinner: well 9 of the group decided to indulge and went to the nearby McDonalds. We all had an early night to recover from our journey.
Today we left the oasis of Rantambore for our very last biking day on this trip. We first were brought btpy bus to our starting point. We had an idyllic ride through little villages and very narrow sans and rubble paths. At one point our guides Sherma and Sabir were not too sure about the correct road. It was great fun although we had a true mountainbike challenge on these rubble roads. After about 32 km as we came just thru at the end of a small village, there was a surprise for us: after a sharp U turn to the right we had a steep climb up. We were all panting when we came on top and since Nellie and myself were in front, we stopped to drink some water. When all the others had arrived it was decided to have lunch there. We looked for a big stone as a seat and received our lunch which we shared with the local youth that cane to have a look at us. Ee continued our trip and as the road was flat now and in good condition we made good progress. At a certain moment we cane in a tiny village with narrow roads. There was a real traffic jam due to a big lorry that barely fitted in the street and Nicole, Nellie and myself had to step down and walk with the bikes on our hand behind the lorry. In no time we became the real Attraction of the day! It was quite funny as wel for us as for the spectators. There was a market and there were many people enjoying this. At a certain moment we saw Sabir who indicated to take a left turn. And tphen about 500 m further down there was our support vehicle and our bus waiting for us. That was the end of our biking days in India ... We biked 50km today. Off course in no time a big number of bystanders came to watch us. When everyone of the group was there, we said goodbye to the biking support crew. We took pictures of the whole team and thanked them for their good care, support and constant good mood and smiles. They made our holiday a real treat. Then came the hard part: 4 to 5 hours in the bus to Agra. Altough we were on a highway. You can not compare it to anything you know in Europe. It is absolute chaos with lorries and small cars driving like crazy but also scooters, bikes and always cows or goats. Also the direction is not always respected. We wanted a pause and the bus took a U-turn, took the other direction and lane to go to a restaurant. After our pause you would think that we would go further in the wrong direction to find the next crossing, but no such luck. We drove at the very right side off the lanes but in the wrong direction until we could cross again to the right lanes and direction. It was already dark when we entered Agra and I must admit, the our bus driver is a real magician. He must have been to drive through this madhouse of traffic with busses, carts, cars, bikes without any lights on them and people everywhere making their way thru all this. Then there are the shops on the side with the dust and dirt everywhere. This is accompanied by an unrelenting concert of hooting of the car horns and the other street noises. It's an assault on your ears. We were all happy to arrive at the quiet hotel. We had dinner on the rooftop restaurant and had hoped to see the Taj Mahal lit but we had no such luck, because it was closed since it was Friday. But we will visit the Taj Mahal tomorrow in the early morning light .
Today is a non biking day and we have 2 safaris planned. One starting at 7 in the morning and the second one at 2 in the afternoon. Each of them takes minimum 3 hours time. So we got an early start and set out at 7 in the morning in the canter. That is a long stretched jeep where all 15 of us got in. We drove to the park entrance and it was still very chilly. Once in the park our guide told us that we had route number 5 and we started out. The road was very wobbly and bumpy and we were seriously shaken and some of us had some bruises. Our guide stopped the canter because he noticed some fresh tiger footprints in the sand. We followed these but as they went into the bush we couldn't follow. We continued our way and spotted many beautiful dear and antilopes. We passed at a very nice crossing over a little creek and there we saw 2 incredible features of nature. First we saw a brightly coloured turquoise kingfisher on a rock that had caught a fish and had it in his beak. At our great surprise and also that of the kingfisher, suddenly an owl flew from his tree, snatched the fish out of the kingfisher's beak, chased him and devoured the fish himself. That was quite spectacular to watch. Then in a small pool we noticed a water snake. We witnessed her having breakfast ! She caught a frog and was swallowing it slowly. The poor frog was quacking for help but to no avail, he was being eaten. We continued our journey and search for the tiger, but we didn't saw him. At around 10h30 we were brought back to the hotel. After a late breakfast, Nellie and myself enjoyed a marvelous relaxing massage with oils. Even our head and hair was massaged and we must admit, we were totally relaxed and our hair very greasy!
Today is a non biking day and we have 2 safaris planned. One starting at 7 in the morning and the second one at 2 in the afternoon. Each of them takes minimum 3 hours time. So we got an early start and set out at 7 in the morning in the canter. That is a long stretched jeep where all 15 of us got in. We drove to the park entrance and it was still very chilly. Once in the park our guide told us that we had route number 5 and we started out. The road was very wobbly and bumpy and we were seriously shaken and some of us had some bruises. Our guide stopped the canter because he noticed some fresh tiger footprints in the sand. We followed these but as they went into the bush we couldn't follow. We continued our way and spotted many beautiful dear and antilopes. We passed at a very nice crossing over a little creek and there we saw 2 incredible features of nature. First we saw a brightly coloured turquoise kingfisher on a rock that had caught a fish and had it in his beak. At our great surprise and also that of the kingfisher, suddenly an owl flew from his tree, snatched the fish out of the kingfisher's beak, chased him and devoured the fish himself. That was quite spectacular to watch. Then in a small pool we noticed a water snake. We witnessed her having breakfast ! She caught a frog and was swallowing it slowly. The poor frog was quacking for help but to no avail, he was being eaten. We continued our journey and search for the tiger, but we didn't saw him. At around 10h30 we were brought back to the hotel. After breakfast, Nelly and myself had a very relaxing body massage session with etheric oils. It was a real treatment and we were massaged literally from head to toe. As a result our hair was very greasy and especially Nellie looked like she had a wet look. The other had a sunbath around the tiger pool. At 2 the canter with another guide came to pick us up for another 3 hour search of the tiger. This time we had been allotted route number 1. We drove around to many creeks and other places where the tiger had been seen the previous days. . At around 5 pm suddenly 3 vehicles were at the same spot and the guides were very exited, they told us to be quiet because the tiger was in the neighbourhood. We waited but didn't see the tiger and the very suddenly a mighty roar was resounding through the bushes. It gave us the shivers and we all expected to spot the tiger any minute now. But although we were very quiet and waited another 20 minutes, we did not see the tiger. We did hear some crows and our guide told us that this was a sign that the tiger had made a kill. It seems rather a long 6 hours to hear a tiger roaring. But the was the lesson we learned that day: patience! Nature is what it is and is not on display upon our call. But we had a wonderful experience. Later we sat around a fire to have drinks and concluded our day with dinner.
At the hotel we were unable to get on the internet so all this info will only get to you on friday at the earliest. This morning we set out for our 50 km biking trip. First we had a transfer outside the city. We had been informed that we were going to bike through more densely populated villages and even through some local markets and that people could be unfriendly at times. For us this trip was the most idyllic that we had so far. The villages were very crowded and disgustingly dirty but we were always waved at and our namaste was always being answered. The hellos, namaste's and goodbye were always in the air and the scenery was a real pleasure for the eyes. At one time we had to wait because Palmyre had a puncture and this was at a lovely little village with huts in the high grasses that we noticed in the fields. The people were very skinny especially the man, who were wearing some kind of white garments under which their legs seem like sticks. We continued our ways through these fields and villages and lunched at the house of a local family. There was a little baby and Mieke couldn't resist and took him in her arms. We thanked the family for their hospitality and moved on. Then we had to look for a place in nature to use as a bathroom without too much villagers watching. We did found it but as we all used the bathroom a whole school came running at us to say hello. We continued our biking along beautiful little roads and typical dirty villages without any trouble but 2 of us had a scare. As we came down a hill we had gained some speed but as we were going up, Nicole and myself we were slowed down by sand on the road and some traffic coming towards us. At that point Palmyre followed by Mieke passed us full speed until Palmyre came to a complete stop due to the sand acting as a brake. Mieke who wasn't prepared for a sudden stop, bumped into Palmyre and then into the ground, her head only inches away from the wheels on an oncoming cart. Thankfully she fell in the sand and got away with a couple of bruises. We were all rather shake. Then we heard that Michel also took a fall. So we were all happy to arrive in 1 piece at the idyllic Moon Tiger Resort with it's swimming pool with a tiger in it. As it's located in the middle of nature it was heaven to be away from all the noise and chaos of the traffic. We relaxed around the pool and had an early night since the next day was planned to start really early, going tigerspotting.
Today a non biking day. We will be visiting first the magnificent Amber Fort. The idea was to take an elephant as a means of transport, but when we saw the queue we decided to walk up. The was a great view and we saw a constant drip of elephants climbing up with passengers and coming down without to fetch the next load. We visited the fort built in pale yellow and pink sandstone and white marble. It was truly splendid and the views breathtaking. We went through the fort accompanied by the comments and information of our guide Singh. He was rather bossy and not too nice. At the end there was a museum shop where I purchased 2 books of Amitah Ghosh and a couple of postcards. After this visit we went to the City Palace. This marvel still contains a section that is occupied by the royal family. We were shown the winter palace for the maharanis. This was decorated by encrusted pieces of glasswork from Belgium. When candles were lit, the reflections are like stars and giving an impression of a starry night. It must have been magically beautiful just as in a fairy tale. Then we were shown the summer palace where cooling was foreseen for the maharanis. The was adjacent to a very nice garden in mogul style. The maharaja had 12 maharanis and each of them had their own courtyard. Contact between them was forbidden and they could talk to the maharaja through guards who would bring the message to him. Then we walked through a room where lots of pictures were hanging, showing us official receptions and event amongst which pictures of the maharaja with Lady and Lord Mountbatten. This room is used by the maharaja for sessions with his ministers. The were also pictures of all the maharajas that have been reigning. The most remarkable one was Sawai Madho Singh who was 2m10 tall and weighted 250kg. In the museum where we could watch the garments it was no surprise to see that his pyjama trousers were 3m wide. The other garments were always splendid and decorated with encrusted gems. We also visited the hall where the maharaja held his public seatings. There were 2 silvers jars on display. These are recorded in the Guinness book of records as being the largest existing silver jars in the world. These were used to transport the holy water for the maharaja during his visit to London. After all these marvels we went to the hall for the miniature paintings where artist who are still working for the royal family, are showing you their art and what colours they are using. I purchased a ring with a beautiful lemon topaz. Then we continued our visits to the observatory. This was built in 1728 and contains huge instruments to record the time of the day, the months and the zodiac signs. Also the position of the sun towards the earth is being measured. This was really very special and impressive. Then we went back to the hotel where we had a lunch and a relaxing afternoon around the pool a d sunning in the grass. In the evening we set out again to view ......., we took lots of pictures but still it was not easy from a distance. Then we went to a local restaurant for dinner, but before that a couple of us went to the ATM to get some cash. I got the money out in no time, but when Ria tried, she got a receipt but no cash. We didn't look at it very carefully and the others didn't wish to take any risk. So we went back to the restaurant to discover that the receipt had declined on it so there wasn't any problem at all. We had a nice meal and also live music and dance. After this we stopped at the palace if the Winds that was still lit so we could make lots of pictures.
Then back to the hotel and this concluded a wonderful day with lots of impressions and great beauty and ingenuity. Ps Berna still in hospital and not really better. Repatriation is foreseen for end of the week.