The Taj Mahal.

Sunday 13 November 2016 – Agra, India – Part 1.

This post is all about the Taj Mahal, which I visited this morning before catching a train to Delhi, where I will stay the night near the airport before flying up to see my daughter, Meliesha in McLeod Ganj in the morning.

Well that was the plan when I wrote that sentence this morning in between visiting the Taj Mahal and the ‘Baby Taj’ and then leaving town. Though it did not turn out that way! More about the that in the next post…

It is a quiet day in Agra, I believe it is a holiday, but not sure what for. I was up earlyish after a pretty average night. I wanted to get to the Taj Mahal reasonably early. I selected this home stay because it is half way between Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal, the two main things I wanted to see in Agra, both are a walkable distance. The home stay owner, Faiz gave me a lift on his motorbike to the entrance which was nice, he is a good host!

The queue to get in was tiny, but quite maddening, lots of Indian men waiting by the foreigners queue asking foreigners to change their small notes for big ones, as the ticket counter was taking the big notes. There has been changes made to money this week which is causing chaos in India, this will feature a lot in my day today. I did swap 1000 rupees in small notes with one of the guys and used his 1000 rupee note to pay the entrance fee. This made him very happy. It took about 15 minutes to process the two people in front of me.

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Like yesterday at the fort Faiz had told me I would not be allowed to take a bag into the site, and they were a lot stricter here than at the fort. No-one had large bags, there is also a lot of armed security about as well. Again, I just took the small camera and a bottle of water. I have been looking forward to visiting here, it is one of those must see places that adorn the list of anyone who likes to travel.

The Taj Mahal was completed in 1653 and is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite wife of the Mhughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It took 10 years to build and is the centre building in a fairly large site that also includes a guest house and a mosque.

The Taj Mahal site is a lot bigger than I expected, and not quite as crowded as I expected it to be at 8:00 am – it opens at sunrise, which this morning was around 6:15. I had pondered arriving for sunrise but the air is so thick that from a light perspective there would be no point, so I stayed in bed. I suspect it was busier then than it was when I arrived. It got very busy later in the day.

The great gate from the outside.

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The first view of the building is pretty breathtaking, and everyone stops just inside the great gate to take their first picture – and a hell of a lot of selfies…

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I didn’t bother stopping, I knew I was going to take a lot of photos, I also knew I was going to try and take this one, the classic reflection shot. I was very lucky to grab one without anyone in the way.

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I was not really in the mood I must admit, so my roaming of the site was a bit listless. I am very worried about my finances, or complete lack thereof. Spending 1000 rupees on the entry fee alone seems to be a lot, when I am not sure if I can get to my next destination, however I am here to see things, and the Taj Mahal is THE thing. This place is the sort of place you need to visit with someone to share the experience with.

I spent a couple of hours walking around, I took a lot of photos as you would expect. There were some very helpful gentlemen there who pointed me to the exact spot to get reflections etc, for a tip of 10 rupees, I am quite surprised that others did not take up their offer. I was very happy with their recommendations. I would not have gotten the photos I did without them. I didn’t manage to get another one without people standing in the way !

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The great gate from the inside.

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The mosque.

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The view of the River Yamuna, overlooking a bit of where I was yesterday evening.

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The building is covered in inscriptions and motifs on the walls, though I did not capture any of the detail, part of my listlessness I guess. There is also renovation work going on on the sunrise side of the mausoleum.

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There were the ubiquitous monkeys everywhere, I think this is going to end badly!

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The crowds had really ramped up when I left, I think I picked the perfect time of day to visit… I enjoyed my time there, though I wish I had been in a better frame of mind as I would have appreciated this wonder of the world a lot more than I did. Glad I went though!

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I walked back to the homestay. I think to the bemusement of some of the locals, I had lots of hellos and waves from people on bikes and on tuk tuks, I don’t think they get many westerners walking the streets.

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Forts, frustrations and a first glimpse of the Taj.

Saturday 12 November 2016 – Agra, India.

The day did not start off brilliantly. My throat is really sore and the air is foul, I can taste the pollution, it is very unpleasant. I have no money, I have a head cold and the wifi is complete pants  I think I am the only person in this home stay as well, which this morning is compounding my misery. I hate travel mornings like this.

Over breakfast in the home stay, thankfully complementary due to my finances, I talked to Faiz, the owner. He was telling me how bad the past couple of days had been in his little part of Agra. The ATM has not been uploaded and as no-one is accepting the 500 and 1000 rupee bills all the small businesses are starting to suffer, and those who are willing to take the old money cannot give change as the change is all disappearing. The price of staples like sugar and salt are going up as the small shop owners need to get an income somehow. I am surprised at how calm it has all been.

There is an official tourist money changer at Agra Fort so Faiz is going to loan me 4000 rupees in now unusable, 1000 rupee bills (about 50 pounds), which I will need to change. I am then going to pay him for the board and lodgings and the 4000 via bank transfer from my NZ account. |The 4000 will be my living and touristing money. Like all small businesses, he does not have access to taking credit card payments. As it is I do not have enough money to pay him for the board and as there is no ATM and I cannot get any cash, this is a win/win for both us and a very nice gesture.

Faiz dropped me at the fort, it is about 1.5 kms away from his home stay, and at the craziest junction in Agra. The entry fee is 550 rupees. The fort accepted one 500 rupee note – for the 500 part, but would not accept a second for the 50 part. I had to use one of my few precious 100 rupee notes. I almost got into argument with the ticket man. Just one of the many ridiculous bureaucratic frustrations of this lovely but annoying country. There is no arguing with a government man.

I walked in to Agra Fort in a hump. Faiz had also told me I could not take my camera bag as large bags were not allowed in the fort or the Taj Mahal. I just took the G16 camera and a bottle of water. As I was going in I saw some people were allowed to take massive back packs in and others were told to leave them in a secure room. It seemed entirely inconsistent. Though not as futile as everyone walking through an airport scanner that beeped everybody,  though everyone was waived though regardless. More bureaucratic nonsense.

This did not help my early enjoyment of the place. There is not a lot to see when you first walk in, a big empty space with lots of people in it a large square surrounded by large red walls. I yawned. Definitely not as good as the fort in Jodhpur. I did see a squirrel that did not run away immediately. I took a photo.

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I walked about aimlessly for a while – should have taken that damn audio guide again, teach me to have the hump. I liked these arches.

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And this balcony, which I am assuming someone high and mighty spoke and waved to the peasants from.

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Eventually i found my way though a doorway into what I guess would have been the inner castle if this was in England, much better! Lots more things to see.

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The fort was built in stages throughout most of the 16th century, and under a variety of rulers. In the early 17th century the white marble sections were added under the rule of Shah Jahan, the Muslim Mughal ruler. He also oversaw the building of the Taj Mahal and some other sites in Agra. More on them later.

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The Taj Mhal is 2.5 kms away in a straight line, but I could hardly see it through the haze, this photo has been sharpened massively to get it to stand out at all. The air is so thick. You can barely see the River Yamuna which the Taj sits beside.

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I liked the buildings, there is not a lot to see in them, some detail in the structures, but no museum like at Jodhpur. I did like the mix of the original red stone and the later white marble. The marble allowed a lot more detail to be inlaid in the source material.

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There is still some renovation work to be done, and the way it has just sort of ended was sort of cool. There were two armed guards/policemen here, not really encouraging much exploration. Stick to the good bits Phil!

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I left at the right time as a lot of people were arriving as I walked out the door and got into the queue for the money changer. Quite bit of patience went into getting those photos, largely free of other tourists. I know I could have just included them, but hey !

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I almost got into an argument with an armed policeman in the money change queue. When I arrived there was no queue, and two windows open. A Spanish couple were being served in one window so I waited at the other, in the meantime a large melee/queue started to form and was eventually guided back alongside the Spanish couple. It turned out the guy behind my window didn’t actually serve people, he just sat there. When the Spanish couple finished and I went to stick my form and passport through the hole in the window, the policeman said I had to go to the back of the queue. I politely told him I had been there since before the queue, he knew this as he had been there as well. He put his hand on my shoulder and I refused to move. It was hot, this is India and serving the two Spanish customers seemed to take about 10 minutes and I was not willing to quit my position. It was a tense couple of seconds and eventually his attention was taken up by someone else and I got my way. Whew.

I had a grumpy, but financially happy walk back to the home stay, where I had a very nice lunch., food seems so much nicer when you know you can eat again the next day. Miraculously the internet was brilliant (for about 20 minutes) so I had a quick and pleasant Skype with El. Always makes me feel better.

Late afternoon I left the home stay with Faiz and he organised a decent price with a tuk tuk driver on the main road to take me to the Black Taj.

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The Black Taj does not actually exist, there are some foundation ruins left on the ground, but that is it. The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan as a memorial to his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. As we all know the Taj is a glorious glowing white and is built on the banks of the River Yamuna. It is rumoured that he also built a jet black Taj on the opposite banks for himself. This has never been proven, though the foundations show something was built there.

It does have a great view of the Taj Mahal, and is supposed to be the place to go for sunset photos and a good reflection in the river; except you are not allowed near the river anymore due to security concerns, so it is all fenced off. The smog has not done the sunset any good either…

However, those things aside, it is a great place to see the Taj Mahal from. Though, naturally you have to pay to enter the site, I didn’t mind this as it meant I was left alone and no hawkers and beggars were there to follow me around. As I arrived about an hour and a half before sunset I was almost the only one there for quite a long time.

Peace, in India – a rare and beautiful thing.

As is the Taj Mahal, I know that we all know it well, too well probably, but that first sight is still utterly breathtaking. It is one of those places that you just have to see in the flesh. And viewed through a manicured lawn with virtually no-one else in sight; magnificent.

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Though even from this close it was still really hazy.  I was shooting with that wonderfully crisp Canon 70-200mm lens, and even that  had issues with the auto-focus grabbing on to anything.

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I had a bit of a walk around, there was quite a wait till sunset. This was the sort of scene I wanted to see in India, which I won’t see much of as I am staying for such a short time and just hitting the big tourist things. Ruins, disheveled, run down, surrounded by trees, animals about; waiting to be investigated, clambered around. The old romantic adventurer view. A fantasy world that is not my current reality sadly.

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But anyway, stop dreaming Phil. There is the Taj Manal – and its thousands of tourists, just next door, not something that most people will see, you are a lucky man.

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I was waiting for quite a while for the sunset, the air seemed to clear as the day disappeared, and birds…. quick, something interesting, take a photo.

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Back to waiting…. There was a brief moment of excitement when a couple of eagles started to dive bomb the crows nests in the trees behind me, there was a massive kerfuffle, screeching and fighting amongst the milling birds. I tried to take a photo but it was impossible, but it was good to watch the crows join together to fight the two massive eagles.

One of the victorious crows decided to pose for me and I took my last photo of the day. The sunset never happened so I left early as the crowds started to line my side of the river bank, the peace was finally over, a pleasant end to the day. (If I blank the chaotic and stinky tuk tuk ride out).

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Jodhpur to Agra, a no photo day.

Friday 11 November 2016 – Agra, India.

As expected the ATM’s were not open prior to the departure of my train to Agra. The tuk tuk driver who drove me around yesterday was (not) mysteriously waiting at the end of the alley way to my hotel and he gave me a ride to the station, he had to reduce his price by a few pennies as neither he nor I could get the money correct; and I was not going to over pay him, even by a few rupees as my cash is running quite low.

I felt a bit guilty about leaving the guest house without tipping the house boys, they were pretty useless, but they were friendly and meant well, and the food was always good and it was pretty clean and tidy. I also feel a bit bad about not doing any shopping, there is plenty of it in Jodhpur and I had promised El I would buy her something. Not having any money and worrying about the next few days had me very much not in the mood to do Indian style shopping.

This time I checked I got in the correct carriage before getting on!

The train journey from Jodhpur to Agra takes between 9 and 10 hours though today it took 12. I was hoping to doze, write and edit photos on the way and fortunately l managed a bit all three depending on how rough the tracks were. Like all my train journeys I am in a two-tier air conditioned carriage, an AC2. It is pretty full, but not madly so. My throat is still sore and my nose is only merely runny today, not streaming, though the constant dust is making me sneeze a lot.

I had one brief ‘moment’ on the train, or off it I suppose. Unlike both of my previous train rides, no-one had come round selling anything,  so at one of the stops I got off the train to buy some water and something light to eat – a bag of crisps in the end. I went to get back on the train and could not find my carriage, I had paid no attention to the door I got off from, and the carriages are unmarked. I tried a few doors, but none seemed right, I had to ask in the end, the heart was pumping a bit!

As an aside, I have found India to ‘feel’ quite safe, while I took my camera bag with me when I went to the loo on the trains – mainly as it had my passport and other important things, I was happy to leave my pack behind, and in the guest houses I left most of my possessions behind when I went out. I felt I didn’t need to worry – unlike some other countries I have been to. Nice.

I arrived in Agra hungry, tired and close to broke, finally making it to the home stay at 9:30pm. The city stinks, really bad, the worst air pollution I have had to face so far. The journey from the station to the home stay was foul, it stunk of sulphur as well, just to add a putrid tinge to the corrosiveness of the fumes. There was no food and no beer at the home stay either. I now wish I had stayed in a hotel. The home stay owner told me that the ATM is 1km away and had massive crowds today. I expect I am going to have to spend my one day in Agra not visiting the fort or the Taj Mahal, but queuing to get some money. I do not have enough to get to both those places via tuk tuk, let alone get into them.

The Red Palace and White Temple, Jodhpur.

Thursday 10 November 2016 – Jodhpur, India.

A very frustrating and largely wasteful day. In the end I did visit all the locations I wanted to visit, but I did not spend as much time in each as I would have liked, though one of them was a waste of time and a tuk tuk ride. More on that later.

Today was the day the banks would re-open after being closed yesterday and all would become well with the world again, I hoped. As we all know, hope is a cruel mistress, and while the banks did open, my issues were not really resolved. Just moved around a bit.

If you have not read yesterday’s post then a wee recap of the situation is required. The Indian government announced on Tuesday night, much to the surprise of pretty much everyone, that the 500 and 1000 rupee notes would not be legal tender from the end of the month. New 500 rupee notes would be issued and the 1000 scrapped and replaced with a 2000 rupee. This is an attempt to disrupt the massive black and grey economy in India. It is massive. The ATM’s here only provide 500 and 1000 rupees notes. Though they are supposed to be legal tender for a while yet, basically no-one is accepting them, including my hotel. It is all I and all the other tourists have. To make matters worse the ATM machines are all closed Wednesday and Thursday and the banks were shut yesterday as well.

As I am leaving the Jodhpur first thing tomorrow morning I had to get cash today, my bill is going to be 5800 rupees. I have 5000 in bills that they will now no longer accept and they do not take credit cards. Hmmm…

After fare welling Christina and Jorg after breakfast, Natalie and I went to the bank just after it opened at 10. We passed a small pre-wedding on the way.

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And this delightfully named, and closed hotel.  I cannot imagine why it was not a booming success, maybe it was the location on the buy main road?

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There was a massive queue as we expected, but as we had fairly straightforward transactions and are westerners, we were allowed to bypass the queue and go straight to see the manager He informed us we could only change 4000 each per day (the same as the locals) and that we needed a photocopy of our passports. He didn’t have a photocopier, so it was back out on to the streets to the photocopy shop, get copies and then back to the bank to get our money changed, 4 1000 rupee notes became 40 100 rupee notes.

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We met some other tourists who told us of another bank that did not require a photocopy of our passport so we sneakily went there as well, supposed to be only one transaction a day, this one had an even bigger queue which we again we told to bypass. I changed my last 1000 rupees.

I now had money I could use, but this still left me short of what I needed to pay for my room, and no-way of getting any more – I may as well keep spending and do a couple of tourist things, like see some of the other key sites of Jodhpur.

This took me till after 1:00 to get sorted so I had lunch with Natalie and the group she was heading off with before finally getting out the door to do something. I grabbed a tuk tuk and made an agreement with the driver to take me to the Red Palace, the White Temple and then back to the guest house. I think we were both happy with the outcome.

Built on top of Chittar Hill, Umaid Bhawan Palace, or the Red Palace as it is known is one of the largest private residences in the world, and is truly massive. Construction was started in 1927 and it was finished in 1943. It was initially built to help local farmers with employment and the end of a long and severe drought.

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I was very disappointed with the Red Palace. I knew that it was still the Maharajah’s home and that most of it had been converted into a luxury hotel, but I didn’t realise how much of it was. There is not a lot to see in there and I could not get a straight on, straight up the middle photo. It is a fabulous looking building…

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There is a small collection of very dusty classic cars as well.

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I was not there long and I think my tuk tuk driver knew I wouldn’t be as well, he was waiting at the gate when I exited and we took a slow and fumey ride across town to the White Temple.

Jaswant Thada, the White Temple, sits on the same ridge as the fort I visited yesterday, and is far more accessible than the palace; not being a private residence, but a cenotaph. It was built by Maharaja Sardar Singh in 1899 in memory of his father, Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, and serves as the cremation ground for the royal family.

The mausoleum is built out of intricately carved sheets of marble and is quite glorious.

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I am not too sure who this dude is, point to the fort, I am assuming he is not leading an invasion, the statue looks quite new and I expect one day someone will put up a sign with some information.

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I think you used to be able to get down to this small lake, and get a classic reflection photo, and also walk around the back of the temple, but it is all closed off now which is a shame, I would have liked to explored a bit more widely if I could have.

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I had to wait to try and get photos without other people in them, luckily the place was relatively quiet or I would not have bothered. Lovely building.

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The interior is bare, but glows almost as much as the exterior. The walls are lined with paintings of the family line, it goes back a long way.

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In the grounds of the building are a number of smaller mausoleums.

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After a relaxing explore in and around the temple I asked my tuk tuk driver to take me back down into the noisy, smelly and chaotic city below and drop me at the clock tower square.

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I wanted to see nearby Gulab Sagar lake, the small lake I saw from the fort last night, it took 8 years to build and was started in 1788 to provide water to the community by the then Maharajah, Vijay Singh. It smelt so bad of rubbish and sewage that I took one photo and left, my plan to walk round it was swiftly discarded, even though the light was perfect for it.

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I wanted to go back to the stepwell and see it in the daylight, it is a magnificent piece of construction, even better in daylight, and still pretty empty of both tourists and locals. The design is just so awesome, I loved the lines and angles, a huge amount of though must have gone into building something that was practical, functional and yet beautiful to look at.

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I went back up to the roof top bar we went to last night as I wanted to grab a couple more photos of the fort and the white palace – obviously I had to sacrifice some more of my hard earned money to buy a beer!

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And that was it, the end of my touring in Jodhpur, the sun was setting, and I am off tomorrow, there is still a lot more to see here, but I have so little time, and even less money!

In the end I was allowed to pay the remainder of my accommodation on my credit card at a local travel agent, it wasn’t ideal, but no-one had a choice. While I was there I also picked up some medicine at the local pharmacy, something to at least prevent my nose from streaming. I couldn’t, or didn’t want to get anything I didn’t recognise for my increasingly sore throat. Strepsils would have been perfect!

I never did see any Jodhpurs either…

Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur.

Wednesday 09 November 2016 – Jodhpur, India – Part 2.

The last post left myself and three people I met in the guest house heading up to Mehrangarh Fort, which looms over our guest house and completely dominates the northern skyline of the city.

Construction of the fort started around 1460 by Mahrajah Rao Jodha, when he decided to relocate the town of Mandore to the top of the hill. It was initially completed almost 200 years later, though a second phase of construction took place in the 18th century. I am not sure which bit is what though. It is a monster of a fort, the stones that make up the walls are absolutely massive and it is an absolute marvel of construction. The current head of the Rathore clan Maharajah Gaj Singh II is still the custodian of the fort.

From the outside the entrance is impressive enough! I have not seen such high walls on a castle before, it is truly monstrous.

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Regrettably I did not take an audio tour with me and make some notes as we walked around, we were a little pressed for time. I am struggling to find information to fill in some of the detail of the what I took photos of. I took a lot of photos…

I am assuming the works of art on either side of the entrance gate explain the retaking of Mandore from the Mewar by Rao Jodha.

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Getting inside was an issue, as I mentioned in my last post the Indian government changed the currency overnight and the fort were not accepting 500 or 1000 rupee notes, which everyone had, not just us, a number of other visitors were also struggling to pay. Fortunately, unlike all the other places I visit on this trip, they took credit cards so Jorg paid for us all and we gave him (useless) 500 rupee notes; 500 rupees was the entrance fee. These notes are exchangeable in a bank, so they retain value, they just cannot spent in many places, even though they are valid currency until the end of the month.

Once inside I was wow…

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And this was just getting inside the first level of walls. We arrived quite late in the day and a lot people were leaving, we intentionally arrived late as we wanted to be there for sunset.

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There was not a huge amount of detail outside of the museum and palace section, little bits here and there, all sort of built into the design of the building.

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There was some pretty cool doors and gates as well.

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The museum was impressive, linking a variety of buildings and multiple levels, it was not full of marvels, but the walk around the buildings was really interesting. 

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There were some interesting knick knacks to see.

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The view out of the windows on all sides over Jodhpur under a dropping sun was stunning.

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I will visit the White Palace tomorrow.

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I tried to sneak photos of the fort staff whenever I could, though they were quite accommodating and cheerful when I got busted.

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As the sun started to really drop we headed off to the far western side of the fort to the Chamunda Devi temple for the sunset. There was limited viewing so I walked back up the hill a bit and got the temple in the very unspectacular sunset.

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Amusingly, us westerners are the subject of some interest to the Indian tourists, even I have had my photo taken with individual and small groups of Indian men. However, unlike Christina, I am not a 6ft tall blonde woman, as we were heading out of the fort she became the focus of attention of a couple of groups and a melee of photo taking with Christina, Natalia and Jorg the centre of attention ensued.

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I slunk off to one side as soon as the madness started, attention is not my thing 🙂

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Though I did have my own fan. I think she was just avoiding the madness as well

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It was after dark before we finally extracted ourselves from the adoring fans and the fort. There was time for a couple more final photos before heading back down to the guest house.

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Natalie went off with some friends for dinner and I was invited by Jorg and Christina to join them for a meal in the Cafe Royale, a small cafe near the Clock Tower, which they discovered had really good coffee in earlier in the day. The food in the cafe was really good, but the best thing was the family that owned and ran the cafe, a really lovely couple and their two sons, who we spent the rest of the evening with.

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After we had eaten and chatted for a while the parents asked us if we wanted to see the stepwell, I had no idea what one was, but they said it was very close by and we should come and see it. It is not in the guide book, and there is almost no information about it on the internet, so I cannot find out when this one was made. There are quite a few around India and Pakistan.

Basically a stepwell is a well with steps that go down to what was at the time of building, the lowest level the water drops to. Stepwells date back as far as 600ad, but the most prolific era of building was the 12th to 17th century, so this is pretty old. And also stunning. Probably the highlight of my stay in Jodhpur. The fort is amazing, but this is amazing and beautiful as well.

Toor Ji Ki Bawari stepwell, at night. I will definitely go back here tomorrow and see it in the day time.

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On the recommendation of our new friends, Christina, Jorg and myself stopped at a nearby roof top bar for a couple of beers and the stunning view over the city; before heading back up to the guest house and sleep. Looking at a city from slightly higher than the street always introduces a whole new perspective – and a wealth of things that get missed at street level.

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Another good day – considering the US election result and we the fact we are all uncertain as to what the heck is going to happen when the money runs out.

Jodhpur – The Blue City

Wednesday 09 November 2016 – Jodhpur, India – Part one of two.

I was up pretty early this morning and took a few photos from my room with its view over the city, it is quite smoggy again today and my throat is not getting any better. I am not sure if it just the poisonous air, a cold coming on, or both. I suspect both. This is the Red Palace and I will visit it tomorrow.

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At breakfast time I was introduced to Natalie, an American travelling solo. We then had the sad discussion about the likely outcome of the US election and that Trump was looking like winning. (WTF America, did you not learn from the Brexit vote in the UK). One day people will be asking, ‘Where were you when the free and decent world ended ?’ I can say Jodhpur.

The restaurant is on the roof of the guest house, which sits some way up the hill between the flat of the city and the monstrous fort above. The view is spectacular, in all directions.

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As Natalie and I were discussing our day we were joined by a German couple, Christina and Jorg and we all agreed to meet this afternoon and visit the fort together.

There was some interesting news today, apart from the US election results. In an effort to stamp out the grey and black economy that is pervasive in India the government have declared that the existing 500 and 1000 rupee notes will no longer be legal tender. Everyone has till the end of the year to change them. This is a major issue as so many Indians do not have bank accounts and literally have cash under the mattress. For instance, the home stay owner in Agra where I am writing this update says he has over a million rupees in cash. The wrinkle in the plan is that no-one can change more than 4000 rupees a day, so for those with vast amounts of cash this is a major issue. They could stick it all in the bank of course, but that means declaring the income. I really don’t sympathise too much about tax dodging, but this is creating an epic drama here.

In an effort to make the transition all banks are closed for the day and all ATMs are closed for two days. This is a problem. I do not have enough money to pay for my accommodation, and that is before I spend any money today. Which I am going to do as I am here on holiday. I will at least pay for entry to the fort, and I need to eat. To complicate this, irrationally, no-one is now accepting the 500 and 1000 notes, the notes we get from the ATM, all tourists have them, along with many many local people. So, even though they remain legal tender until the end of the year our guest house has informed us all they will not accept the only money we have. They also do not take cards. Frankly a complete and utter pain in the arse, more on that as the days unfold.

My plan this morning was to find the Blue City and take a walk around for an hour or so and then come back for lunch and then go up to the fort mid-afternoon and stay for sunset.

Natalie left with me and pointed me in the general direction of the Blue City, though I never did find it… Jodhpur is the second largest city in Rajasthan, and the old central part around the base of the fort is named the Blue City as so any of the houses there are painted blue. Unlike Jaipur and its Pink City, the Blue City is not really confined to one geographic space, so while I never really found the core of it, I did pass a lot of old blue buildings.

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I walked for about an hour, it was warm but not overly so, and the streets, as such, are narrow and windy and ludicrously dangerous with speeding motorbikes. I cannot imagine the accident rate here. They are mostly too narrow for cars, though the odd tractor seems to make it through OK.

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You might think from my photos that there were no people about, there were plenty, but I am not a fan of poverty porn, nor asking people to take their photo, so I avoided accidentally, or deliberately pointing my camera at people. This kid did walk through my shot, which is one of my favourites from the morning.

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Except these guys who asked me to take their photo 🙂 I have no idea what they were making in those large wok looking things. I asked but had no idea what they said… [Edit] thanks to Arv, who commented below,  I know now that these fine gentlemen are making an Indian sweet called halwai…. [end edit]

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Even though I was pointed to and walked in the general direction of the Blue City, I never quite found it, I ducked up side streets and alleys, peered round corners, took a turn here and turn there, finally ending up not knowing where I was.  Not quite lost, though at one point I did a complete loop and passed by the shops I had walked by 10 minutes before. I ended up getting a tuk tuk back, and it took a lot longer than I thought!

There was plenty to see nearby as well, perhaps I should have just stayed local, but where would be the adventure in that!

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I arrived back at the guest house in time for lunch (I am eating way too much food, and it has all been great). I have stuck to eating local dishes, though all the places I have been to also serve pasta, pizza, something called ‘Maxican’ and quite often Chinese as well. I don’t see the point in coming to India to eat Italian food.

I met up with Natalie, Christina and Jorg mid-afternoon and we all headed up a small path near the guesthouse to the mighty edifice that dominates our skyline. More on that in the next post !!

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Pushkar Camel Fair

Monday 07 November 2016 – Pushkar, India.

Fortunately last night was much quieter than the one before and I seemed to manage a bit of sleep before the alarm went off at 6:00. Trev and I had agreed to meet at 6:30 and get to the camel fair before the sun popped over the horizon. The alleys and streets between the hotel and the fairground were pretty deserted, fortunately one shop was open and we managed to pick up a small packet of biscuits each to munch on in lieu of breakfast.

I enjoyed the walk to the fair this morning, with all of the tourist shops closed and very few people on the street there was no pushing and shoving, very few motorbikes whizzing past and no-one asking you to come into their shop, or for food or money. The best part of it was the people who were out were very friendly, saying hello or Namaste from their doorways and windows as we walked past. It was so much nicer than the sell, sell, sell mentality during the day. I can see why Pushkar is so popular outside of the festival. A friendly town!

With so many animals arriving in the past few days, and it was noticeable that a lot had arrived overnight, as well as smoke from the wood and dung fires the herders and small stall holders had for cooking and warmth the air was pretty thick, and this would be noticeable as a fine haze in some of the photos. In the fairground itself there were three hot air balloons being gassed up which attracted a large number of people who came along to have a look.I loved this business opportunity, I didn’t buy any, not sure if camel dung paper would be allowed into New Zealand or Australia.

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There were quite a few other photographers around when we arrived and the numbers picked up noticeably as the morning progressed, so there was a bit of competition for angles and shots, some were quite aggressive as well. At times it was quite shameful watching their interactions with the local people. Why are some people so rude?

It was breakfast time, for both the animals and the people as we started to wander around. Some of the herders had their families with them, huddled together near their stock for warmth.

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Not many had tents or camel trailers that were used as a shelter which surprised me. I guess the air is dry most of the time so sleeping in a bed roll under the stars is practical; though probably not comfortable and definitely not a life I would choose. These must be hardy folk.

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More and more herds arrived throughout the early morning. Pushkar is on the edge of the Thar Desert, it is very sandy, and there is scattered scrub around. I am assuming the area we are in is a small farm holding during the rest of the year?

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I think I have been snapped while snapping.

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There are a number of small buildings and fenced areas as well as a number of large water troughs. You can lead a camel to water, but you cannot make it drink!

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I really liked the camels, they have amazing faces, and can pull the most wonderful expressions, most of the time they look a bit stupid, but sometimes you can see a smart knowing look in their eye.

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I was still after a classic silhouette photo, though did not manage to get one while I was there, always so much happening in the background. This was as close as I got.

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I suspect these three in the alley to the hotel were part of the mass dog brawl the other nights. There are an awful lot of dogs on the streets, but so far none have seemed intimidating or dangerous, though they do bark a lot at night.

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I spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon in the hotel, it was a lot warmer today, and the town is so busy. There was no need to go outside; plus I had photos to edit and blogs to write. At 4:30 Trev and I met up again and ventured back up to the market. I found this rotting old scooter on the way.

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We decided to approach from a different angle this time and went to a field that was less crowded with tourists. We passed through the fairground on the way, it looks like it is starting up now, it has been quiet the past couple days. I think it is the first time I have seen pigs rooting around in the ground at the foot of a ferris wheel.

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The horse section of the fair is next to the fairground, and there was a lot of horse trading happening today.

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This field seemed to be more focused on farmers with one or two camels, compared to where we went yesterday where there seemed to be larger herds.

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With less tourists around we became a magnet for the kids looking for food or money, some demanding to have their photo taken. We were approached by a lovely looking gypsy girl and as Trev is into portraits rather than landscapes he agreed to take her picture for a few rupees. This triggered off all her friends/family members and within a flash there was five or six girls wanting in on the action. I really don’t photograph people, I am not comfortable doing it, and I am even less comfortable asking someone and then paying them. I hung on the perimeter and watched.

One girl turned up to the impromptu photo shoot quite late and missed out, she followed us around for ages asking for her photo to be taken – and for the small amount of rupees that come with it. In the end I relented and took a couple of pictures of Lila, she was a nice kid, determined to have her picture taken, she was also the only one who was prepared to do more than just stand there, and a did a dance pose for me. I would have liked to have been able to separate her more fully from the background, but over all I was happy with the photo I took.

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As soon as I pointed my camera at her another one of the girls popped into the frame. She was a bit older and far more cynical and bored about the whole thing, as long as she got her rupees. Maybe it is me who is old and cynical and it rubs off ?

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We got a bit weary of the demands in the end and took a slow walk through some of the fields back to where we were yesterday. So many camels, so many tourists!

 
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By the end of the day I was feeling like this.

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There are not many trees – but I had to take at least one photo as I do like a tree.

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Trev and I met up for dinner again and went back to the place we went to last night. It was not far from the lake so we took tripods along with the aim of doing some night shots. There are no bathers at night, and after 9:00 there were very few other people out.

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The photography was a bit of a wash out though. The lake, back dropped by the lights of the town were boring when shooting with the wide angle lens, and the big zoom was too heavy for the lightweight tripod. I tried to zoom in tight on some of the buildings as the shapes and shadows were quite interesting, but I could not get then camera still enough to get anything remotely sharp so we gave up and went back to the hotel. I took this one from the restaurant.

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I had a really good day! Though I think I am eating too much of this great Indian food.

I am not sure that Indian drivers really need the encouragement!

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‘No drugs, alcohol or non-veg food’. Pushkar.

Sunday 06 November 2016 – Pushkar, India.

I have come to Pushkar for the camel fair, the fair takes place over the first week or so of the annual Hindu Kartika festival. The camels and their herders arrive over the first few days and the bulk of the buying and selling happens four or five days after the fair starts. There is an expectation that up to 50,000 camels will come this year, along with numerous horses, goats, pigs and cows. My plan was to do the town based activities in the morning and then venture out to the fair in the late afternoon as the day cools down. I am also hoping to get some of the classic, camel silhouette against the setting sun shot, no originality here!

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It was a really bad night last night, the music stopped pretty much dead on midnight which was great, but the honking of motorbikes in the alleyways and from trucks, and buses delivering pilgrims to town, on the main roads went on for quite a lot longer. Once that had settled the dogs started howling and barking and there was a dog fight right outside the hotel at 2:30. Finally to cap it off; at 4:30 the mosque started up. I am so glad I had a full sleep the night before.

After breakfast I loaded up my camera bag and sauntered down the hill into town, I am getting a little familiar with the various alleyways and paths, and am reasonably confident I can find my way back to the hotel from most parts of the town. I was planning on walking around the lake today, the far side seems to attract a lot less people and I was hoping to be able to spend some time sat on the lake side enjoying some piece and semi-tranquillity.

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I made it about a quarter of the way around before running out of road. I could have walked around on the lake side; barefoot, of course, but was unsure if I was allowed to. So I didn’t. I spent a bit of time looking around town, the main streets are really crowded, loads of pilgrims are arriving for the religious part of the festival and loads of tourists are here to take photos. Hopefully obeying the cultural rules (as if!).

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Back at the hotel I met up with Trev, who I briefly met yesterday. We chatted for a while, he is English, a couple of years younger than me and into portrait photography. He has been to India numerous times, including the camel fair and speaks a little Hindi, which is very useful if you are doing portraits and want to communicate with your subjects! It was great to meet up with someone to go exploring with, it makes things so much easier having someone to talk to and watch your back as it were. It also meant that going out of the hotel at night to eat somewhere else was much safer, not that I ever felt unsafe at all, Pushkar is quite a friendly town.

Trev and I met up at 3:30 and started off with a visit to the lake. The lake is very busy in the morning, and quietens down in the late afternoon. As Trev has been here before and was more familiar with customs I found it is perfectly acceptable to walk around the lake front, so we did. Being careful to not to take photos of the bathers that were on the shore, as per the rules!

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When the light dropped and started to get a bit more interesting we went to the fair to look for some camel photography action. There were far more camels than yesterday, and I was surprised at A) how docile they were, walking around them was quite safe, and B) there was no smell. I had though being in proximity to a large number of animals would be a bit stinky. Not at all; maybe the fumes of Delhi and Jaipur had dulled my sense of smell.

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By my standards I took a lot of photos, almost 100. There were a lot of other people taking photos, and it times it was a bit of challenge to get shots with no photographers in them, or without one jumping in front of you. There was no such thing as manners here. The herders, in the main take it all in good, if rather bewildered, spirits.

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I loved this chap, you cannot just attend camel fair, you have to attend camel fair in style!

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By accident Trev and I found a good spot where the camels were coming round a corner of a field and the sun was dropping almost over head. We set ourselves up and ten minutes later we had been spotted and a whole bunch more people came over, almost crowding us out. We stayed there for a while as small groups and individual camels and herders passed by.img_0778 img_0800 img_0801

Along with the ever present camel tour. I was offered one by the hotel before I met Trev and am glad I did not take it, they do not look to be as interesting or as much fun as getting in amongst it all.

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Trev grabbed these two guys and had them pose for him, he got right down on his belly to get the post shots, and I snuck a quickie in while he was shooting. It was like watching a master at work.

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Once the sun had gone below the horizon we abandoned our spot and headed back to the area while the herds were going to camp.

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There was a little bit of trading gone this evening, a good study of a camels teeth is obviously crucial.

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It was a good session, and we left as the sun had almost gone. Back at the hotel it was a quick rush uploading images from the camera to the computer to see what I had got. I was pretty happy with my first day effort. It is quite tough shooting, lowish light, hazy conditions, a lot of movement in all directions and loads of others competing for the same shot. Fun in other words…

Trev and I went out for dinner, the food in our place is great, but Trev had found another restaurant that quietly sold beer, which is very rare in Pushkar. We met up with Greg, another photographer and England resident for food, a couple of cans of lager and lots of travel and photography talk.

It was a really good day, I very much enjoyed hanging out with those guys, seeing Pushkar and a hell of a lot of camels! Roll on tomorrow.

PS, yes I do love lens flare.  It was deliberate, honest!  🙂

Pushkar.

Saturday 05 November 2016 – Pushkar, India.

The big mission today was to get from Jaipur to Pushkar. By Indian standards they are virtually neighbours and the journey will only take three hours. However, for a middle aged westerner who has not travelled for a while and is out of the ‘zone’ this still seemed like enough of a challenge for one day. Though, in the end it was all too easy. Thankfully.

As I only have a short time in India and no room for faffing I have fully planned ahead. Train tickets and accommodation has been booked in all the towns I am staying in. This allows for no flexibility, but it does mean when I get up in the morning on a travelling day I know what I am doing, where I am staying and mostly, how I am going to get there. This does remove all of the stress of travelling when it has not been done for a while.

Not having to worry about the logistics of the morning, and having been awake for 30+ hours I surprised myself by sleeping for well over 8 hours last night. I was groggy when I woke, but felt damn fine for all that sleep. My first Indian breakfast of lassi and paratha was really nice and set me up well for my travels. The hotel had a roof top eating area and I found an old fort (maybe?) out the back, cool!

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I took a tuk tuk to the station which was about 1.5 kms from the hotel, the traffic around the station was pretty intense, but I was left alone as I made my way into the main hall. The sign providing information about the train was helpful.

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There was a version in English too I realised after watching for a while. English is spoken to some degree everywhere here, all the people I have met so far have had some English which does make travelling less complicated. The train was late, but not by a huge amount, I was a little nervous standing on the platform, I had no idea what to expect and had visions of very crowded trains.

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Even though I had booked the more expensive air conditioned carriage; it was still very cheap by UK standards. I expected there to be more westerners waiting for the train, I am going to Pushkar for the annual camel fair, which attracts a lot of tourists, so I was surprised to find there were only four other westerners on the platform, a group from Germany and they were heading somewhere else. This did ramp up my nerves a bit.

Which was all unfounded of course… I found a birth just fine, I was facing backwards which is not my preference, but it was entirely comfortable, quiet and ultimately enjoyable. I even had lunch on the train, a vege biryani that was very nice too. I took a few photos out of the window over the course of the 2 ½ hour journey. There was not a lot to see, flat, semi-arid farmland, all the way to Ajmer where I disembarked.

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I had heard stories of tourists being ‘pounced’ on by touts when they get off trains and was expecting this as I walked through the crowded ticket hall. Nothing. Outside only one bloke came up to me to ask if I wanted a taxi to Pushkar, which I did, he offered me a price less than I expected, so I said ‘yes’ to that and jumped into the back of his very small Suzuki mini-van. The ride took about 40 minutes, there was a lot of traffic on the road, so it was nice and slow, I didn’t need to hang on once, even as we snaked up and down through the small hills.

Pushkar is a small town, with about 14,000 residents normally. During the festival this swells to over 300,000. It was very busy when I arrived. I am staying in the Everest Hotel, up the hill from the main drag and with a great view over the town. If it were not for the numerous signs pointing in its general direction it would be impossible to find through the myriad of alleys and pathways in the upper town. It is a real warren, with the hidden dangers of speeding motorbikes to add to the fun, plus the dogs and cows and their little land mines…

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Pushkar is a small Hindu town wrapped around a very small lake on the edge of the large Thar desert. The lake was supposedly formed when the god Brahma dropped a lotus flower onto the earth. It is a very important Hindu pilgrimage town and all Hindus aim to make at least one pilgrimage here in their lifetime. The main pilgrimage time is now, in the month of Kartika, the eight month of the Hindu calendar. The desert tribesman come to the town for the pilgrimage and for the annual camel fair, up to 50,000 camels are caravaned across the desert to be traded. This is what attracts the tourists. The main camel fair takes place in the first week of the festival, with the main religious day being on the full moon later in the two week celebration period. I will not be here for that long sadly, but I do have three nights, so will see plenty of camel fair action I hope.

I met an English guy, Trev, as I checked in, he has been here before and promised to give me some camel fair tips, which was cool. Once I checked in and dumped my gear in my room, I grabbed my camera bag and headed out the door. I like my room, it is large and airy and reasonably comfy, and blessing of all blessings the shower is hot, something I will appreciate once the layers of dust start to make my hair feel like a nest.

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Unlike Jaipur I was not given a map of the streets, I doubt one exists, I was led down the hill a short way to a main intersection and left to it. I expected to get immediately lost. Which is fine by me, I am sure there is a lot to see.

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Deciding to check out the camel fair first I sauntered off in the direction I was pointed in, once out on the main road it was pretty easy to spot. I am assuming these two ferris wheels are not here all year round.

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It is still early days in the fair, and there are not many camels around. I did see some though, but these are dressed up to give rides to tourists. I am sure I will find plenty more during my stay.

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Horse trading is also part of the fair and there are a number of horses here, all tied into position which I thought was harsh on the horses, however I am not in England anymore and what is unacceptable there is not the case here. The horses from Rajasthan are unique in that their ears stick straight up from the top of their heads.

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It was about here that I discovered the recently repaired 24-105mm lens does not work. It worked when I last went to Epping Forest, but now it does not focus at all. I have been forced to use the heavier and longer 70-200. It is a lovely lens, but hopeless for close up work.  

I found this snake charmer who I paid about £1.20 to take some photos while he charmed the obviously stupored cobra, which I also got to touch. When in India. A bunch of Chinese tourists also took photos and when they did not pay they were followed down the road while he yelled at them. I wanted to go and tell them to not be so bloody rude!

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Knowing I would be back tomorrow I left the fair and walked down to the lake in the middle of the town. The lake is surrounded by 52 bathing gnats. These are not temples as such, but places to go and relax, meditate, pray and bathe in the holy lake.

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A couple of these are commercial operations aimed pretty much (being blunt) at scamming tourists. I got scammed. Not by much, but still more than I would have ‘donated’ to their charity. It did leave a sour taste, and sadly I did not read about it being a scam until later in the day. Fore-warned is for armed as they say. I also discovered that you should not take photos on the lake, as a number of the women bathe bare breasted, that was after I had taken photos…

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I was a bit disgruntled from being ripped off so went back up to the hotel, where I took a few photos over the town from the really nice roof top restaurant/relaxing area. It is a bit hazy today, but that has kept the temperature down to a decent level, which I appreciated.

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And of course the neighbourhood rhesus macaques!

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I spent the evening in the hotel, I am not yet confident enough to walk the streets at night on my own, getting lost in the dark would possibly not be a good idea, though I am sure it is a very safe place. It was a Saturday night and I ended up reading till midnight when the music finally stopped. And the dogs started…

This post has taken two hours to assemble from the already uploaded text and pictures, the internet it diabolically slow here.

The Pink City of Jaipur

Friday 04 November 2016 – Jaipur, India.

The real culture shock hit once I got out on to the street. The hotel owner gave me directions to the ‘Pink City’ the main tourist area of Jaipur after the Amber Fort. It seemed to be a fairly straightforward walk along a main road. This is not a main city thoroughfare like you would find in any western city. There are no footpaths, and if there were they would still be used by cars and motorbikes, it was chaos out there. Though it does all appear to be reasonably safe, keep your line and everyone works around you, cars and motorbikes included. Not sure if I would mess with a bus though. Where there was a raised footpath it covered the sewer and in so many places the path was broken and the stench of the sewers mingled with the fumes of the vehicles. It was pretty unpleasant.

I walked for quite a while and saw no sign of the ‘Pink City’ gates. I started to wonder if I was going in the right direction, and soon gave up in confusion and despair. Eventually I did what I should have done back at the start. I took a tuk tuk, one of the three wheeled motorbike taxis. I asked the driver to take me to the Pink City gates, discovering that I was heading in the right direction all along; it was just a hell of a lot further than I thought.

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Jaipur is the capital city of the state of Rajasthan. It is named after its founder Jai Singh II who built his capital here in the late 17th century, the Amber Fort. As the population expanded the capital was moved down to the flat land below the fort and was named Jaipur. In 1876 the maharajah had the entire old city painted pink, the colour of friendship, to welcome the Prince of Wales. The city palace sits within the Pink City, and was my objective for today. I had about 30 minutes to get there before they stop allowing visitors in at 5:00pm.

Once through the city gates I was confronted with the bazaars, each section dealing with a different kind of product, spices, cloth, metals, leather, all have their sections. It was very crowded and a little disorientating to begin with, it wasn’t helped by the main thoroughfare being packed solid with noisy, smelly traffic. At least there was some sort of footpath along the shop fronts. I did not take a load of photos here. I am very reluctant to aim my camera at people I do not know. If you have followed my blog at all, you would probably have guessed this by now. Some people are good with people and others are not. I sit very much on the ‘not’ side of the equation. I suspect this will continue to be an issue through the rest of my India journey.

I did take some photos of the buildings though. By law all buildings have to be painted pink. I would love to have the paint supply contract!

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Reluctant to offend, I did not take any photos of shops, or people near shops, or anything that tried to capture the busyness and colour of the bazaar, though I did see a few things that caught my attention. Like these dolls for instance.

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And a small shrine on the side of a building.

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Eventually I found my way to where the City Palace was located, I saw a bus full of westerners and decided to follow it!

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Passing through a small square, full of parked tourist buses, I finally found a place that I felt comfortable taking photos in. Goats, monkeys and bikes abounded, my sort of thing.

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I paid the entrance fee to the City Palace just before the office closed. There were still a lot of people inside and I had an hour before everyone was booted out.

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Wondering around listlessly I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to what was going on, nor to the history of the place. In the past I tried to get a bit of background before I enter a castle or a palace or temple so I can get an idea of what I am seeing. I had not done so here and it impacted on my enjoyment, plus I had been awake for 27 hours and was knackered. I took a couple of photos and left without seeing much at all.

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Though I did appreciate the silence.

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I headed off round the back of the palace, down some streets that I suspect tourists do not generally go, I like back streets.

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They are quieter and often more interesting – and on the other side of the gates there was a lot less pink!

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I eventually found my way back to one of the main streets and as it was approaching evening I decided to grab a tuk tuk back to the hotel. Alcohol is almost frowned upon in Rajasthan, though cannabis is, I believe, legal. My tuk tuk driver was smoking a joint and offered to sell me some, which I politely declined. I am not sure if it impaired his driving or not, hard to tell on these streets.

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Back at the hotel and verging on darkness I asked the hotel owner if I could buy a can of beer, he pointed me in the direction of a beer shop not far away, but on the other side of the main road. It was a challenge getting across that road, all for the sake of beer! As I walked back up the smaller, one way street the hotel was on, I discovered that having lights on your vehicle appears to not be mandatory, driving a car down a one way street the wrong way, seems to be OK as well. You really need to keep your wits about you. I drank a can of beer in my room before dinner as it is not allowed in the hotel restaurant, it was very nice!

Dinner in the hotel was good, cheap and delicious, though sleep was even better…