India part 3: Sambhar

A huge lake that seemed to stretch all the way to the sky greeted us upon our arrival in Sambhar. Only a two hour drive from Jaipur, Sambhar Heritage Resort has two locations – one in the town of Sambhar and one the other side of Sambhar Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in India. We got a little lost finding the resort but we made it eventually and had our breath taken away by the stunning views across the lake.Shreyans, the manager, welcomed us to Sambhar Heritage Resort. We were given a drink of fresh guava juice with a rim of salt from the lake, and then shown to our rooms which were Swiss tents.The resort rooms are all tents because the land is owned by the government and so permanent structures are not allowed to be built there, other than those already there. One such building is the resort restaurant, NaCl, which is 150 years old and was built by the British. We had a delicious lunch in NaCl and around 3.20pm we set off for our local tour.We were asked if we’d rather drive along the road or across the lake, to which we said definitely across the lake! As it’s dry season the water level in the lake is lower than usual and so it’s possible to drive across part of the lake bed as a shortcut to the other side. We stopped for a few minutes to admire the view and look at the flocks of flamingos through the binoculars Shreyans had considerately brought with him for us to use.As we continued on our way we saw a few nilgai which is the largest of the Asian antelopes and whose name means ‘blue cow’. The females are brown and the males are a blue-grey colour. We got quite close before they bolted.Sambhar Salt Lake is 9% salt with a maximum depth of only 3.5 feet and is about 90 square miles. In comparison the ocean is usually around 3.5% salt.Across the curve of the lake we reached a small peninsula. Here we visited Shakhambari Temple, where there are Indian records showing there has been a temple here for at least 2000 years.In the temple we were blessed by the priest and each given a red bindi, our first of the trip. We then climbed up to a viewpoint where we had a 360 degree view of the lake and the hills behind.In this part of India Marwari is the local language and only a couple of the staff at the resort speak English. Shreyans’ English was excellent, which may be why he was our main contact and guide while we stayed in Sambhar.Once we’d had our fill of the views we drove back through a local village and to a small shop, encountering a few local animals on the way.We went back to the resort where we picked up bicycles so we could cycle along the dam across the lake. After a rather bumpy ride Shreyans showed us agood place to stop and watch flocks of flamingos fly overhead while the sun set. It was beautiful.We cycled back to the resort, and my bike chain came off for the second time whilst Toby’s bike broke completely; he got a ride on the back of the motorcycle Shreyans had ridden in on the back of, while he walked back with Toby’s broken bike.We had a few minutes chilling out in the room then met around 7pm for dinner, which was included in our tour package. We had an Indian feast! To start we had vegetable, noodle and coconut milk soup followed by an appetiser of tikka paneer. We then had palak paneer, mushroom curry and dal, accompanied by garlic naan, saffron rice and salad. This banquet was finished off with a hot carrot pudding, which was interesting in both flavour and texture. I quite liked it but the others weren’t so sure!We ended the evening playing Monopoly Deal with a couple of glasses of beer (or Bacardi breezer in my case) in Jo and Nikki’s room, before a very quiet night’s sleep interspersed with the sounds of wild animals.After a breakfast with all of the food, we went on a tiny train that seats only six people plus staff. It’s around 100 years old, stopped working in the 1970s and was renovated in the last couple of years to be used as a tourist attraction. It still has the same engine as when it had originally. It was used initially by the Britishers and engineers to check on the salt production. They always had to have five people on the train (three in the driver’s cabin and two in the back) as when they got to the far end the train had to be physically picked up and turned around to go back again! So for safety, we also had to have five people as well as us in case the train needed to be picked up and turned around.We rode the train out to the salt pans, with a short stop for the points to be manually changed. The colour of the water, and the stillness was incredible.At the salt pans water is pumped from the lake to the salt pans to a depth of 3-3.5 feet. It is left for about three months didn’t which it evaporates down to about 1-1.5 feet. Salt crystals form on the surface and once they get to a certain density they sink to the bottom. You can literally put your hand in the water and scoop out a handful of salt crystals.The larger pans use tractors to scoop out the salt crystals, the smaller ones in town are done by hand. Once the salt has been removed the remaining water is pumped out back to the lake. This left-over water has a very high bacteria content which means algae grows well which attracts the flamingos to the lake. Workers then remove the top layer of soil in the bottom of the pan by hand, add a fresh layer of soil then pump fresh water in from the lake and the whole process starts over again. Start to finish it takes around 3.5 months. As this is a government enterprise the salt is sold at only 5 rupees per kg. This is very cheap as most companies sell their salt for 12 rupees per kg.We stopped out by the salt pans while the manager Shreyans explained the process to us, and then waited while the workers collected some fresh salt to give us.There are 32 or 33 salt pans here and they produce 10% of the salt consumption for all of India. Sambhar salt is just for Indian consumption, it isn’t exported as mostly Himalayan salt is exported from India.This was our final experience in Sambhar, and absolutely fascinating. We were each given a small pot of the salt that had been collected for us to take home. A perfect souvenir before setting off for our next stop, Jodhpur.

India part 2: Jaipur

We arrived in Jaipur around 10pm after a long day sightseeing in New Delhi followed by a long 5 hour drive. There was a bit of a mix up with the rooms but we (or rather, Toby) got it sorted and we eventually got to bed. We had breakfast at 8am and left at 9am to pick up our local guide, Arvind.

Arvind was a fountain of knowledge about Jaipur. He told us that Jaipur is known as the Pink City, it was founded in 1727, and built by the Hindu Maharaja Jaising. The red ochre colour of the buildings means good luck and welcoming, and was chosen by the Queen of Jaipur at the time. The interior city is 10 square km and surrounded by a wall with gates on the four sides, with a 2 mile 40 yard long straight road from the Sun Gate to the Moon Gate. Hindi is the main language in Jaipur, which is one of 18 languages spoken in India.

Our first stop was the Palace of the Wind. It has 5 floors, lots of tiny windows and was built in 1799.

Next we headed to the Amber Palace. Once we arrived in the small town surrounding the palace, we were asked whether we wanted to ride an elephant up. Toby and Nikki rode an elephant (all the elephants that walk up to the palace are well-looked after and only do a maximum of five trips a day, and are all female); Jo and I went in the car up the hill. Around the town and the package is a 12km long wall, like a mini version of the Great Wall of China. It was built in the 16th century, around the same time as the palace which was completed in 1592 by three different kings and took 25 years to build. In the town is also a palace from the 10th century with the same name.

The town next to the palace, Amber Town, is over 1000 years old. The town and palace names are the same, named after the Hindu goddess Amber, goddess of art. There was a 400-year-old painted fresco of the Hindu goddess Lakmi with lotus flowers, which is her flower and the symbol of prosperity and good luck. In the palace is a saffron garden; saffron is only grown in three places in the world: in Kashmir, India, in Spain and in Iran. Within the palace are two separate areas, the winter palace and the summer palace on opposite sides. In the winter palace is a mirrored room made with glass imported from Belgium. Interestingly, the Maharaja had a wheeled chair as he had 4kg of jewellery that he wore and so he couldn’t walk when wearing it all. He had 12 wives, and each wife had her own apartment within the palace.

Another thing our guide told us was about the Indian caste system. Hinduism is all across India, and there are 4 castes – priest is the highest level then warrior, merchant and lower caste. Maharajas are all warrior caste, which means the priests are above them although don’t have any wealth. Families are very traditional in India; people must marry within their caste and around 90% of marriages are arranged. When daughters get married their parents must provide a dowry, which means that in a poorer family with several daughters some of them may never marry. However the divorce rate is very low with only 5-10% of marriages ending in divorce. Unfortunately, due to this traditional outlook, a high percentage of women are still illiterate, mostly in the countryside.

Next we went to see Jal Mahal, the Water Palace, which was built in the 18th century and was where the Maharaja and queen would stay in the summers.

Jaipur is known for block printing fabric. Wooden blocks are used (minimum 1, maximum 7) or metal blocks for silk, to print intricate designs on a large sheet of fabric. This fabric is then turned into clothes, scarves, cushion covers, bed spreads and much more. Only vegetable dyes and all natural fabrics are used. Once the fabric has been printed it is then left in the sun for 40-60 hours then washed 2 or 3 times to fix the colours. They have to stop production in monsoon season, but otherwise it continues all year. According to the manager of the store, block printing is like a married man, never perfect! But that’s part of what makes it unique. More than 400 families living in nearby villages work on this project. After the demonstration we looked around the shop where they sell all the products and we were shown samples of all the different fabrics. None of us bought anything, although it was all very interesting.

Next it was time for lunch, and this time we had a buffet for 600 rupees at Aanandam restaurant. The food was fine, although not as good as lunch the previous day.

After lunch our guide took us to the City Palace, or the Palace of the Maharaja. We decided not to go in as cost was 3500 rupees (about £35) for the full tour, 2000 rupees (£20) for half or 700 rupees (£7) just for the museum.

As we were leaving we saw a small boy (who we had also seen at the Water Palace) who wanted to show us some magic. As it seemed he had followed us all the way there and waited for us we agreed to watch his magic show. He was actually really good. We just hoped that the tip Toby gave him wouldn’t be taken from him by older street children.

Next we went to Jantar Mantar, which means ‘instrument of calculation’. This is a large complex of huge astronomical instruments that are part of the buildings. It was built in 1728 by the founder of Jaipur city and took 6 years to build. The various instruments are used to calculate the angle of the sun, planets and constellations, as well as make people’s horoscopes. You can also find the biggest sun dial in the world here, and loads of chipmunks running up and down one of the trees.

Finally our guide took us to a spice market stall, some flower stalls and a small bazaar (which was really a line of small shops) selling jewellery, shoes and clothes.

On the way back to our hotel we drove past Albert Hall, which was built in 1876 and named after Prince Albert who came over from London to visit Jaipur around that time.

For dinner we explored the area near our hotel and eventually found a place not too far away. We ended our stay in Jaipur with some tasty food and a couple of drinks.

India part 1: New Delhi

Travelling from Hong Kong to New Delhi, India, turned into a bit of a saga. To begin with our flight time was changed to an hour later. We boarded for the new flight time of 8.35am and then sat on the tarmac until finally taking off at 10.10am. Probably because of this delay, we then had to make an unscheduled landing in Varanasi to refuel! We eventually landed in New Delhi at 3.50pm, 3 and a half hours later than scheduled. By the time we got our luggage, found an ATM and got sim cards, the driver who was picking us up to take us to our hotel had been waiting around 7 hours for us! I felt really bad for him, but there was nothing Toby and I could do except explain and apologise.

Another hour and twenty minutes later, and we arrived at our hotel for the night where we met our friends Nikki and Jo who we would be travelling with for the next two weeks. We had a delicious dinner of paneer tikka butter masala with garlic naan in the hotel restaurant, and then went straight to bed.The next morning began the first day of our tour. At 9am after breakfast we were collected from our hotel by our driver, Swami, who was to be with us for the whole two week tour. We picked up our local guide for the day, Shiva, and drove to our first site: Jama Mosque.

A flight of steps rose up to the entrance, where we had to leave our shoes and rent a long robe (women only) to wear over our clothes. Built in 1650-1656, Jama Mosque is the largest mosque in India and is still used for religious ceremonies and services as well as being a tourist attraction.

After a tour of the main courtyard and building, we were asked if we wanted to climb the tower for an extra 100 rupees. Of course we said yes, and proceeded to climb the 120 very narrow, steep and twisty steps to the top. At the top there was no barrier around the stairs so it felt rather precarious on the tiny landing, especially as there were four other people already up there. However, it was definitely worth it for the view.

After returning the robe and paying a small fee to the man who was looking after our shoes, we drove to the Rajghat – the memorial for Mahatma Ghandi. He was cremated in Delhi and his ashes were scattered in the rivers of India. The stones of those rivers were then placed around the memorial.

It was very peaceful, and I found it quite surprising that such a large, green area was in the middle of New Delhi after all the noise and dust of the traffic just a short distance away. Flying just overhead were many eagles, which I also found surprising as I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in one place in the wild.

We drove past the president’s house which was surrounded by people setting up for celebrations for Republic Day on 26th January. We weren’t allowed to stop as tourists aren’t allowed in any of the 340 rooms in the president’s house. India has a president as well as a prime minister; our guide Shiva told us that the president is just a signatory with no actual powers and the prime minister is the main person in charge. He also told us a little of the history of India: Independence Day is celebrated on 15th August; India was ruled by the Moguls 1246-1857 and ruled by the British 1857-1947. He also told us that Muslims always used red stone for buildings with some white marble to make it beautiful, apart from the Taj Mahal which is all white marble, whereas the British always used sandstone so this is how you can tell who built various buildings.

The India Gate was our next – very brief – stop. A huge war memorial of the British times and reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, it was built 1912-1929 at the same time as the president’s house and parliament buildings. This is the VIP area of the city, with all the buildings designed by the same architect, Edwin Ludynes.

Our next stop was a delightful restaurant called Suribachi for lunch, which was so delicious! We shared dishes of paneer butter tikka masala, cauliflower curry, broccoli roasted with yogurt and cheese, garlic naan and saffron rice. I tried to order fresh lime juice but instead was given salted lime juice. I asked for sweet lime juice instead and they just added sugar to the same drink so it was still salty, if a little less so. I tried to ask again for sweet not salty and the same thing was repeated. On the fourth attempt I finally managed to get a fresh drink with just sugar and no salt added! A classic example of the language barrier in effect, but I was none the worse for wear and tried a salty lime juice drink I would never have ordered otherwise.

After lunch we were taken to a shop selling carpets made from Kashmir wool, pashmina and silk. We were given a talk about how the carpets are made on a hand loom: a carpet 2.5ft by 4ft takes 5 months to make; a carpet 6 by 9ft takes 14 months with 282 knots pet square inch, and costs £1485 delivered to your home somewhere in the world; the largest size carpet takes 2.5 years to make. They draw the design on graph paper first then transfer it to a coded chart, which they follow on the loom. The carpets are hand-knotted: each knot is individually tied, pushed down into the row and cut. Each is cut downwards which gives a diagonal direction to the pile, and you can then tell the difference between a hand-knotted carpet and a machine made carpet. Also cutting the threads diagonally gives a different shade of colour depending which direction you look at it, dark one side, light the other, which machine-made carpets don’t have. Then the row is pushed down and the base threads are switched front and back before repeating the whole process with the next row. The edging is done separately. When the carpet is finished on the loom it’s taken off and trimmed with special scissors flat on the floor. Only natural vegetable dyes are used to dye the threads. The back is as good as the front with the design, which is another way of telling hand-made carpets from machine-made. The carpets are always washed before being sold as they have been on the loom for months, or sometimes even years.

Our final stop of the day was Qutub Minar, which is named after the person who designed it and had it built, and is a UNESCO World heritage site. It was built in 1193-1210 and is 72.5 metres tall – the tallest building from the 12th century – with 379 stairs to the top. The buildings next to it were built in the 4th century as a Hindu temple but then were converted into a mosque when the minar was built.

In 1296-1311 work on the nearby Alai tower began. It was planned to be 150 metres tall but Alai, who was building it, died and no one else thought it could be done so it was left unfinished and only the base remains.

Once we left the Qutub Minar our tour guide Shiva left, with a tip of 1000 rupees from us, to catch the bus. We set off on a 5 hour drive to Jaipur after a fantastic first day in New Delhi, India.

Summer Adventure part 1: Beijing

My epic summer adventure – travelling from China to the UK by train across Asia and Europe – began with two days in Beijing.

Myself and my friend Emily arrived quite late on Sunday night and were met at the airport by the guide arranged through RealRussia, with whom we had booked the first part of our adventure – Beijing to Moscow via Ulaan-Baatar, Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg. Emily decided that she wanted to see the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square at dawn, which meant she had to leave at 4am to get there in time. I decided to stay in bed! And when she returned a few hours later I was quite glad I had as her description of the event was “underwhelming”. Her advice – don’t bother getting up for it. Most of the square is cordoned off, which means you end up standing a fair distance away behind the huge crowds of people that have also made the trip, the soldiers are in their standard uniform and the music is canned.

After Emily’s return around 6am we both went back to sleep for a while before starting our day properly about 9.30am. We found out we were too late for the hotel breakfast, which finished at 9am, so we found a little noodle bar down the road for brunch instead.

Having replenished ourselves we set off for the Summer Palace. Emily had intended to visit the Forbidden City after watching the flag raising ceremony, however, contrary to the information on the website, it is closed every Monday.

We had a lovely day at the Summer Palace, which is huge. Even though I’d been there before, because we entered through a different gate I saw a great deal of the grounds, lakes and buildings I hadn’t seen before. We took a boat ride across the lake from the market street to the bridge with seventeen arches, which wasn’t particularly cheap but was a really nice a relaxing way to get around and see the palace and its grounds.

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With a pit-stop for coffee (Emily) and ice cream (both of us) halfway through our visit, we finally left at around 4pm (once we’d figured out how to get out! You’d think there would be signs…) to head back towards the hutong we were staying in. We were due to meet a friend of Emily’s but as he was late we had a wander around the hutongs and along the main street of the area. Lined with shops, stalls, cafes and various other food and souvenir products, it was a lively bustle of music, smells, people and fascinating things to see; everything from the shop selling handmade porcelain ocarinas shaped like different animals, to ice creams shaped like roses, delicate fans of every colour and design you could imagine, to someone dressed as a hot dog to attract people to the American-style diner.

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MaoMaoChong was our next port of call – a great little cocktail bar in the hutong with an excellent range of cocktails, an owner who speaks English and is happy to cater to your tastes, and delicious pizzas. It was there we met Emily’s friend Z and his girlfriend J and tried some of the tasty cocktails for ourselves. This was followed by dinner at a local place that served a whole leg of lamb over a hot grill in the middle of the table, accompanied by homemade bread and various side dishes such as black fungi, radishes with black bean sauce and a white, thinly sliced vegetable with some kind of gloopy sauce. The lamb was absolutely delicious; so much so that we ordered a second!

We ended the evening having a couple of drinks at a different local bar that has several homebrews as well as a Shenzhen special (which I found quite surprising!). Luckily for me, the owner told me I could order a non-beer drink via him from the restaurant next door and they would even bring it through for me. It was a great end to the first day of our trip.

The following day Emily had booked a hike along a lesser known part of the Great Wall with an organisation called Great Wall Fresh. It’s a family runs business that grows all their own produce and escorts visitors on hikes of various routes and challenges, whilst also providing them with a healthy home grown meal before and after their journey. I had already decided that wasn’t for me, so after having breakfast together and wishing Emily well, I went back to bed for a bit. I was still on sleep catch-up after a really long semester.

In the afternoon I went for a wander around the huntongs by our hotel. It was lovely just wandering around the little back streets, passing odd shops here and there and admiring the traditional architecture wherever I came across it. After a while I came to the back of the nearby temple the hotel staff had told me about before I set off. I followed the wall around to the entrance and discovered it was a huge and well-known temple called Yonghe Temple. I spent well over an hour exploring the grounds which were pervaded by the scent of incense. Looking at the different styles of architecture that had been used for the different temples within the complex during different periods of time or because of variations in the local religion gave an interesting insight into the history of the place. You’re not allowed to take photos inside any of the buildings as they are all still used as active places of worship and prayer; this gives each temple a sense of peace and dignity that all visitors respect, regardless of their own beliefs.

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After a bite to eat for dinner at a random place I found in the same area we’d been the night before, I headed back to the hotel to meet Emily after her Great Wall adventure. We decided that we’d enjoyed the cocktails so much the night before we had to go back and try some different ones. We were not disappointed. We also tried the pumpkin, pine nut, rocket and feta pizza, which was delicious and the perfect accompaniment to the cocktails.

We ended the evening with a walk through the huntongs and along the canals to a lake, all beautifully lit among the trees, and had a final drink at the East Shore Jazz Café overlooking the lake. Unfortunately there was no live music and so we were the only people in there, but it was nice and relaxing.

When we got back to our hotel, our other friend Louise had arrived (she was supposed to be on the same flight with us to Beijing but had been delayed), so we said hi to her before going to bed.

The following day began our Trans-Mongolian Railway journey with 28 hours on a train from Beijing to Ulaan-Baator, Mongolia.