As an avid James Bond fan the scene involving Bond camouflaged as a crocodile while swimming out to a Lake Palace is one I can easily recall. The scenes were filmed in the beautiful city of Udaipur so I was looking forward to seeing it myself as we drove into Udaipur. However first we had to find somewhere to park the truck. The area around the lake is a maze of narrow lanes full of motorbikes and people jostling to get by. As we were to find out its tight even in a tuk tuk so clearly no place to take the truck. Fortunately away from the lake the streets are wider and we found a hotel with decent street parking from where a short tuk tuk ride would take us to the magical lake shore. The views around the lake are magnificent. As the sun sets over the nearby hills, there are views onto the massive City Palace (the second largest in India) as well as across the lake to the famous Lake Palace. The Lake Palace is now an expensive hotel and I would have treated the family to a stay there except there was no parking for the truck! Instead we settled for a delightful dinner right on the lakeside with wonderful views to all the major sights. Heading back into the narrow maze of lanes the next day we struggled through the mass of motorbikes, rickshaws, people and street vendors to the City Palace. Here the girls toured the palace deciding how each room would be used if they were Maharajahs. The palace was over 400 years old and over 240m long. Over the years the various Maharajahs had added to it with each of them introducing their own slightly different style. We enjoyed our time wandering round looking at the mass of balconies, towers and cupolas as well as the multitude of inner courtyards hidden away from view from the outside. At the end of the day we enjoyed another lovely meal, this time from a rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake. Whilst Udaipur is a delightful city with plenty of sights and smells it's the view over the lake that make it really stand out. From Udaipur we were heading to Jodphur. An Indian friend of Gilly's had recommended a beautiful hotel just outside Jodphur and said we should definitely stay there if we were passing. Gilly had also previously recommended this hotel to a friend in Prague who gave it a glowing review. Looking at our map we could see it was only a kilometre off the road we would be taking. After the nights we had spent in petrol stations we felt we deserved a little splurge. Also the following day was Republic Day, a National holiday so things could be even more crazy than normal. There was only one problem, looking online it was fully booked. Still it was only a kilometre out of the way so why not just pop in and see. On arrival we were met by the friendly manager who scoured the reservation book. After a couple of minutes he explained yes we can squeeze you in come and look at your room. He took us down narrow corridors to a delightful courtyard. Inside there was a four poster bed and a beautiful spacious room, we were hooked. What a fantastic place to stay for a couple of nights. A tranquil sanctuary away from the hecticness of India. The hotel Rohet Garh is set in a small village about 40kms south of Jodhpur. The manor/fort is almost 400 years old and is still owned by the original family who live on the premises. There were delightful views over the lake and apart from a short walk into the village we spent our time enjoying the facilities of the hotel and it's beautiful grounds. Whilst there were activities on offer we were content to just relax. Unfortunately there was some unseasonal rain but it didn't stop us enjoying our stay. The meals were beautiful served in a roof top tent and accompanied by local music which Lucy loved, practicing her Indian dancing some more. There was also a magician which the children enjoyed so much we went to see his show twice. On our last evening a well dressed Indian gentlemen approached us as we were having drinks in the garden. He asked us where we were from and about our trip etc. When we asked him where he was from he proudly said here. He was the latest in the long line of rulers of the area and had been responsible for turning his lovely home into a heritage hotel. After our short break it was time to throw ourselves back into India. Jodhpur was only 40kms away on a good road but again the main sights are down narrow lanes so we scouted the outskirts for somewhere suitable to park. The main road was under repair and we were diverted onto another dual carriageway. Just after our turn there was a bridge under the railway. It was clear we could not fit under the bridge so I pulled onto the hard shoulder. Now what to do. Well there was nothing for it we would have to do a three point turn on our side of the dual carriageway and then drive along it the wrong way back to the junction. So that's what we did. Except this time when Gilly jumped out to stop the traffic she used a whistle as she had seen parking attendants use. As we turned back into the street from where we had come a policeman waved for us to stop. Gilly just shouted back "It would help if you had some bloody signs" , waved back at him and we continued on our way. Fortunately it was shortly after that that we found somewhere to stay. Jodhpur is also known as the Blue City. Previously people from the Brahmin caste painted their houses blue. Now everyone in the city is allowed to do it so looking down on the city you see a riot of blue everywhere. The town is also dominated by a huge fort set on a rocky outcrop overlooking the city. The fort is over 550 years old and was the seat of power for miles around. Today it's a museum and touring it makes for an interesting afternoon looking back into some of the history of Rajahstan. After visiting the fort we enjoyed ourselves just wondering around the maze of streets, avoiding being run over by the rickshaws and motorbikes whilst peering into the shopfronts to see what was on sale. Each area of the town seemed to specialise in a certain item be it jewellery, spices or just plain old fruit and veg. We finished the day with another lovely meal on a roof top with the bustle of the town beneath us and the mighty fort staring down on us. As we move on the landscape is starting to become drier but now the real desert should begin.
It's a rather grand sounding blog title to describe our wanderings this week through some impressive religious ruins in Central India. India is a hugely spiritual place for several religions and we've covered a lot of them - Buddhism at Ajanta caves; Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism at Ellora caves; and an ancient Islamic city at Mandu. But let's start with some more practical points, we've been driving through rural India now for several weeks. We stocked up with provisions in Varanasi but our stores have run low. Shopping in the small towns has taken some adjusting to. It is usually Steve who does the shopping while the girls do school. Being highly organised he likes to shop once a week with a strict list of items for meals he has planned in advance (as much as I tease him about his tendencies, it works for him and we all enjoy the fruits of his labours). It's not that there isn't food in these towns but as most people are almost completely self-sufficient small scale farmers the range in the shops and stalls is rather limited. It has been like one of those TV shows where they arrive with a bag of random foods and the chief has to create a meal with it. "Can we make a week's meals out of a cauliflower, potatoes, onions, peas, bananas, tomatoes, eggs and lots of crisps?" he asked after his foraging trip into a village near one of the tiger parks. We tried lots of other towns on the road but they all had virtually the same things. As an avid carnivore he felt this diet was definitely lacking - cows are sacred; sheep rare; goat needs a lot of cooking; and having seen what pigs eat here on the side of the road even he is not keen on eating them. That leaves chickens which can be brought "fresh, fresh" (i.e. live) on the side of the road on the edges of towns. As most people don't have fridges they take them home alive but the sellers will deal with them for you if you ask. They've been delicious but personally I'd prefer them all packaged and tidy like in Tescos. Ajanta Caves have one of the prettiest locations in the whole of India, situated in a horseshoe bend on the remote Waghore River. We had spent the previous night 4kms away in the carpark at the main entrance, so rose early and hiked through quiet forest and fields. It was blissfully quiet and so wonderful to starch our legs after so long sitting in the truck. We arrived at the caves just as the first shuttle bus pulled up divulging scores of noisy school kids. As a former teacher, I'm used to loud school trips but Indian kids even impress me with their volume. If they are rich enough to have a phone, they are also very keen on selfies with foreigners, which gets a bit tiring after a while. We sneaked passed the group while they were being lined up by their teachers and climbed up to the start of the 29 caves. They were cut out of the rock between 2nd Century B.C. to the 6th Century A.D. by devout Buddhists as a place of meditation. To protect the exquisite tempera paintings, the lights were on low which made them even more atmospheric. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness we could make out the beautiful carved pillars, mandalas, figures and at the end in an antechamber was a seated statue of Buddha. As the kids caught us up, we slid out. The caves were a mixture of prayer halls, monasteries and monk's cells, wonderfully carved out of the solid rock and silently atmospheric. We were pleased we kept ahead of the crowds, as we climbed to the lookout on the opposite bank of the river we could see hordes of people arriving to admire the caves. It's impressive that so many people are keen to see their cultural heritage, many countries would love to have their population so interested in the past. It was just a couple of hours drive from Ajanta to another set of caves, Ellora. As Ajanta's time passed Ellora rose from600-1000 A.D. It wasn't just the Buddhists that were busy here but the Hindus and the Jains too, showing impressive religious tolerance as they are side by side. We were completely blown away by the Hindu Kailasa Temple, the biggest monolithic structure in the world. It's hard to believe that this huge temple complex was carved from one piece of solid rock over 150 years by 7000 labourers. It's solid structure was softened by delicate carvings. Climbing up to its surrounding galleries you got a real sense of the the amazing engineering that took place 1300 years ago, as you could see the jagged rock above morph into the smooth contoured lines of the temple below. Huge monasteries, temples and stunning statues were contained in the 33 other caves. I couldn't really think of them as "caves", even though they are contained within a rock face because they are all such unique man-made buildings with no rough surfaces or the smell of bat guano. Heading northwards towards Udipur in Rajasthan, a 3 day drive, Steve picked out a spot about half-way along to have a break from our now usual petrol station night parking places during our long drives. "It's in the middle of nowhere. I think it has some ruins and it's only a few kilometres off the highway," so we took the narrow winding road to Mandu through villages away from the dual-carriageway. What a good call, it turned out that Mandu was a delightful set of Afghan ruinsfrom the 15th Century. Scattered on the top of an escarpment and set amongst several villages. Pink sandstone mosques, madrassas and palaces glowed enticingly in the lateafternoon sun as we wandered into the main village to take a look. We were the only visitors and we could enjoy them at leisure while the girls made up stories about what it might be like there when it was in its heyday. The next morning, it was the same story as we had the immaculately manicured Royal Enclave ruins to almost ourselves. No one comes to India looking for solitude, in a country of 1.2 billion people it can be hard to find a quiet spot sometimes, but it made a nice change. The ruins were extensive and full of gorgeously designed bathing pools with layers of steps for the palace's harem. We could picture the place lit up by flickering oil lamps and billowing curtains full of the emperor's 1500 wives, straight out of 101 Arabian Nights. As we wandered back to our parking spot in a hotel's grounds, people smiled and said 'Namaste," as we passed by. The friendly food stall owner, where we had bought chapatis the night before (we were trying to substitute them for tortillas so we could have Mexican....yes, you guessed it....chicken) waved us over too see what was bubbling in the pot. It was just that sort of place, relaxed and friendly. "Let's just stay another night, it may be a while till we find another place so tranquil," I suggested. It was several kilometres south to one of the main draws of the ruins, Rupmati's Pavilion, which comes with a tragic romantic story, made famous by local folk songs. It wasn't quite as relaxed as that morning with lots of school groups and other visitors but it was beautiful. By now the girls and Steve, were out right refusing the selfie takers but I was happy to join the families or teenage girls for a quick snap until it got to the point that I couldn't really look around because of so many photo requests. In a couple of months we want to do a big trek in Nepal, so we took the long walk back through villages to help us get fit. It was lovely in the late afternoon strolling through the very rural farming villages, people smiled and waved as we passed by. Mandu was an unexpected gem and definitely worth stopping for a couple of nights. As we left we could see that the ruins were scattered far and wide across the top of the escarpment, we even had to squeeze the truck through several ancient city gates on the main road down. It was exciting as we drove northwards when we started to see camels trains and men with ridiculously big bright turbans and twirly moustaches herding sheep along the motorway, it could only mean one thing....we were getting closer to Rajasthan.
You need to be patient to spot tigers. The jeep stopped again for the umpteenth time as we listened for alarm calls from the deer announcing that a tiger was on the move. But all we could see as we peered into the undergrowth was more of the beautiful Sal forest. You have to be patient I kept reminding myself. We were in Bandhavgarh National Park, supposedly one of the best places in India to see tigers, on our third safari drive and yet we were still out of luck. One of the advantages of the way we travel is that we are not on a fixed schedule, so I thought no problem we can just stay another day. One of the disadvantages with the Tiger parks is they are popular and we hadn't booked entrance permits in advance. Even so a small number of jeep tickets were sold each day on a first come first served basis. So it was just a matter of queuing. I had become quite adept over the last few days of queuing Indian style. On the morning of our third safari we had an advantage. We were parked up in the complex where the ticket office was. Each night the watchman locked the gates. The ticket office opened at 5am but the gates we were told would open sometime after 4am. The alarm went off at 4am and I quickly dressed in as many layers as I could and stumbled out into the freezing pitch black, I rooted myself directly in front of the ticket window knowing this time, I couldn't be elbowed out of the way as other guys had tried to do previously. With so few last minute spots available, I was determined we were going to get in. Each jeep holds 6 people and as there were two other guys travelling independently they joined us for the morning safari. I am really glad they did. It was late morning and we were just discussing doing it all again the next day when one of the other travellers shouted "Stop, I see something, back up". We slowly backed up and could see something moving in the distance in the forest, it was a tiger. Then the guide said look there are two of them. Excitedly we watched as they walked towards us. It was a young female followed by a massive male. She was coming into season but was not ready for the male yet. He of course just kept following her, which she was not happy about and kept snarling and roaring her displeasure. They sat down about 30metres away shaded by some bush and we watched and waited. A few other jeeps arrived at which point the female stood up, now she was annoyed both by the male and the attention of the jeeps. She walked a step towards us, then crouched, her ears went back and she roared as she leapt towards us. Our guide shot up and shouted back at her and she didn't advance anymore. Talk about your hairs standing up on the back of your neck. The jeeps sensibly moved back a bit to allow a corridor for the tigers to move through. As they moved across the road we could see the big difference in size between the male and the female as well as enjoy their magnificence. And then no sooner had they moved off the road and they were gone blending back into the jungle. What a sight and privilege to witness such majestic animals in their natural habitat. Whilst the previous two game safaris had not been as exciting we still got to see an array of Indian wildlife; sambar deer, spotted deer, wild boar, langur monkeys, barking deer as well as a wide range of birds. The reserve was like a tiny island of forest in the mass of humanity that is India. It was lovely to be in such a tranquil area and just a shame so few of these areas still exist. I suppose that's what makes them more special. We left Bandhavgarh NP and headed to Kanha NP which was supposedly the inspiration for the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. In this part of the state of Madhya Pradesh the roads were surprisingly good. It was a very rural area and the roads were narrow but they were well tarred and traffic was light. We could enjoy the scenery as we travelled of people working in the fields and the little villages we passed through. At Kanha NP we found a hotel which had a big parking area we could stay in. The owner was very helpful and friendly, even standing in the queue with me for tickets the following day. The next morning was bitterly cold, there was frost in the grass, but we set out hopeful of more tiger. Kanha is home to some rare Swamp Deer and is the only park they are found in and we were lucky to see some as well as jackals and some of the same species of animals we had seen before. Gilly even saw a jungle cat but I was too slow and couldn't see or photograph it. We did get to see a tiger again but a long way in the distance. We saw it stroll across some long grass before melting back into the jungle. For some such a fleeting glance would still be fantastic but now after our previous sighting we were greedy for more so we headed onto our third park, Pench NP. On arrival we found an agent who could sort out the bookings for us, great no queuing. There was availability for the Monday morning after the weekend rush. It's great to see so many locals enjoying their parks but it does make getting permits harder unless you book well in advance. With a day to kill we decided to take a safari in the buffer zone next to the park. We didn't expect to see tiger (early morning is the best time) but it was still a pleasant drive where we could enjoy the animals and birds of the forest and as it was in the afternoon it was a lot warmer. We had camped up for the night just outside the village on effectively the village common land. People here were friendly without been over intrusive, sometimes an issue in India, and we had a pleasant wander around the village. We were up early again for our last safari. Would we get lucky? Well we again saw an array of wildlife including Indian Bison which we had not seen before. Stopping to listen to the sounds of the jungle we could hear Deer alarm calls on both sides of us, signs of tigers moving but we couldn't see anything. It all went quiet so we continued with the drive. A short while later our driver returned to the area where the calls had been coming and there sat by a tree was a young male tiger. We weren't the first jeep to see it and soon a number of jeeps were lined up along the road. The tiger started to move off and the jeeps started moving too. We were at the back and worried we would not see much but as the jeeps bunched together the tiger changed course and came around the back of us, not more than 10 metres from our jeep and with us having a wonderfully unobstructed view. After he crossed the road with nonchalance the tiger paused to scent mark a bush and then to proudly walk off into the jungle off which he is no doubt, the King. In fact the tiger was so close, Alisha got better photos with her camera than we did with ours using the big zoom. It was a great end to a week of safaris in the National Parks of Madhya Pradesh but it was time to leave and see some more of India. Let's just hope the roads are good.