Sunday, September 16, 2007

North India 2007

Taj Mahal, Agra, India
8 members of the Himalayas team in Northern India
At 17,582 ft - a test of my physical strength !
A vehicle passing through a stretch of no man's land 
The beautiful Pangong Tso Lake near the Tibetan/North India border
The famous Dal Lake of Kashmir
The snowy Himalayas mountain in Northern India

" My 24 days in Northern India & Himalayas (New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Kashmir, Leh/Ladakh, Manali, McLeod Ganj & Shimla) - admiring the natural beauty of the great Himalayas range "

Total expenses incurred (24 days) : Rs22,449 = Rm3,788

Indian Airline Flight Itinerary
Booking Date: 2-7-07
Flight No: IC 854
Departure: KLIA 11.35am Saturday 14-7-07
Arrive: Indira Gandhi Airport 15.55pm Saturday 14-7-07
Flight No: IC853
Departure: Indira Gandhi Airport 00.50am Tuesday 7-8-07
Arrive: KLIA 10.20am Tuesday 7-8-07
Indian Airline flight: Rm1,410 (incl airport tax)
Travel Insurance: Rm126
Visa fee: Rm170
Bus/taxifare: Rm62
Hostel (19 nights): Rs4,120 (Rm371)
Food + Sundries: Rs3,898 + Rs1,608 (Rm495)
Transport:Rs6,483 (Rm583)
Domestic air ticket ( Delhi>Srinagar): Rs4,000 (Rm360)
Day tour (Agra & Jaipur): Rs1,500 (Rm135)
Entrance fee: Rs840 (Rm76)
Currency conversion: Rs100 (Indian Rupee) = Rm9.00

I joined the Hospitality Club in May 2006 after my retirement. While surfing the HC website in June 07, I saw a message posted by a HC member from New Delhi, India a few months ago inviting overseas members to join him for a visit to the Himalaya range in Ladakh, Northen India. As India was my dream country and I quickly posted my interest in the forum advising of my keen interest in participating. After a few email exchanges with the initiator, I was accepted into the team. The rest was history !

As this was my second backpacking trip, I was very excited of the various challenges I might encounter especially taking the jeep safaris to the Himalaya range, unfamiliar territory, poor living environment, high mountain altitude sickness, food hygiene, climatic changes etc.

As a non traveller berfore retirement, my knowledge in free & easy travelling was rather shallow and there was a big learning curve in terms of planning, booking hostels, understanding the public transport system etc. All this while, my sense of direction was appalling; not familiar at all in taking the MRT (mass rail transit) or LRT (light rail transit) trains even in my own country; not even know how to read a compass, so there was some phobia in me doing such free & easy trips overseas. But my passion for travel has motivated me to take up the challenge and after my 24 days in Northern India, I am proud to say I had overcome the hardship, mental & physical stress in completing this adventurous trip of a life time. I am no dinosaur after retirement and as a junior Senior Citizen (50-65 years category), I reckoned I had done well so far.

For this trip, I was eagered to see these places :

1) The Taj Mahal - a great wonder of the world
2) Kashmir
3) The Himalaya range
4) Leh / Ladakh

I started learning to write my travel blog after my Japan trip in May 08. As my Indian trip was done in July 07 and fortunately I still have the travel plan and pictures stored in my computer , I was able to account and complete this dated task for your reading pleasure.

" Life is short. Break the rules. Go travelling "

Day-1 New Delhi, India 2007

The busy Chuna Mandi, Pahar Ganj - downtown New Delhi

After a 6 1/2 hour flight (transit in Bangkok) , I arrived at the Indira Gandhi airport, New Delhi at around 4.00pm. After passing the custom protocol, I bought a taxi voucher ( Rs260=Rm23) from the Delhi Traffic Police prepaid taxi booth, located on the right hand side of the International terminal entrance for a drive to my hostel located in Chuna Mandi, Pahar Ganj in downtown New Delhi (25km from the airport). I felt a sense of security after buying the taxi voucher as all overseas visitors taking the airport taxis were required to provide their passport details and the taxis number plate to the airport traffic police authorities prior to leaving the airport.

A favourite place for budget travellers

I stayed in Venus International hostel (Rs250=Rm22.50 per room) for the first night, which was booked by my HC member from New Delhi. The journey took more than an hour as the taxi driver had difficulties in finding the hostel.

Stray cows, trishaws, mobile vendors, dusty roads

Pahar Ganj is a favorite haunt for backpackers as the place is dotted with many budget hostels. To me, this was an interesting place to stay as I could see and feel the hustle and bustle of an urban slum area right from the morning to evening for the next few days. Stray cows, dodgy characters, bone shaker taxis, old vintage cars, cycle rickshaws, bicycles, scooters, old buses & local residents & school kids filled up the congested roads, most with potholes and littered with cow dungs. In July, the weather in New Delhi was hot and stuffy , with temperature hovering over 40C. So it can be very challenging, walking during the day as your body will be very sticky with sweats running from your head to toes.

Morning activities in Pahar Ganj
A trishaw driver displaying his skills in transporting a basket of goods

At 6.30pm, I met up with my two HC members from Italy (Valerious) and Spain (Antonio) at the hostel reception. After an hour of chatting and getting to know each other, three of us decided to explore Pahar Ganz by night.

As we strolled along the area, I saw poverty, dirty toilets, dim street lights, homeless kids, beggars, smelly surrounding etc. But I was not complaining ..... despite all the shortcomings, it was an eye opener for me in this fascinating New Delhi !

My 1st day in Pahar Ganj - an eye opener for a first timer to India

So far so good for my first day in New Delhi ! The excitement had yet to begin after I meet all the other HC members from USA, India, Germany, Finland & Vietnam in the next few days for our joint visit to Kashmir & Leh/Ladakh. A total of nine HC members had chosen to come to Northern India for the Himalaya visit.

"Ancient history, vibrant culture, scenic Himalayas - awaiting you as soon as you land in New Delhi "

D-2 New Delhi, India 2007

Early in the morning , Valerios, Antonia & myself decided to check out of the Venus hostel as the airconditioning was not functioning well in all our rooms. We moved to a nearby hostel (Rs300=Rm27) and shared an aircond room with Antonio. At this point of time, I had yet to hear from our HC member (Siren) from Hanoi, Vietnam although she was on a MAS flight departing on the same day with me. The other three members (Janna, Jukka & Don) from Germany, Finland & USA were to arrive either today or tomorrow.

At around 10.00am, we met up with our two HC members ( Caesar & Jaggi ) from New Delhi at our hostel.

In the afternoon, Antonio, Valerios and myself walked towards the busy Chadni Chowk area. In the vicinity, we visited 1) Takmal Sri Harmandier Putnei Sahibji Sikh Temple 2) Fatehpuri Masjid, 3) Digambara Jain Temple 4) Jama Masjid 5) Red Fort & 6) Raj Ghat

1) Takmal Sikh Temple was full of worshippers at the time of our visit. We sat on the carpet for 30mins listening to a musical band playing a number of religious songs-very entertaining indeed !

Takmal Sikh Temple

2) Fatehpuri Masjid is a mid-17 century mosque in the western end of Chandni Chowk.

Fatehpuri Masjid

3) The Digambara Jain Temple is located next to the Bird's Hospital, managed by the Jains to preserve wildlife. After removing our shoes, we had a quick visit of this temple.

The Digambara Jain Temple

4) Jama Masjid is one of the largest mosque in India , built in 1644. It's large courtyard is able to house 25,000 people ! At the front entrance, we had to remove our shoes and was told to leave our cameras at the front reception as no photography was allowed inside the mosque. As we feared losing our cameras, we did not declare to the reception that we carried any cameras along with us. I discreetly took a number of pictures on this magnificent mosque, the two tall minarets, four corner towers, courtyard and the surrounding places. From one of the mosque tower, I could see the ancient Red Fort wall not far away.

The magnificent Jama Masjid mosque - the largest in India
Large courtyard - can hold 25,000 people

5) As Red Fort ( Lal Qila) was closed to the public on Sunday, we were not able to enter. However, I took a few shots on the front entrance and the Red wall. The fort was built in 1638 and completed in 1648 by Emperor Shah Jehan. We passed a morning bazaar market in front of the Jama Masjid on our way to the Red Fort.

Red Fort
A busy morning market

6) Raj Ghat, where Mathama Gandhi was cremated, was our next visit. This place is now a park and is also the burial place for Jawaharial Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. An eternal fire lighted the Gandhi's memorial as a mark of respect for this great national hero and statesman of India. We spent almost an hour in the park and took a taxi (Rs60=Rm5.40 per person) back to our hostel.

Raj Ghat - Gandhi cremation place

I had a local set meal lunch (Rs200=Rm18) at a fast food restaurant in Chadni Chowk and a dinner (Rs100=Rm9) at a lonely planet recommended restaurant in Pahar Ganj.

" Without a tourist guide - we do our own mapping and land ourselves in these fascinating places ie forts, mosques, temples, memorial monuments in this mysterious India"

D-3 New Delhi, India 2007

After taken our breakfast, three of us (Antonio, Valerious & Cheng) shared and hired a taxi (Rs450=Rm40.50 per car) for a full day (8 hrs) and we visited a total of nine touristy places : 1) Lakshmi Narayan Temple 2) Parliament House 3) Ghadhi Smriti 4) Lodi Garden 5) Qutab Minar 6) Lotus Temple 7) Humayun's Tomb 8) India Gate 9) Gurdwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple

1) Lakshmi Narayan Temple - dedicated to Lashmi, the goddess of wealth & Narayan, the Preserver. The domes looked magnificent & grand !

2) The Parliament House, Secretariat buildings in Central Delhi - the power place of Indian politics

3) Gandhi Smriti, this is the memorial and the spot (see the foot steps) where Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead in January 1948. The indoor Gandhi museum has an excellent display of various photos & personal items (walking sticks, spectacles etc) on the life of Gandhi. Two statues of Gandhi were erected at the courtyard and I took a picture of each.

4) The Lodi Garden (like the Lake Garden of Kuala Lumpur) is an ideal place for picnicking , morning and evening strolls. As we took a stroll in the garden, we saw a three domed Bara Gumbad mosque and also the tombs of the Sayyid & Lodi rulers.

The Lodi Garden, mosque & tombs of the Lodi rulers

5) I paid Rs250=Rm22.50 for the entrance fee to see Qutab Minar tower, a world heritage monument which was built in 1193 using Afghan architecture. The tower is 5 storeys high, made of red sandstone. Surrounding the tower, I took pictures of the Tomb of Iman Zamin, Quwwat-ul-Islam masjid and the ruins of pillars and an unfinished tower buildings.

Qutab Minar - impressive tower
Afghan architecture 
Well preserved - still standing tall

6) As I had in earlier years visited the Sydney Opera House of Australia, I was amazed to see the Lotus Temple, its design looked quite similar to that of the Opera House. It would be both these buildings were designed by the same architect. I spent 30 mins in the Bahai House of Worship (Lotus Temple) and observed that a number of people were doing meditation inside this temple.

Lotus Temple -a  great place for meditation

7) This old Humayun's Tomb was built in mid-16th century by a wife of the second Mughal emperor Humayun. I paid Rs250=Rm22.50 for the entrance fee.

The famous Humayun's Tomb

8) At home, I watched CNN news and the India Gate monument had often been used as a landmark or background by TV news correspondents when reporting news of national importance.

The Indian Gate - a symbol of  the nation

9) I really admired this impressive Gurdwara Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, with its golden domes. A signboard at the front narrated a history of this temple, about a Sikh guru who had the spiritual power to cure sick people suffering from an epidemic. The water found in the temple were reported to have healing properties.

Gurdwara Bangla Sikh Temple with its golden domes

In the evening, our Indian team leader, Ceasar invited all the HC members for a home cooked meal at his home. We were all excited as tomorrow, all of us will be flying to Srinagar, Kashmir for our trip to Leh, passing the treacherous Himalayas range along the way.

" Never mind about the local bone shaker taxis. It managed to take us to places we yearn to see "

D-4 Srinagar, Kashmir 2007

This morning , all our HC members took a domestic flight (Rs4,000=Rm360) from Indira Ganhi Airport to Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir. We were in three groups arriving in different time of the day as some of our members had bought their air tickets from their home countries , others bought the tickets after their arrival in new Delhi. Don (USA) and myself flew on the same flight (11.00am) and we arrived in Srinagar at around 12.30pm. The last group arrived at 1.30pm.

As our plane was descending, I had a glimpse of the western Himalayas range and the view was stunning. Srinagar is about 1,730m above sea level and has a population of 1.0mil people. On arrival, I could feel the thin air surrounding the place and for some, the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) could strike at anytime ! It took a few hours for me to acclimatize !

The HC members of the Himalaya team were : 1) K M Cheng - Malaysia 2) Don - USA 3) Caesar - New Delhi 4) Jaggi - New Delhi 5) Antonia - Spain 6) Janna - Germany 7) Jukka - Finland 8) Valerious - Italy. Siren of Vietnam was not able to join our team as she had chosen to travel on her own initially but would try to join us later.

A local home cooked dinner on the house boat
Our members taking a rest near the Dal Lake

Due to the political conflict between India and Pakistan, the airport and the road leading to the Srinagar town was heavily guarded and stationed with soldiers so indeed there was a security risk and tension in this particular region. I prayed hard that no stray bullets and suicide bombers "greeting" us during our nine day stay in Kashmir and Ladakh. At the airport, seven of us shared a jeep ( Rs70=Rm6.30 per person) to take us to the Srinagar town.

Taking a joy ride on a shikaras - local taxi boat
The EU members from Spain, Finland & Italy
Oh - I love the boat ride on Dal lake
The Asian version of the Venice of the East
A row of  houseboats on Dal lake
The jetty linking the Dal Lake to the Srinagar town

Antonio who flew in earlier had booked a houseboat in Dal lake so for the next two nights, this was our group's acommondation in Srinagar - typical Kashmir style ! Each member paid Rs300=Rm27 per night for the lodging and in addition, we paid Rs250=Rm22.50 each for a breakfast ( roti, jam & honey, Kasmir tea & coffee) and dinner (home cooked meal comprising rice, chicken or mutton and vegetables) at the houseboat. The cost also inclusive of the shikaras (gondola-like taxi boats) rides from our houseboat to the shore and return. A very good deal for all of us ! This deluxe houseboat ( called Jamaica) had a lounge, two bed rooms , kitchens and toilets.

This houseboat is big and spacious
Calm & peaceful 
This was the houseboat where we stayed overnight
abundance of  lotus plants in Dal Lake
Lotus plants & weeds - very green & pleasing to look at 

The front was a verandas leaning out over the water where our group liked to laze around and enjoyed our afternoon with Kashmir tea - it had a strong aroma and tasted great ! Most of our members (except me) smoked so the verandas was a great resting place for us to chat and admire the cool air & surrounding environment. There were abundance of lotus plants near our houseboat making the place very green and serene ! After our check in, our group took a shikara ride around the Dal lake and had an evening stroll at the boulevard, the town centre, lined with lots of souvenir shops.

"Dal lake, Shikaras rides , Kashmir tea, lotus plants - what a great place to enjoy our summer vacation before our ascend to the Himalayas range"