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Asia » India » Rajasthan » Mount Abu 21 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

I’m always discovering new things about my beloved India. I wasn’t previously aware, for example, that many Indian people don’t know the actual date on which they were born. Until just three or four years ago, there was no official registration of births, so some children were given notional birthdays. A friend here has his birthday on 4th January. He was the fourth child born to his parents. His siblings’ birthdays are on 1st, 2nd and 3rd January.

Some people have two birthdays – one on the notional or actual date and one on a memorable religious date. My good friend Khuman had one of his birthdays a couple of days ago, on Maha Shivrati (a lunar festival in remembrance of the powerful god Shiva). His actual date of birth is not until ten days or so later. He celebrates both, of course.

Anyhow, back to places I’ve been before that I visited again this week:

Udaipur

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While Lajpal, Chotu and I dined at our friend Vijendra’s Vintage Lounge Restaurant and discussed the dubious merits of corruption (some claim to believe there is good corruption as well as bad. I say: corruption is corruption!), a meeting of high-ranking officials was being held at Udaipur’s huge Radisson Hotel to discuss tax reforms throughout India. From our elevated position above Lake Fateh Sagar, we could see the hotel a mile or more away, illuminated brightly and with lasers pointing skywards like searchlights in the night-time darkness.

As we enjoyed a final beer, the meeting seemed to finish as, even this far away, we could hear incredibly loud music and, soon after, we saw the lights of a ministerial motorcade beating a hasty retreat!

Sadri

Next morning, Lajpal and I also beat a retreat from Udaipur. We headed northwards, sometimes on good roads, sometimes on very poor ones. Parched sand and thorn scrub on either side were familiar sights. Our journey was often delayed near tribal villages by herds of goats and sheep with their shepherds dressed in white with distinctive red turbans. Our destination for the night was his home town of Sadri.

Here, Lajpal has a small house, which he built just a few years ago, primarily for his parents to live in. His postings as a government employee could take him and his wife and daughter to almost anywhere in Rajasthan, but he comes here as frequently as possible. Apart from two comfortable bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, there’s a kitchen and a dining and lounge area. There’s also an independent apartment on the top floor that’s just been let to a professional couple and provides a small income.

It was good to see Ranveer and Gajendra, his father and mother, again. Lajpal’s lovely wife Rajshri and their energetic three-year-old daughter Dhruvi were there too. They’re always so welcoming and we know one another so well that there's no longer any formality. I feel like I'm just another member of their family. Needless to say, I took far too many photos of Dhruvi with her parents and grandparents.

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After settling in, we left the ladies to prepare dinner, and took a short excursion to the Ranakpur Dam just a few kilometres away. I spent parts of several previous holidays at the Maharani Bagh Orchard Retreat near the Jain temples of Ranakpur (so many in fact that it felt like coming home each time). However, for some strange reason, I’d never seen the nearby Dam, which is concealed up a track between large trees and colourful shrubs. This new discovery, a high stone dam holding back an expanse of water to supply the increasing needs of the Sadri area, attracts a variety of birds and wildlife. We didn’t spot any crocodiles, although they're known to be there in good numbers. Never before have I seen so many cormorants in one place at a time, however - I guess the lake holds a plentiful supply of fish.

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As the sun dropped beneath the hills to the west, a shepherd gathered his small flock of goats and sheep, a young girl in tribal clothes came to view this European stranger, and small flocks of white egrets, long-billed storks, noisy parakeets and unidentifiable birds silhouetted high in the sky made their way to night-time roosts .

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We returned to a delicious evening meal prepared by the two ladies. After all these years, I do still find it a little uncomfortable that the men eat alone, served each course by the women of the house. Tonight, Ranveer, Lajpal and I enjoyed dinner seated on comfortable chairs at a table. Gajendra and Rajshri ate theirs afterwards, sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor. That’s how it is...

Monday dawned warm and sunny – this weather’s becoming boring: cloudless blue skies from dawn at 7.00a.m. to sunset at 7.00p.m, refreshing mornings and evenings, hot (30C+) by noon... day after day after day. I’d happily be bored with this for a few months each year, away from the cold and gloomy short days of winter that I've come to hate so much in the UK.

Mount Abu

Bidding farewell to Ranveer and Gajendra, we squeezed ourselves and our luggage into Lajpal’s little car and retraced our steps three hours southwards, to the hill station of Mount Abu.

Mount Abu is a thriving resort, with palm trees and greenery among huge boulder-like rocks, reached by a good road, 25km or so above the town of Abu Road. Langur Monkeys, revered by Hindus, sit on their backsides like little old men, by the roadside or in the trees, hoping for offerings from passing visitors. The road snakes its way up and around dozens of bends, with much honking of horns so typical of this country, to a height of about 1,200 metres.

The town’s proximity to the ‘dry’ state of Gujarat makes it a popular holiday and weekend place for Gujarati families, who come to enjoy its mild climate, its scenery and its many hotels, restaurants and bars, the latter in particular!

For similar reasons, Lajpal, currently a commercial tax officer specialising in evasion, is stationed at Abu Road. It’s a very convenient location for stopping vehicles entering Rajasthan from Gujarat and checking paperwork to confirm correct state tax payments on the goods they’re carrying (and for fining the vehicle owners if they’ve tried to evade any tax). I find it interesting that there's virtually no corruption involved in this; systems have been made very transparent in this particular government department. In complete contrast, however, the RTO (Regional Transport Office) is renowned for bribery. I witnessed this for myself at a vehicle checkpoint on a major highway that carries many hundreds of heavy lorries. Almost every lorry was brought to a halt in both directions, ostensibly to check licences and vehicle roadworthiness. Not one of them was checked - not a single one! Every driver simply held a 100 or 200 Rupee note out of his window. Every note was eagerly pocketed by uniformed RTO officers. This was just one checkpoint of hundreds around the country. It's alleged publicly that the millions of Rupees collected each and every day find their way up the chain to the very top government minister, percentages being siphoned off by equally corrupt officials along the way.

However, what did I do at Mount Abu this year?

We were only staying for one night, but it proved to be a particularly memorable one. Khuman, Lajpal’s uncle and the Thakur (feudal lord) of the town of Gundoj, was there to greet me on arrival at Akhey Vilas, the small guesthouse run by his youngest son, Shivendra (aka Shibu). Hitesh, a long-term friend, who manages the premises was there too. Unfortunately, Shibu was away in Delhi (he also escorts French tour groups) and his wife Devendra was at her father’s home in Jodhpur. I hope to catch up with both of them later in my travels. Meanwhile, until the sun went down, it was great just to enjoy the views and birds in this simple hotel's grounds.

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Khuman had kindly organised a special welcome dinner for me. As night fell, and with it the temperature (down to about 20C, which felt cooler as there was a stiff breeze), the staff collected firewood and lit a brazier. We gathered around it, joined by Devendra’s cousin with her husband, general manager of a local hotel. Course after course arrived, accompanied by whisky supplied by Lajpal. We’d stopped to buy a bottle on the way at an ‘English Wine Shop’ – the shop wasn’t English and didn’t sell wine, English or otherwise, just beer and alcohol; it’s the strange name by which government-controlled liquor shops are known hereabouts.

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At the end of our ninth (or was it the tenth?) course of tasty vegetarian and 'non-veg' (i.e. meat) dishes, a huge sponge cake arrived. It was covered in cream, decorated with all sorts of sliced fresh fruit, topped with a brightly burning firework and adorned with a hand-iced plaque saying: ‘HAPPY ARRIVAL. KEEP SIMALING’. It was a very kind thought and kept us ‘simaling’ for quite a while after the delicious cake had been consumed.

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Next morning, Lajpal and I took an hour’s pre-breakfast walk around parts of the resort I hadn’t seen before. At 7.30a.m., it was cool and very quiet. Bird calls were almost all we could hear. Very few people were on the streets; those who were swept the dust from one place to another with swishing brooms or cleared yesterday's litter into little piles and set light to it, the pungent smoke swirling skywards and scenting the air all around. I was surprised to find a regiment of Gurkha Rifles here and an enormous Air Force Station too – probably something to do with signals or communications; this is certainly no place for an aircraft runway.

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Then, it was back down to Abu Road, bidding farewell to Khuman, who I hope to see again in Jaipur for the Holi festival, if he’s able to get away. We dropped Rajshri and Dhruvi at their apartment, before continuing to Jawai in search of the leopards for which that area is becoming known.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:49 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan sadri mt_abu Comments (1)

It's a long way to Tip a Rary

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Udaipur - 19 February 2017

sunny 30 °C

The title of this blog arises from something I once heard on a BBC radio programme. The name of the programme escapes me, but it came to mind while waiting for my flight to Mumbai. In that programme, celebrities were secretly given a phrase or saying and had to concoct a long and elaborate story for the rest of the panel to guess what it was before the tale was finished.

The story in this case went something along the lines of:

A man found a tiny bird, the like of which he'd never seen before. It was clearly sick, so he took it home and nursed it back to health. He searched everywhere to find out what sort of bird it was, but it seemed so rare that he couldn't find it mentioned anywhere. So, he named it a Rary.

The little bird made no noise, but it ate an enormous amount of food. Soon, it was the size of a very large (but silent) dog. The man tried to set it free, but it didn't want to go - and it was now too big to fly. When it had reached the size of a small car, the exasperated man rented a lorry and drove the bird to the high sea cliffs at Beachy Head.

He reversed the lorry up to the edge - at which point the bird looked despondently at the man and, for the first time in its life, sang out: "It's a long way to tip a Rary..."

In the Plaza Lounge at Heathrow's Terminal 4, while waiting for my call to the departure gate, I noticed a sign above the copious dinner buffet with a quote from JRR Tolkien that said: "If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world."

I was certainly valuing the free food and wine, while background music cheerfully played a miscellany of First World War songs, including - you’ve guessed it - 'It's a long way to Tipperary'.* Hence the story... Apologies!

*

So, here I am in Udaipur. It is a long way to go (more than 5,000 miles from London via Mumbai to be precise) and it’s also a long way from ‘the sweetest girl I know’ (my wife, Pat, who isn’t a fan of India). However, it’s definitely not a tip - it's a beautiful city, set on lakes with one of the world's top hotels on an island in the middle. There's a magnificent royal City Palace too, fascinating temples and so many shops it would take a lifetime to see them all. I’ve been here several times before, most recently with the Grey Haired Nomads in 2013 and on the way to a very special occasion in 2012 . It hasn’t changed a bit.

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Inevitably, I’ve done most of the tourist sights, so this time I decided to take a dawn walk to see what there was to see on the lake-shore opposite my hotel, the Jaiwana Haveli. On previous occasions, when I’ve stayed here and at another haveli close by, I have always admired the view of the shoreline opposite, but never had time to venture closer to it.

So, this morning, before the sun rose above the palace, I wandered down to Lake Pichola, discovering a footbridge tucked away down a deserted side street, which took me to that opposite bank. Along the way, I met a few early-risers, who greeted me with a cheery ‘Namaste’, saw flocks of pigeons being fed beside Gangaur Ghat (a religious bathing place), women washing clothes, and children in school uniform waiting for their transport. I met only one other tourist, a young American woman enjoying the view from the footbridge.

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On the far bank, passing a tiny temple and watching the sun's rays glowing on neighbouring buildings , I reached a ghat where men were cleaning their teeth and themselves in the cool waters of Lake Pichola. Others promenaded around a small garden as part of their morning fitness regime, jokingly inviting me to join them.

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I enjoyed fabulous views of the sun rising behind the City Palace and the gleaming white Lake Palace Hotel with the verdant hills amid the early morning mist beyond.

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Returning to the hotel, I enjoyed breakfast outdoors in the rooftop restaurant with a similar but more expansive panorama. Oh, I could never tire of that view.

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Then, just a few hours later, I was joined by my dear friend Lajpal, who’d driven here to collect me for our week together. After a snack lunch on the hotel’s rooftop, we took a stroll beside the lake and had a cup of ginger and cardamom masala chai in the warm afternoon sunshine – I needed the Vitamin D after a dreary winter at home.

This evening, we had dinner at a friend’s restaurant, The Vintage Lounge, a few miles away with a terrific night-time view over Lake Fateh Sagar and the illuminated buildings around it. It's wedding season here in India, so there were some big fireworks in the inky black sky too. I was particularly pleased to be joined by Lajpal's cousin, Chottu. We hadn't seen each other for five years.

Today, we're driving north to Lajpal’s home in Sadri, where his wife and daughter are staying with his parents, and where we’ll spend the night. If time permits, we’ll stop off en route to see a hotel owned by another of his cousins amid lush gardens in the Aravali hills near the ancient fort of Kumbalgarh. Lack of internet connection for the next few days will mean a delay in publishing my next blog, but be prepared for news of my adopted Indian family, leopards and excavations of ancient cities.

*

*Colleagues from my previous life will know this better as ‘It’s a Long Way to Taormina – same tune, different words. I often wonder what happened to Stan Way!

Accommodation:

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I stayed, for the second time, at Jaiwana Haveli in Lal Ghat, within easy walking distance of the City Palace, Jagdish Temple and a landing stage for boat tours on the lake. I heartily recommend it.

It's not only well-situated, but it's well run by a friendly family and provides excellent accommodation at reasonable rates. It offers good facilities, including a rooftop restaurant and a coffee shop on the ground floor. Food and service are very good indeed.

The WiFi is sometimes good in the public areas, but is not provided in the rooms.

Those with walking difficulties are advised to ask for a room on a lower floor as it's an old building - it's been very well restored, but it does have many stairs and there are no lifts. As a previous guest, I was given one of the best rooms at the top of an adjoining building. The views were fabulous but, to reach the restaurant (which I could see from my window) I had to walk down five flights of stairs, across a courtyard, then walk another five flights of stairs up another building - and vice versa to return to my room afterwards! A zip wire from my room to the restaurant would have been useful!

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:14 Archived in India Tagged india udaipur rajasthan Comments (1)

Not again?

Asia » India » Rajasthan - 17 February to 16 March 2017

sunny 30 °C

Not India again?

Rajasthan, again?

Don't you have anywhere else to go?

Well, yes, I do. Like most inveterate travellers, I have a bucket list - but, alas, not enough years to visit every country on it before I kick it (the bucket that is, not the list)! So, while I hope to put a line through at least some places on that list in the future, I'll stick with a familiar one in the meantime.

I've mentioned before that, in a past life, I'd been fortunate to visit quite a few places around the globe - and even more fortunate that most of those visits were made at someone else's expense, including several trips to India! I enjoyed all of them. However, there are some that I enjoyed more than others and India happens to be at the very top of that list. So, India it will be - again!

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The Rajputs of Rajasthan in miniature. I think I recognise some of these in real life!

India's not like home. It wouldn't be so much fun if it was just like clean and tidy Blighty, would it? It's overcrowded and poverty is obvious. It struggles with things like rubbish disposal, sewage and hygiene. Animals wander at will. Bureaucracy drives you mad. Traffic is a nightmare and road conditions are awful.

Put all its apparent deficiencies to one side, or at least learn to tolerate them as I do, and you'll have a more positive view of what is a truly fascinating, wonderful, vibrant country. Its culture is richer and more varied than any other I've visited. Its people are happy, proud and generous. Its traditions, religions, myths and legends are bewildering. Its architecture is stunning. Its food is terrific. It's a place where you can eat, sleep and be merry for relatively little money. Colour, noise and smells are all around you from the moment you step off your sanitised aircraft. There's a photograph waiting around every corner. There's nowhere else quite like it. It's magic, and I love it.

And why Rajasthan? There are so many reasons to visit this, India's largest state. It has all the above with historic cities in abundance, palaces, desert, wildlife and traditions that remain firmly fixed in days gone by, despite improvements in living standards and literacy and a growing Western influence. It's where I have many friends, both new and old, with whom I look forward to spending time. It's where I've been to nearly all the tourist sights in most of the villages, towns and cities included on this year's itinerary, but I haven't previously explored as far off the beaten track as I'll be doing this time.

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The spice(s) of life

So, what do the next four weeks actually hold?

First stop will be Udaipur - a short breather in this city of lakes will include a dawn walk to ghats (religious bathing places) on the far side of Lake Pichola.

A week with my dear friend Lajpal, including a few days with his lovely wife Rajshri and their delightful daughter Dhruvi, follows. We'll spend a night with his parents, Gajendra and Ranveer, at his house in Sadri, another with his uncle Khuman at his cousin Shibu's hotel in Mount Abu, and two nights trying to find elusive leopards at Jawai, where Lajpal and a business partner have a plot of land.

Then, it's off on my own, first to Jodhpur, where I'll spend a day with the Bishnoi tribe, known for strict conservation of trees and wildlife and for their pottery and weaving skills. I'll stop off at Khichan, where I spent a few hours watching thousands of Demoiselle Cranes last year, and where, this year, I've arranged to meet one of the top men in the organisation which funded a feeding station to attract and protect them during their migration; I'll also visit some of the town's ancient havelis (wealthy merchants' mansions), which I missed last time.

The following week will be spent at Jaisalmer seeking out groups of musicians and others in a previously undocumented artists' colony. I'll also journey into the Thar Desert to find (hopefully) the endangered Great Indian Bustard, and I'll spend time meeting residents of the city's wonderful golden fort on the hill.

Finally, an overnight train journey will take me eastwards to the state capital of Jaipur for a week's stay, meeting up with Facebook friends with whom I shared insufficient time last year and, most importantly, spending two or three days with members of Lajpal and Rajshri's families. While there, I plan to invest in some new glasses (using my NHS optician's prescription of course). I'll also celebrate the colourful festival of Holi, for which I've packed old clothes - the coloured powders that everyone throws at everyone else is bound to get everywhere!

This promises to be a month of many new discoveries.

Posted by Keep Smiling 10:13 Archived in India Tagged india jaipur udaipur jodhpur rajasthan jaisalmer khichan sadri jawai mt_abu Comments (1)

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