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India - Part 2

Back again. We are currently in Mumbai (Bombay), our final destination in India, but since the internet is largely a thing of the future outside of India's bigger cities, we can only update our blog with a certain delay. So here's what happened after the end of the past blog entry.

After Udaipur, we headed for Bundi on what was without a doubt the worst stretch of road we drove on. On the way to Bundi, we made a short stop at Chittorgarh where we visited the greatest fort of Rajasthan. As impressive as it was, it still didn't beat Jodhpur's amazing fort. On that very day, some people killed a cow, the holy animal of Hinuds, and threw its head in the garden of a Muslim family, so trouble was in the air and we only made a quick stop before continuing to Bundi. Bundi is a sleepy town with blue houses and a beautiful palace. Our hotel was right in front of the palace, and we had dinner outside, on the roof of the courtyard wall, with a beautiful view over the city and the fort. Quite a christmas dinner! Surprisingly, we where the only guests, so silent night came true this time.

After visiting the palace and the fort in the morning, we continued to Ranthambhore National Park - according to many the best place to see tigers in India. Spotting wild animals in a national park is always a question of chance, and we assumed that the tigers were shied away by jeeps and cantors roaming the park. The park offered two trips per day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Only a limited number of jeeps and cantors were allowed in the park, and non-surprsinigly, the jeeps were booked out. Thus, the next morning we whopped on a cantor with about 20 indian tourists and drove around the park looking for tigers. We saw many other animals, but no tigers. In front of us was an indian family which was unaware of the fact that one shouldn't feed wild animals. At one point we drove past a couple of monkeys, and the indian family started to feed the monkey with cookies that they had brought along. Suddenly, the monkeys jumped on the cantor and tried to take away all the cookies from the family, which was up on the chairs and screaming and yelling. It was embarrassing and hilarious at the same time.

We got back to the hotel where the owner greeted us with the good news that two seats on a jeep had become available because someone had cancelled. So, a few hours later, we were again rushing through the park gates, but this time on a small jeep with only 6 tourists on it. After a few minutes, we saw a few cantors that had stopped in the middle of the road, and everybody seemed to spot something on the right side of the street. After a couple of seconds, we saw a tiger moving through the bushes, at about 20 meters distance from our jeep. Everyone was quite excited, and it became clear that there were actually two tigers in the bushes. While we were trying to spot the tigers through the leaves of the trees and bushes, something unexpected happened. All of a sudden, a third tiger came out of the bush, walking towards us. The tiger came as close a 2 meters (the fact that the car was open-sided should be mentioned here). Our hearts jumped like crazy. The tiger turned, walked around the back of our car and passed the other cantors. At one point, all three tigers met in the middle of the street and started licking each other, and playing with each other right in front of the cantors. It was absolutely amazing.

Poaching is a huge problem in these parks, and the number of tigers is declining dramatically. The actual number of tigers in this area is somewhere in the 20ies. It's pretty obvious that if poaching is not stopped immediately, the indian tiger will go extinct, at least naturally, in a very short time. We feel very privileged to have seen three tigers in the wild.

After all we had experienced so far, our next stop, Jaipur, had a difficult time impressing us, and indeed, it failed to do so. What's most memorable about the city is that it has about 3 million inhabitants, and we couldn't remember visiting a city of that size that we have never heard of in our entire lives. But I guess India, with its 1.1 billion inhabitants, must have quite a few cities of that size unknown to the rest of the world. We visited the fort, which was rather average, but contrast to the other forts we had visited before, this one was full of indian tourists - indian holiday season. This gave us an idea of what to expect at the Taj Mahal that we would visit the next day.

And so ended our tour through Rajasthan. We crossed the border to the state of Madhya Pradesh the following morning, and arrived in Agra a few hours later. We checked in a the hotel and then drove to the Taj Mahal, India's most famous monument. The queue in front of it seemed to be never ending, and the entry fee was outrageous, but there is only one Taj Mahal in the world, and we wanted to see it. Inside, it seemed like hell had broken loose: thousands of tourists, mostly indian, were eager to go inside the temple and look at the tomb (the Taj Mahal is essentially a Mausoleum built by the Muslim Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal). It really is an amazing sight, an architectural masterpiece, and the thousands of people couldn't change that.

The next morning, we had to say goodbye to our driver, Narender Sharma, because the next few days we would travel by train and by plane. We will say a few words about him in a later post, but anyone interested in seeing Rajasthan with a car and a driver should contact him. In the meanwhile, we have "experienced" other drivers, and we are now even more grateful to have met him. After saying goodbye, we boarded a train bound to Jhansi, and after a comfortable 2.5 hours trains ride we got picked up by a new driver who drove us, highspeed, to the village of Kajuraho. Kajuraho is nothing but a small village, except for a couple of temples, but they make all the difference. These temples are world famous for their erotic sculptures. The oldest of the temples was built in the 10th century, and for some strange reason, the temples were abandoned very soon after they were built. The fact the Kajuraho literally lies in the middle of nowhere meant that the temples were forgotten completely by the rest of the world (which included religious fanatics who often destroyed temples throughout history), and were rediscovered only about 200 years ago by the British. Of course, we made a lot of pictures ;-)

For those of you under the age of 18, please leave this website now. Thanks.

We celebrated new year in Kajuraho with a bottle of beer in our hotel room, which seemed like a perfect ending of year that we spent mostly traveling, and during which we had spent so many nights in hotel rooms. We left Kajuraho on January the first by airplane and flew to the holiest of all cities in India, Varanasi. Varanasi is interesting in itself, but just a few kilometers nearby was a place even more interesting: Sarnath, one of the four holy places of Buddhism. The four holy places in Buddhism mark the most important moments of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and they are: Lumbini, now in Nepal (birth); Bodhgaya, India (enlightenment); Sarnath, India (first teaching); and Kushinagara, India (death). Buddhism, however, hardly plays a major role in India's contemporary religious life: 85% are Hinuds, about 12% are Muslims, and the rest are Jains, Christians, Buddhists and adherents of other philosophies.

The next morning, we got up early to take a boat ride on the river Ganges during sunrise, which was very impressive. Because Varanasi is the holy city of Hinduism, and because the river Ganges is the holy river, many people come to Varanasi to die. The dead bodies are burnt at the water's shore, and the ashes are then cast into the river. Thousands of people perform a holy washing ceremony in the river everyday. Riding on the boat during the misty morning at sunrise, and watching all of this from the boat (including the burning of the bodies) was an unforgettable experience. Varanasi is by far the poorest place we have visited in India.

In the evening, we flew to Bombay (Mumbai) via Delhi and arrived at our final indian destination shortly after midnight. Today, we've been checking out the city (although there is not much to see), and enjoyed a good lunch at Leopold's, the cafe that is the centerpiece of the novel Shantaram. We're now back at the hotel, getting our stuff ready to leave tomorrow morning. It's hard to believe that we will be in New Zealand in two days! It's also hard to imagine two places more different than New Zealand and India, at least the northern part of it. On the one hand, you have northern India, a largely flat, dry, overpopulated place with a culture, palaces, forts and temples as old as 3000 years. On the other hand, there is New Zealand, a largely mountainous, green, wet, underpopulated place with a fairly short cultural history (except the Maoris of course). But we couldn't be more excited!

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 4, 2008 12:20 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Rajasthan, India - Part 1.

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