Postcard from the Edge of Shiva – Part 1

Arriving very late at night in Delhi, we collapsed and waking late the next morning, my traveling companion informed as to that nights dream, where they killed me with a spade – an ominous start, was it a prediction of death on the trip or would I really be murdered? Time would tell, but I made a mental note to hide any spades we encountered along the way.
Our first day was spent visiting some of the highlights missed a month ago – the India Gate WWI memorial, the Bahai Temple (more commonly known as the Lotus Temple) and the imposing Qutb Minar Complex with the mysterious 7 meter high iron pillar, which baffle scientists as to how iron of such purity could have been forged in 413 AD.
These excursions although interesting, bought out the usual beggars, illegal snake charmers, pushy sales people and con-artists with which all white people are plagued with during any trip to India. The snake charmer was a highlight though – this practice is now illegal and between watching out for the snake and the tourist police this charmer almost got bitten – most gratifying and possibly the first death on the trip.
From Delhi we took the first of numerous night-trains to the Corbett National Park Tiger Reserve to do some tiger spotting. Getting out at the right stop proved to be an issue as the train “schedule” does not seem to be based on any clock-based system and the minimal signage at the stations made us sweat. “Not to worry”, my companion happily chirped, “we can ask the conductor to knock at the compartment door”. Two concepts embodied in this sentence we missing from the train, “conductor” was one, and “door” was the other. Still we arrived on time to our next near death experience.

Corbett National Park
It was still dark when we were collected from the train station in a 4 wheel-drive jeep (with doors). The trip to our camp was part road, part river-bed and part 45° perilous rock face – how the vehicle stayed on the “road” remains a mystery to me. The camp itself was, however, beautiful – as it emerged candle lit out of the morning darkness (candles were a big part of the trip as there was no electricity). The accommodation at the camp consisted of tents with en-suite tiled bathrooms – as well as wonderfully attentive staff, who cooked up amazing meals and packed lunches for tiger safaris and would supply the odd luxury bucket of hot water to wash off the safari dust.
Looking for tiger proved to me more difficult than we first expected. Despite the hordes of tigers seen by fellow camp dwellers, the first day consisted of driving round and round with 6 other doorless 4 wheel-drive jeeps on a small number of predefined roads in the reserve – it reminded me of a Disney ride as we kept seeing the same cars over and over again. Although we saw some very nervous deer, a python and some spiders we saw no tiger. As a result, we decided for a different approach on day 2 – ditch the jeep and use an elephant. Elephants have a number of advantages over jeeps, they are ecologically sound (just picking and eating fuel on the way), emissions are more environmentally friendly (although equally noxious), they are tall (offering great views) and can go literally anywhere in the bush. There are, however, some downsides: they have no doors, they are not as comfortable as a jeep, they are slow (so when a tiger is spotted you get there way after it and everyone else is has left for lunch) and steering them is difficult – it is accomplished by inhumanly bashing a huge metal spike against the head in the direction you want to go.
With the elephant we saw tiger droppings, tiger scratch marks, tiger lunch left-overs, tiger foot prints and tiger arse prints, where it had sat down. But no real tiger – in fact the closest we got to a tiger was as we left reserve – there was a shop with big stuffed tiger toys. So we left, with heavy hearts and an adrenalin rush we drove back down the cliff to the train station – this time in the jeep without doors – to our next destination, Jaipur.

Jaipur with Delhi and Agra form the “golden triangle” of India – with some of the most renowned sights. Jaipur is known as the “pink city” and has a medley of sights from the magnificent Amber fort-palace with its commanding views of the town to the old city and the city palace.
The most renowned sight is the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), built in 1799 it is the epitome of Rajput artistry and was built so that the ladies of the royal household could watch the processions of the city whilst being hidden from view. The palaces had to be big, (one Maharaja was 2m tall, 1.2m wide and had 108 wives) with labyrinthine zenana (women’s quarters) where we spent a pleasant hour in pursuit of the exit.
But for me the most fascinating sight is the Jantar Mantar observatory. Built from 1728, precision could only be accomplished by via size – so the observatory is home to a bizarre collection of huge recording instruments, such as a sundial with a 27 meter gnomon and 12 Zodiac tracking devices, with Taurus being the nicest (surprisingly enough). But the trip to Jaipur was too short, and we took a train to Agra.

Agra has the Taj Mahal – so tourists will always flock there – as a result Agra does not need any other attractions, nice hotels, polite, articulate tour guides or nice people – and indeed it has none of these. Instead it has postcard sellers and rip-off shops selling crafts hand-made “by the decedents of the people who created the Taj” – possibly if they have moved to China. Agra is a pit. Even when we decided to splash out and stay in an up-market Holiday Inn we were disappointed with filthy sheets, a rusty bathroom and ugly wall decorations. We couldn’t wait to leave and join the happy little cockroaches on the train down to Varanasi. (to be continued…)

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