I N D I A TOUR Kashmir, New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Varanasi I visited India in the late 90's and loved it so much. I had written a small write-up of my travel so I am posting it here. As the trip was around the Chinese New Year and Hari Raya festive period, all the air tickets were hoarded up well ahead by tour agencies. Most agencies even imposed a surcharge of several hundred dollars during this peak season. Despite my early planning and having secured the air tickets, I had to give up as the cost was further inflated by the currency crisis. Just when I thought I have to spend my long holidays at home, I ran across an advertisement from Mystical who charged only $1588 for the 9 days package tour as compared to $2000+ charged by others. I called the other 3 partners and we were immediately on! However none of them, to their great loss, wanted to extend the trip to Varanasi with me. I had actually wanted to cover Jaisalmer and ride camels in the desert. But the cost turned out to be too expensive and the journey would take up too many days as there was no direct flight access to Jaisalmer. My first experience with India Stretchable Time (supposed to be India Standard Time) was when the flight to Kashmir was delayed for almost 5 hours. Furious and impatient passengers crowded in the India Airlines office screaming away. As our itinerary schedule was tight, any further delay would mean we had to forgo Kashmir and be compensated by some boring city tour in Delhi. By 2.30pm I was almost resigned when they suddenly announced that the plane was finally cleared take off! KASHMIR The flight to Kashmir was indeed breathtaking! The stunning view nearly melted my heart and I immediately forgave the airline for the 5 hours delay. First, we were treated with an appetizer of the beautiful view of the snow-capped mountains as we flew along the Himalayas ranges. After the stopover at Jammu, the plane started to head towards the mountain ranges. It was flying at a low altitude just above the mountaintops. It was at such a close range that I could almost stretch my hands out and touch the mountains. Mist of fog hung above the valleys and became thicker as we flew closer into the mountains. Then the plane started to drop height and a beautiful valley began to unfold itself amidst the thickly fogged mountain ranges. This was the heavenly located Kashmir valley! As we took the 20 minutes drive from the airport to Dal Lake, one could immediately felt the tension underlying this picturesque valley. Armed militants and security check-posts were seen everywhere. For years, Kashmir had been the disputed land between India and Pakistan. And beneath the clamor of the 2 nations for sovereignty, the Kashmiri actually wanted independence themselves. Exchange of fires and terrorist acts were not uncommon. Despite the undercurrent and tension on the mainland, Dal Lake itself was surprisingly peaceful and almost free from militants. As we were transferred to our houseboat by Shikaras (traditional Kashmiri boat), the sky was painted beautifully in a pinkish-purple tone by the setting winter sun. Kashmir was said to be most beautiful during the summer season. Nevertheless, I found it equally enchanting in winter, especially during the foggy morning. With the Himalayas mountains as a backdrop, the morning frost had turned the lake and the houseboats into a beautiful black and white portrait. The Shikara touts, or crocodiles as the locals called them, were real pain in the behind. As soon as the day broke, dozens of them had already gathered outside our houseboat. They attacked us left-right-front-back as soon as we boarded our Shikaras for the cruise around the lake. These annoying and persistent salesmen were trying to sell us handicrafts of all sorts. They obstructed my view of the lake and photography was seriously hindered. I ignored them completely, which seemed to be the best way to tell them off. If everyone had applied the same method as I did, these crocodiles would have left us alone. But Victoria seemed to be enjoying her shopping-on-the-cruise and bargaining away with them. Gulmarg On the 2nd day, we went for a day excursion to the skiing resort in Gulmarg. As we approached the hill station, the geographical features started to turn into a winter wonderland. Before our vehicles could even stop for a change over and security check, sled operators were already dashing forward fighting for customers. We had a problem opening the door to get out as there were so many of them crowding around the car. The security was tight and heavy – a machine gun was pointing down at us from a rundown building next to the check-post. After some through security checks on our baggage and full body search, we changed over to a mini bus and proceeded uphill. Renowned as a premium skiing resort before the border conflict blew up in recent years, I could now see only a few souls enjoying themselves on the cotton white and soft snow. My group was brought straight to the restaurant in a nice little hotel for lunch without having any chance to try skiing. The only 'winter sport' that we had was just a sled ride with the operators pushing behind us. I was so disgusted with this inferior option that I refused the ride totally. JAIPUR Jaipur was least interesting to me. The city was painted in an ugly tone of pink and most men were dressed in western button-up shirts. Not my typical type of photography subjects. The only interesting event was the elephant ride up the hill to Pink City Palace. It really sent my adrenaline pumping. A Caucasian couple was enjoying their ride down the hill when their saddle suddenly broke loose and both slid down from the 9 feet tall animal. Both of them were sitting on the right side of the beast without another 2 partners to balance the weight on the left side. Luckily, there was no serious injury. Both walked away angrily while the operator was chasing behind, persuading them to continue the ride. Just as I wondered aloud if our saddle was securely fixed to the animal, another oncoming elephant edged ours to the side of the fort wall. I was right over the top of the wall built on a cliff that ran 4 stories down! If the saddle was going to gave way this moment… well, at least I had several life policies and travel insurance. I screamed away as the beast, still leaning along the side of the wall, wobbled its way up the hill. AGRA Though regarded as one of the 7 Wonders, Taj Mahal was simply just another building structure to me. As the group had decided to start the program at 9am, this had given me enough free time to visit Taj Mahal on my own. Together with Victoria, Poh Wai, Yong Sin and Eugene, we kicked off our day at 6am. Reflection of Taj Mahal in the river Yamuna from back side As motor vehicles were not allowed within a certain distance near Taj Mahal, we had to transfer from our taxi to a camel cart that moved at a ridiculously slow speed. The entrance fee during the early hours was more expensive than the rest of the day. Tripods were no allowed in the premises. I was glad that I had a mini tripod with me but I had to lie almost flat on the ground to set up the shot. Taj Mahal had been photographed so many times that it was almost impossible for me to come out with something different or stunning, especially the weather and lighting had not been favorable. I decided to take a flank to the back of the building where river was while the rest preferred to remain in the premises. I showed the auto-rickshaw driver a picture of Taj Mahal as seen from the bank of the river. In the foreground, there were some Indians washing clothes by the river He nodded his head in comprehension but drove me to a linen washing house that was so far away from the river and Taj Mahal. I had to return to the starting point and start all over again. This time, I rode on a manual rickshaw and finally got to the river. I could have walked there myself in 5 minutes simply following the wall of the boundary. What a waste of time and inefficiency! Time was now running out. I took some quick snaps and managed to cross the river with a boat. I rushed back to the hotel and had a quick breakfast, whooping down the food. The group was supposed to start the tour at 9am and I wouldn’t want to cause them any delay. I didn’t. But some others did. We kicked off at 10am. I could have taken my time to compose better photos! VARANASI Finally broke free! Away from the group. Away from drowsiness. While the group was trying to do their last minute shopping before returning home, I broke away from the group and ventured alone to the most holy place in India – the Ganges River in Varanasi. I began to feel like a real traveler again – no more escorted shopping tour or sticking to their regimental routine that was perpetually behind schedule! My health was getting better too and I felt energized after laying dormant for the early part of the trip. I was on medication and the cough syrup was causing me to feel drowsy most of the time. However, my excitement was mixed with some apprehension of traveling alone. I hopped onto a taxi and headed for the Desaswamedh. The driver, seeing me with a Lonely Plant guide, immediately suggested a guesthouse as recommended in the book. I was amazed that he could tell me the exact page to flip to. After some chitchat, he started telling me about his sexual encounter with Caucasian travelers as a taxi driver. He told me about his size and performance. Yes, he knew something about AIDS and used condoms as a precaution. He got so excited that he even pulled over and showed me some old and torn pornography pictures hidden underneath the rubber mat below my seat. He could arrange me to have fun with some pretty girls too. Sexciting and tempting but no thanks! I could see the disappointment in his face as a fat commission had just slipped him by. I had to switch to an auto-rickshaw, then a manual rickshaw and finally got down on foot to reach the Desaswamedh Ghat. The busy street leading to the ghat became so crowded that it was almost impossible for big vehicles to go through the waves of human wall. With the help of a young tout, I chose a guesthouse situated next to the river. I wanted convenience and proximity to the river, especially during the early hours. I had a clean and bright double room with a shared bathroom for Rp 150. It had a restaurant and offered a good view of the river. The trip didn’t fail me and really lived up to my expectation. The view of the river was fantastic, especially during the early hours. Small little boats and the row of buildings along the bank disappeared into the misty distance as they followed the curve of the holy river. The golden ray of the rising sun side lighted the whole scenery to look like an artistic oil painting mystified by the morning haze. Men and women, the olds and the youngs, all came to bath in this holy river even before the day breaks. Some men bared it all while most women bathed discretely still wearing their sarees. And further down, there were some cremation processes that seemed to go on forever. (No more burning ghat for me. I was sick for months after taking a series of photos of a cremation process in Nepal). You could either take a stroll or a boat ride to see all these activities. Though the Indians regarded it as a holy river, I was skeptical and felt that the water was badly polluted. They had their cremation here and for those without money to buy wood, their bodies were simply thrown into the river. Never would I go for a holy bath nor touch the water. But when I was at the opposite bank walking along the beach taking pictures, my right foot and shin sank into some soft mud. It was soo thick and sticky that I had no choice but to wash it with the river water. My boatman cracked that I had now a holy foot! Two men approached me while I was taking some photos of a man meditating next to the burning ghat. They accused that I was trying to take photos of the cremation process and demanded some donation from me. They sited horrible stories about how someone was being prisoned and fined for taking pictures of the cremation. One was playing the role of a bad guy while the other a nice man. I refused their demand and decided to see the police. There was a police post near the main ghat but they were trying to bring me to somewhere else. The two disappeared immediately when I insisted going to the actual police post. I could have closed the case but feeling indignant and irritated, I decided to make a police report. The police officer was extremely helpful by accompanying me around. With his ‘protection’, I could go and take whatever photos I want without any disturbance. I felt uncomfortable and realized that he actually wanted money from me for the special service. New Delhi I headed straight for the bus stop after getting out from the New Delhi domestic airport. I had just learned earlier from 2 Japanese backpackers that there was a cheap bus service to the city area from the airport. As I had about 5 hours before I were to check in at midnight for the flight back home, I chose the adventurous option of the bus instead of a convenient cab ride. I boarded the almost empty bus and saw the 2 Japanese backpackers whom I had bidden farewell a moment ago. I had met them earlier at the Varanasi airport for the Delhi flight and had some small talk with them. Since I had neither fixed destination nor program for the next 5 hours, I decided to follow them to their guesthouse in the bazaar area near the railway station. The bus dropped us about a mile from the railway station and an auto-rickshaw driver immediately came forward to offer his service. Not knowing the way, with the heavy luggage and the dirt-cheap price of just Rp 6 for all the 3 of us, I would have immediately accepted the offer. However, the 2 ladies felt unsafe and refused the rickshaw ride. I had to take out my Lonely Planet guide and shined a torch at the map to orientate myself. Still lost, we started asking a passerby for direction while the rickshaw driver pursued us relentlessly on his vehicle to offer his service. He finally disappeared as we got closer to the railway station. Just as we thought we were free from his touting, more touts flocked to us as we approached the station. They were even more aggressive and even lied to us that there was no through road in the direction that we were heading to and insisted us to follow them. As the 2 ladies had stayed in the area previously, they were sure of their way and totally ignored their nonsense. We finally got to the guesthouse right in the middle of the bazaar area. They thanked me for being their ‘bodyguard’ against the touts. In actual fact, I was lost myself and simply tagging along with them. After I had my dinner with them, I decided to take a walk in the bazaar. But the brightly lighted and crowded street just a moment ago had suddenly turned into almost a quiet ghost town. I remained in the guesthouse until about 11pm before the taxi came to pick me up to the airport. No more messing around with public transport nor the touts this time. I wouldn’t want to miss the flight.