Friday, March 27, 2015

Rajasthan 2015 - Feb 8th - Day 5: Onwards to Jodhpur via Ajmer

To read the previous post, click HERE.

We left Jaipur behind us on the morning of 8th February. Although our official itinerary did mention that we would pass through Pushkar, our driver informed us that the latter place was only known for its industrious locals and India's only temple dedicated to Lord Brahma. We decided to give this place a slip, and bypassing the city, we directly proceeded to Ajmer.

What can I say about this place? It is an unique place for prayers. We reached it around eleven o'clock. Normally, cars are not permitted to traverse inside if the city, so our driver left us at a drop-off point. From there, we walked toward the burial and prayer site of the Khwaja past a hustling bustling market, made colourful by the shop-keepers selling colourful stationery, colourful clothes and scarves and caps and much more.

The entrance to the "dargah" of the Khwaja is a double gate affair. Once you are through both the gates (having left your shoes with some guys who will take care of them for a fee), you push through the crowds. There is no atmosphere of piety or quiet inside. There are hordes of pilgrims, workers, touts (who are willing to take you ahead of the queue for a quick dekho of the grave of the celebrated fakir) and many who will guide you to the different places within so that they can get a "fee" as well as take you to one of the many "charity organisations" that collect the money you blindly give in the name of the saint with the avowed intention of using it for preparing the food that is served free to the thousands who throng here and for other charitable purposes. Beware of these touts who look and talk like the genuine thing, but have no badges or IDs.

After the Ajmer visit, we proceeded onward to Jodhpur, which is a good distance away. Nothing much occurred to write about. The hotel we were lodged in at Jodhpur was outside the main city at a place called Marugarh. It was, in fact, a resort. Very unique and outstanding in design and architecture, they have spoiled it all be lending out the resort and the grounds for wedding functions. On the evening of our arrival, nearly 100 local guests dressed in finery were roaming the grounds, and many of them, we observed, were wearing heavy jewellery and being very ostentatious. We were assigned adjoining rooms on the first floor of one of the 2-storey residential comp. Rooms were nice. There was nothing for us to do as we had already fixed up our Jodhpur sight-seeing for when we returned to Jodhpur again after visiting Jaisalmer. We had dinner in the resort's uniquely designed restaurant in the company of many white guests from either Europe, Americas or Australia. They were clearly enjoying themselves, gorging on authentic Rajasthani food.

Here are a few memories of the Marugarh Resort:

Interesting, isn't it? That's all for now. Keep returning for more entries ... we still have to go to Jaisalmer, see the sights in Jodhpur, go to Ranakpur, Udaipur, Mt. Abu, etc.

Click HERE to read the next post. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

News from India

Life is hectic once again, now that I am in Mumbai! After a half-day's rest, recuperating from the difficult journey from KSA to India, I was back on my toes from Monday morning. There is so much to do, and such little time to do it in! I was busy organising my files and receipts on the first morning, then checking all the books and documents that were sent to me by various peoples and organisations by snail mail. I was also busy inviting guests to join me in a small get-together in the coming week. The invitee list kept growing until we had touched 200! The so-called small get-together was no longer as small as I would have liked it to be, and we seemed to be forgetting so many people. By the time I finished inviting everyone by phone, it was past noon.

A visit to my mom was an important part of my agenda and it filled nearly 3 hours. I also had some official things to do, and it was nearly sundown when I reached the end of my to-do list (it was all in my mind). I made a few discoveries that were pleasant and a few that weren't. In the first list would be the fact that both my daughters are now quite independent. When my elder one arrived home, she brought with her several "thingies" for her new iPad Mini. She was so excited with the new pad that I have gifted her on her 24th birthday that she bought a new tempered glass cover, a new plastic cover, and some shiny, blingy stickers to put over her new possession. 

Hannah is busy with preparing for her board exams. She will, on passing this final exam, get her graduation in Bachelor of Management Studies (B. Com.). She is also looking to get recruited by companies, but hasn't found an employment as yet. 

In Mumbai, life is as usual. The last visit I made in February, I was able to travel down the Metro as well as the Eastern Freeway. One of the things I have not done so far is travelling on the other new transport system - the Monorail. 

Mumbai Monorail

Also pending is a visit to the Bandra Worli sea-link. Let me see if that occurs soon during this visit.
Bandra-Worli sea-link by day

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That's it for now. Please do return to read my previous posts, and if you think this blog is useful, please sign up for updates by clicking in the appropriate box on the right (Subscribe to this blog link). Thank you.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Reached India ...

The last week has been a bit hectic; there have been a few incidents that I would like to share, a few items of news and some other information. As I told you all in my previous entries, I started my leave within Al Muwayh last week itself; a few days later, I started organising my leave and its later repercussions. I finally completed all such tasks by Monday. On that day, I filled up an online application for a UK visa in preparation for my forthcoming visit to that country to attend a conference on Patient Safety and Quality in London from the 21st to the 24th of April 2015. I took an application appointment for their Jeddah office for the 19th of March. Accordingly, I packed my bags and left for Taif on the 18th. This time, the Ahle Saif Hotel had no rooms, so I took up a room in the hotel right opposite their hotel. It is called the Judur e Masief hotel. The Egyptian manager gave me a nice ground floor room for SR 70 per night. Initially, I did not know whether I would continue to stay in Taif or return to Al Muwayh for a night before going back to Jeddah for my flight to India on Saturday night.

In the event, I never did return to Al Muwayh. The Jeddah trip was a complete waste of time, money and effort. This was simply a center to accept a visa application, not to process or adjudicate on it. Hence, and also because they told me they would need my original passport to send it with my application to Riyadh where the UK embassy was located, I returned empty-handed. And wasted nearly 350 Riyals in the process. Afterwards, I called up the UK Immigration and Visa office (a premium call where you have to subscribe by credit card ... they charge you GBP 1.37 per minute!). They told me that there was no need to complete a business visit visa from the country of one's residence, and one could apply from anywhere else in the world. After this, I went ahead and applied once again, this time choosing Mumbai, India as my base station. And took an appointment for the coming Tuesday. Let us see how this goes ...

This time, I had booked my journey online through www.jetairways.com. They run flights from Jeddah to Mumbai ... however, the planes are not the big-sized ones but the usual Airbuses. Even so, I booked my journey with them. I reached Jeddah airport a bit early at around half past five in the evening for a journey that was still 7 hours away. I spent the next 3 hours going through my luggage and dumping a few old things like unwanted papers, old towels and such to bring the weight of my luggage down to less than 50 kg, of which the allowed luggage in the check-in category was 40 kg, while the cabin luggage allowance was 10 kg including the laptop bag. I exceeded both categories by up to 5 kg or so. The going rate for excess luggage was SR 76 per kg of excess. I pleaded with the check-in staff to forgo any penalties. And I succeeded.

Tragedy struck when information received by the onsite Jet Airways personnel confirmed that our flight would get delayed due to some technical problems.Initially, he led us to believe that the fault may get rectified and the flight might either be delayed by a few minutes to a maximum of 1 hour; an hour later, he had mellowed down and informed us that while the engineers were busy trying to rectify the malfunctioning part (he wouldn't tell us exactly what was the problem or which part had malfunctioned), they might have to wait for a suitable replacement part to arrive from their stock-facility in Doha by their next incoming flight, which was still 4 hours away. 

We resigned to various seats in the waiting areas. We tried to ask them to take us to a hotel, but they said that would be logistically impossible as our delay would not be for more than 5 hours at the most. 
We were waiting patiently for them to serve us dinner which they said they had requested to be sent for all the guests. What did arrive was adequate for the unforeseen emergency that had occurred. Our food packet had a large bread roll, rice, 3 chicken cutlets and a ladle-full of white beans. Adequate for the occasion. They finally boarded us a little before 4:00 a.m. as their local team managed to rectify the problem without awaiting the arrival of the new part from Abu Dhabi. They ran safety checks for quite some time, and once they were satisfied that everything was good, we took off at 5:00 a.m.

They served us breakfast on the flight. The facilities were quite mediocre, but the flight was event-free, barring some small instances of turbulence from the outside air. We touched down at Mumbai airport a few minutes before noon. 

They first sent zamzam water bottles and small bags on the luggage carousel. The big bags started arriving at 1:00 p.m., and I reached home at half past two in the afternoon. Thus, I arrived home nearly 21 hours after I first started my journey at the King Abdul Aziz International Airport at Jeddah on the previous evening.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Trip to Himachal 4: Dalhousie, Day 2

Today, we went in the hotel's car to do the sight-seeing in and around Dalhousie. Our car was the very same car that had brought us to Dalhousie from Jallandhar yesterday; our driver was the very same Trilok, who would stay with us on our daily journeys till the end of this holiday. Today's agenda started with the drive to Kalatop Wildlife Sanctuary. Our destination took us via the road that goes past Dalhousie Public School, a private residential public school that has fantastic environs, a lot of space, many sports activities and fees that run into more than a lakh rupees for each academic year. What interested us, though, was the fact that the entire stretch of road going into and coming out of the school area was aesthetically decorated with floral arrangements, plants and a uniform colour scheme of yellow and black. 

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The drive to Kalatop WLS was very pleasant. The sanctuary itself started off with a public area that had a garden-like feel to it. There were countless blooms of both the cultivated variety as well as the natural kind. It wasn't hard to guess why this place is called the valley of flowers ... I mean, you have to see it to believe it. The grass is like a carpet, and the flowers sort of adorn its surface like the embroidery does over an expensive Kashmiri carpet! We spent a good threequarters of an hour here, absorbing the fresh air and the gentle breeze, looking at the mountains in the distance, and taking pictures. Some of these are displayed below. 

Inas and Hans pose for the camera
 From Kalatop, we moved on to Dainkund. This journey, taking over 20 minutes by car ended at a spot that was a good 2.5 km away from the actual destination. From here on, we would have to walk up a hilly terrain, past meadows, masticulating cows and buffalo, hill-climbing goats, and an amazing landscape of mountains and valleys till we reached a Shiv temple at the end. The walk seemed daunting initially, but as we continued to climb, the effort became less and less as the climb turned into a gentler one, then into a horizontal walk, so that we breathed easier, and walked with more gaiety. There were returning tourists, and we were tempted to ask them whether it was worth going there, but we desisted as we were all keen to discover the place ourselves.
One of my three fav people!

The valley spread out around us, with its tiny white flowers swaying gently in the breeze. We did see a fair number of birds, but, to be honest, I wasn't able to document them either with my keen observational skills or with the camera, which was busy taking in shots of the nature. At one place, the view was so fantastic that we just stood there and took photos of the valley as well as of ourselves, enjoying the bracing wind blowing upon us. The next few photos will tell you this and take you right there in the midst of action:

Buffalo slowly digesting their meal

Climbing up the hill

Facing the bracing wind

Undulating hills

More posing
The trek road to Dainkund

 Arriving at Dainkund, we saw the huge cut-out of Lord Shiva atop a nearby pinnacle, and then, the actual temple, where, in addition to the hustle-bustle of pilgrims and tourists, we also witnessed a wedding in action. The local outfits and colour were, to say the least, so enjoyable. A few pictures will tell the story better than a thousand words, right?

Wedding in progress

Standing before the local goddess, the couple takes marriage vows

Rajasthan 2015 - Feb 7th - Day 4: Bharatpur/Keoladeo and the Taj Mahal

For the previous post, click HERE.

The Keoladeo Bird sanctuary is something that has always been on my to-do list even before I started to take interest in bird watching and bird photography. I had specifically included a visit to this place on my agenda when I arranged the itinerary with my travel agent M/S Creative India Holidays Pvt. Ltd, and their employee Miss Bhumika. They had included a visit to some other places within Bharatpur, such as the local fort and so on, but I instructed my driver to only take us to the bird sanctuary. We planned to spend a long day here. 

We hired a guide, one Mr. Amar Chand, who accompanied us on a horse cart as we went in to the main entrance of the sanctuary. At this point, Nishrin decided not to come inside, and found herself a chair and some shade in which to rest, while the rest of us went in. Mr. Amar promised a good time, while the horse cart driver settled for a price of Rs. 150 per hour or part thereof for driving us inside. We complied. The horse cart went in ... they said that the optimum distance would be 7-8 km inside, but we did just 5 km, as time was not sufficient. In the event, we saw over 40 species of birds, including some exclusive ones such as the spotted owlet and some nice hornbills. Here are a few representative pictures from the sights we saw that day.

Spotted owlets


Oriental Turtle Dove

Chittal or Indian spotted deer

Indian Dabchick (Little Grebe)

Large Egret


Indian squirrel

We finished the trip by 11.15 a.m., and began the return then. We finished in three hours! From here, we decided to ask the driver to take us to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. This was an impromptu decision taken by me as my kids and Nishrin have always wanted to go there, and Agra is less than a hundred kilometers from Bharatpur. We paid the driver an extra Rs. 3000/- to take us there, and so, without much ado, we left for Agra, arriving there at a little after half-past one. The driver directly took us to a place called Indian Restaurant. This is an over-hyped place with very high prices. We did not enjoy the food at all, but we had enough to last us through the afternoon and evening, as we took nearly 4-5 hours to complete our Taj visit.

What is there to tell about the most famous, most liked monument in all of India? Voted as the best modern wonder of the world in an online poll in 2012, it continues to lure millions of tourists, both from within India and from without, to Agra, and eventually makes the foreigners fall in love all over again, with their own partners, and with India. We took the usual tickets (there is a VIP ticket that allows you to skip the long queues outside the monument). We hired a local guide who stayed with us through the visit. He was a bit peculiar, and I had an argument with him when he showed his unwillingness to repeat a certain bit of information which he had already told two of my family while the remaining two were still out of earshot and viewing a previous attraction. I reminded him of his duty to the profession, and told him not to be rude but humble. After some show of mock anger and chastising, he apologised, and from then on, behaved much better than he had done before the incident occurred. 

Here are a few photos of the Taj:

For the next post, click HERE.
After this visit, we returned to Jaipur to spend our last night here. Tomorrow, we would depart to go to Jodhpur.