Rishikesh, Delhi and home

We drove past Rishikesh up into the valley and stopped at a bend in the road. Apparently our guest house was down a steep, dirt pathway. Luckily some guys working at the guest house came up to help us with our luggage. Rainforest House in Rishikesh is an absolute gem. It’s so peaceful, there are only a few rooms, no tv’s and there’s a waterfall next to the building. We had a beautiful view of the Ganga, which I’m happy to say is clean and fast flowing this high up.

Photo by Michele Reid

The path leading down to Rainforest House

Photo by Michele Reid

Dining area at the Rainforest House

After some rice with bananas for supper (Pradeep insists it’s the best thing to eat when you’re sick), Hubby and I had the best night’s sleep. We had our doors open as it was nice and cool and we could listen to the waterfall as we fell asleep.

I managed to get some washing done and hung it out on the balcony, but some monkeys came chasing each other and left lots of tiny monkey paw prints all over our clothes.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Cheeky Monkey

I was feeling much better and had some yummy banana and honey pancakes for breakfast along with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. We hiked up the hill to meet Pradeep to do some sightseeing in Rishikesh. We walked across Lakshman Jhula, a suspension bridge that crosses the beautiful Ganga at the spot where Lord Vishnu’s brother, Lakshman, supposed crossed the river. Lord Vishu came to Rishikesh to do penance after killing the demon Ravana. A cheeky monkey stole a cooldrink bottle which he was enjoying at the top of the bridge.

Photo by Stephen Reid

View from the bridge

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Cow traffic on the bridge

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Sneaky monkey

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Hmmm, refreshing!

I was so happy to see the Ganga flowing very strongly (thanks to all the snow melting a little higher up) and a school of huge fish congregating below the bridge. Pilgrims were feeding them on their way to temple.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Ma Ganga flowing strongly in Rishikesh

We strolled through the town, sidestepping the odd cow. The pace in Rishikesh is much slower and it was quite relaxing going for a walk.

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Statue of Lord Shiva on the banks of the Ganga

Photo by Stephen Reid

Statue of Hanuman

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Another statue of Lord Shiva

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Food stall in Rishikesh

I was feeling much better, the food at Rainforest House was just delicious and quite healthy and they really did take very good care of me. We spent our last day just relaxing and walked down to the river. My plan was to take a dip in the Ganga. I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I can remember. Unfortunately as I dipped my feet into the water I realised even though it was a hot and humid day, the river was absolutely freezing. The roads to the pilgrimage sites further up the valley were still closed thanks to some late season snow falls and the river was being nicely cooled by all the melting ice. I had to make do with a ‘granny bath’, which meant pouring the water over my head instead.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Ganga at Rainforest House

With all the really healthy and delicious vegetarian food we were being served (and they’re not shy with portions), I was feeling like my old self again. Reluctantly we left the tranquillity of Rainforest House to take our last journey in India, back to Delhi. The staff helped carry our bags up the steep hill where we were greeted by the ever smiling Pradeep. He’d been taking daily dips in the Ganga. As he swerved to avoid hitting another car driving up the wrong side of traffic, I heard a sploosh noise coming from the back of the car. A quick glance confirmed he was taking containers of Ganga water back home. I just prayed the noise won’t make we want to go to the bathroom soon.

We passed a huge statue of Lord Shiva in Haridwar (somehow Hubby didn’t spot it). As we travelled further the roads became more congested. Even Pradeep was getting stressed. Apparently lots of people were setting out on pilgrimages, but most people don’t drive often and don’t know the rules (yes, it looks chaotic but there are rules) and so places everyone’s lives at risk. We had a few near misses and it was probably the most stressful and unpleasant drive we had during our time in India.

Photo by Michele Reid

Huge statue of Lord Shiva in Haridwar

Photo by Michele Reid

A girl protecting herself from the dust in one of the cities we drove through

Photo by Michele Reid

Green countryside on our way back to Delhi

We eventually arrived back in Delhi safely. I really am a small town girl, while Delhi has spectacular monuments and amazing people, I’m just not keen on cities. After getting a bit lost, Pradeep dropped us off at a mall (I know, we’re in India and we’re going to a mall). The reason behind this was so I could add a Hard Rock guitar pin from Delhi to my collection.

We then made our way to our hotel close to the airport. The first room was horrible and stank of cigarette smoke, but thankfully the electricity wouldn’t work and we were given a much better alternative room.

Our view was the highway, but we were only going to be here one night so it didn’t matter. I managed to pick up a nasty cold on the drive back to Delhi so I collapsed on the bed to catch up with my daily dose of Bollywood which I was unable to do while in Rishikesh.

After a short night’s sleep it was time to bid India farewell. We arrived at the airport (at least this time I’m not sprawled out on the floor wishing I was dead like last time), booked in our luggage and got ready to go home.

As we took off, the sun was rising over Delhi and while I was glad to be going back to my bed and Mia, I would definitely miss India.

We had a stop over again at Changi Airport. This time we visited the butterfly garden. There really is so much to do there, definitely the best airport I’ve been at.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Beautiful blue butterfly

Photo by Stephen Reid

Photo by Stephen Reid

Photo by Stephen Reid

We arrived within the early hours of the morning back at home. Mia was very excited to see us. As we collapsed into bed to get a few hours sleep I realised that it’s dead quiet. No cars hooting. I actually struggled to fall asleep, I’ve gotten used to the noise that’s part of every Indian city.

There are many things that I loved about India. Ok, so the getting sick part wasn’t great, but the positive definitely far outweighs getting sick. Some of the things I’ll cherish include the incredibly friendly people who often would go out of their way to talk to us or help us, the delicious food, the beautiful colours and the rich history the country has.

A very special thanks has to go out to our amazing driver Pradeep. I’m sure our families are very much thankful to him for keeping an eye on Hubby and myself. He was our tour guide while we were driving from one town to another, pointing out important shrines and explaining local customs. Each day he would answer Hubby’s many questions with much patience (like trying to figure out which direction we were heading in. It became part of our daily ritual as Hubby tried to figure it out, much to Pradeep’s amusement) and of course, making sure we were kept out of harm’s way while we out on the busy and often terrifying roads.

Shimla and Dehradun

The car smelt of incense, a smell I love. Pradeep performs his morning religious puja in the car. He greeted us with his usual smile as he helped to load our luggage into the car. Soon we were driving off making our way to Shimla, India’s honeymoon capital. Shimla was also the summer capital of the British raj and many of the buildings look like they would be more at home in England. While Shimla is only 145km from Mandi, due to the road condition, it took us about 5 hours to get there.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Shimla

Photo by Stephen Reid

The view from The Mall 

We stayed at Clark’s Hotel which is located on the Mall. The Mall is a road which runs along the ridge of the mountain and is closed to all motorised traffic. After a wonderful shower, we decided to head out and get some lunch.

Photo by Michele Reid

Our super comfy bed and wonderful room at Clark’s Hotel.

Newly wed couples were strolling along, eating ice cream while families were enjoying the afternoon sunshine. We passed some very British looking buildings enjoying the relaxed atmosphere. We were walking when I felt something bump my leg. I turned around to find a baby monkey jumped on me. He quickly jumped back onto the fence. You have to look out for the monkeys in Shimla (and most other cities), as they’re quite sneaky and good at stealing food, cameras and pretty much anything they can get their hands on. We got stopped by a local taking his dog for a walk. He was interested in where we were from and hoped we enjoy our stay. Once again, I just love how friendly the people in India are.

Photo by Michele Reid

Church in Shimla

Photo by Michele Reid

British influence in Shimla

Photo by Michele Reid

The tallest Hanuman statue in the world

We had a nice lunch and made our way back to the hotel. We decided to make the most of our luxurious accommodation and later that afternoon made our way to the bar where we had a drink and watched the storm coming in. Dinner was absolutely delicious and we got to enjoy a really good night’s sleep.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Storm clouds rolling in

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View of the thunder storm from the bar in Clark’s Hotel

We had an early breakfast and said goodbye to the friendly staff at Clark’s in Shimla. Once again Pradeep was waiting for us, smiling as usual. We set off on the twisting roads, descending back towards the plains. I was feeling a bit off but figured it must be all the twists and turns making me car sick.

As we got closer to the plains we stopped for some petrol as they were striking in the next state and we weren’t sure if we would be able to fill up there. We seemed to attract quite a lot of attention; I don’t think many tourists go that way.

Soon we were back on our way heading for Dehradun. We were just spending the night there on our way to Rishikesh. As we entered the city we spotted about 100 army guys cycling. Pradeep told us they first get bicycles, and once they’ve mastered that, they move up to motorbikes, cars and so forth. It was quite a sight to see these tough looking guys all cycling across the road.

We arrived at our hotel late that afternoon and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. Our room was tiny, dirty and had absolutely no airflow. After a dismal late lunch we retreated to watch some daily dose of Bollywood. By dinner time I wasn’t feeling too well so we got room service. All I could manage was 2 bites of briyani before I had to make a run for the bathroom. Yep, whatever bug I picked up was still apparently thriving in my stomach. I spent the rest of the night hugging the bucket next to the bed. I tried some of the medicine we still had but couldn’t keep them down long enough for them to start working.

After a sleepless night we left as soon as we could and decided to forgo our complimentary breakfast. Pradeep seemed worried that I was still not well and we stopped yet again at another pharmacy and Hubby got me my second course of antibiotics for the holiday. We drove through beautiful forests and soon saw a glimpse of the mighty Ganga. As I wasn’t feeling well we headed straight to our next guest house hoping it was better than the place we slept last night.

Pragpur and Mandi

I was a bit sad to bid farewell to McLeod Ganj. But most of all I was sad leaving the spectacular snow-capped mountains. We made our way winding down into the Kangra valley. Pradeep stopped at the impressive looking Kangra Fort. It is of particular significance for me (I studied Classics while at University) because it was first mentioned in Alexander the Great’s war records in the 4th century BCE!

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Entrance to Kangra Fort

Photo by Stephen Reid

Steep steps leading to the top of the fort

The ford was built by the Royal Family of Kangra who can trace their origins to the ancient Trigarta Kingdom mentioned in the Mahabharata Epic. So far it’s believed to be the oldest surviving fort in India. Situated on top of a steep hill, the fort looks out over the valley, the snow-capped mountains and the Banganga and Majhi rivers.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The fort is located on the top of a hill with a sheer cliff off the one side

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Two pillars at Kangra Fort

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Entrance gate at the bottom with the snow-capped Himalayas in the background

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Kangra Fort ruins

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Beautiful door with Lord Ganesha and the goddess Durga carved in stone at Kangra Fort

We pretty much had the whole fort to ourselves, aside from the very friendly man sweeping the leaves in front of the temple and a curious monkey. The day was already getting quite hot, a big difference after the coolness of McLeod Ganj. We hopped back into the car to make our way to the small village of Pragpur.

Pragpur is a heritage village and the buildings are quite unique. We arrived at our very nice hotel for a bit of a rest and some lunch before Pradeep went to show us the country side. Children were walking home from school as we drove along the incredibly narrow village road.

Photo by Michele Reid

Our beautiful hotel in Pragpur

We decided to explore a bit of the village on foot when we returned to our hotel. Armed with our cameras, we were transported to a place which looks unlike anywhere we’ve been in India. Some parts almost look like it could be in Europe. A cobble street took us past wheat fields, beautiful houses, temples and of course, lush bushes of marijuana. Two girls were sitting on a balcony, enjoying the afternoon sun and spotted us. They immediately shouted hello and waved. The people are so beautiful and so incredibly friendly.

Photo by Michele Reid

Narrow stone pathway in Pragpur

Photo by Michele Reid

A beautiful door in the village

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One of the houses. I thought it looked like a bird

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One of the beautiful private courtyards in Pragpur

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Wheat field

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Friendly girls taking a break and enjoying the view

We returned to our hotel where Hubby cooled down with a quick dip in the tiny but deep swimming pool while I wrote about the day’s events in my diary. Hubby mentioned he wasn’t feeling 100% but thought it was probably nothing. On our way to dinner he realised things weren’t going well and we arrived back in our room just in time. He clearly picked up a stomach bug and was throwing up like it was an Olympic sport. I couldn’t believe a single person could throw up as much as he did that night. Luckily by midnight the worst was over. The meds the doctor gave me in McLeod Ganj were working its magic and he managed to get some sleep. Me on the other hand stayed awake, worried he might get sick again. By the morning he was feeling still a bit worse for wear, but much better.

After a quick breakfast, Pradeep picked us up and stopped at a shed / pharmacy where Hubby could replenish our medical stock. We left the beautiful little town of Pragpur behind and drove towards Mandi. The roads became increasingly worse. After the winter snow there have been quite a few rock falls. The roads were also being broadened and will eventually be tarred. At the moment though, it was mostly single lane, dirt road through mountains. Every now and then I had to close my eyes and pray to the gods as we inched past a truck, hoping we don’t fall down the cliff into the valley below. At one point we had to stop completely as they were actually busy blasting a road through the rocks.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The road

The one advantage of being off the beaten track is you get to see the small villages. All along the mountain valleys, people farm using terraces. In one village, we passed a band as yet another wedding was taking place.

Photo by Michele Reid

Wedding band marching through one of the villages

Photo by Michele Reid

Fruit & Veggie shop sign in one of the small towns

Photo by Michele Reid

The spectacular country side

We arrived in Mandi exhausted after having our lives flash in front of our eyes several times during the journey. Our driver, Pradeep, became my hero, conquering impassable roads, squeezing past trucks in the tiniest of spaces and having the fastest reflexes I have ever seen.

The weather was closing in and it was drizzling by the time we settled into our room. Hubby, still recovering from the vomit sessions of the night before, decided to have a nap. I settled on the balcony overlooking the Beas River and watched the storm roll into the valley. Thunder bounced off the mountains and a torrential downpour soon sent kids scrambling home from the school across the valley. Hubby woke up (having missed most of the storm) and announced he was feeling much better. Trying to dodge the rain but failing miserably, we got to the restaurant and had a rather average tasting dinner. The kids at the table next to us found us very interesting and kept walking past our table.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The Beas River basking in early morning sunshine after the rain

We returned to our room, freezing. Sadly we couldn’t find the switch to our aircon / heater (the switch was located the next day, outside on the balcony!), neither did we have any hot water, so we had to make do with piling on the few warm clothes we brought with and diving under the blankets. We ended up watching Ultimate Survivor on Discovery Channel, in Hindi!

Mcleod Ganj, home to The Dalai Lama

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Truck sporting a beautifully painted Taj Mahal.

We left for Mcleod Ganj early in the morning. The countryside was beautiful and green. I spotted the hills in the distance and immediately got excited (back home the landscape is pretty flat) The roads began to get narrower and more twisting as we headed higher into the mountains. I was crossing my fingers hoping to at least get a glimpse of some snow-capped Himalayan peaks. I know some parts of the Himalayas have had some recent snowfall and some of the mountain passes were still not open.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The green Punjab countryside

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Temple at a rest stop on our way to Mcleod GAnj

Our driver, Pradeep, is originally from Dharamshala and was looking forward to seeing his family again. McLeod Ganj is situated up a very steep path up the mountain from Dharmashala. As the roads are incredibly narrow, walking is the best option to explore the town so we agreed that he spend the next 3 days enjoying some time with his family. As we twisted our way up the mountains I was feeling a bit headachy, but figured it was probably just tiredness. I was too excited about spending 3 days in McLeod Ganj to let a slight headache bother me.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Creative solution for road signs

We followed a very narrow road up an incredibly steep mountain to the town of McLeod Ganj. We managed to stop the car and get our luggage out in the very narrow street without blocking traffic. We were staying at the 8 Auspicious Him View Hotel. Our room was located up a steep (everything here is steep) flight of stairs but had the best feature ever, a balcony looking out over the Himalayan hills and the spectacular Dhauladhar Range.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Mcleod Ganj

The hotel is run by a Tibetan family. The temperature was notably much cooler up here, so much so that I had to put on a warm jersey. Shortly after we plopped ourselves down on the chair on the balcony a knock came from the door. One of the friendly staff members brought us some deliciously hot chai to enjoy. It was just what we needed after the drive here. It was bliss just sitting on the balcony sipping hot chai while gazing over the mountains.

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Prayer flags in the countryside with clouds covering the mountains

McLeod Ganj is located about 2082m above sea level. It’s the home to the Tibetan Government in Exile, so the town has all these monks strolling around. I pulled my only scarf out of my bag and rugged up a bit. I had a slight headache, but figured it was the death defying drive up narrow twisting passes on our way here that was to blame.

We took a short stroll up the steepest path I’ve ever walked on, dodging the tiny taxis and tuk-tuks as the roads are too narrow for conventional vehicles. The town is quite laid back and is a great place to volunteer your English skills to newly arrived Tibetan exiles if you’re staying for a bit. Monks were enjoying the sunshine and you could hear laughter coming from the Tibetan school. Small kids were playing, chasing each other around with the spectacular Dhauladhar Range as the backdrop. While we were used to seeing some Buddhist monks in South Africa, we’ve never seen so many in one place. The funniest was watching them checking their email on their iPhones, wearing trendy Adidas sneakers or sandals strolling around town listening to music on their iPods.

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Building works in Mcleod Ganj

Photo by Stephen Reid

Street in Mcleod Ganj

Photo by Stephen Reid

Mcleod Ganj

Photo by Michele Reid

Mcleod Ganj in the rain

Photo by Stephen Reid

Prayer wheels in the town centre

We decided to have lunch at a restaurant solely because it had a rooftop terrace. The sun was nice and warm but the breeze icy, hinting that there might be snow nearby. Unfortunately we couldn’t see anything other than cloud cover but all of a sudden some of the clouds lifted revealing steep mountain peaks covered in snow. Himalayan snow-capped mountain peaks! It was beautiful!

Photo by Stephen Reid

Snow covered Dhauladhar Range

Photo by Stephen Reid

The spectacular Dhauladhar Peak

My headache started to get worse during lunch, so we headed back down the hill to our room since we had three days to explore the small town. We enjoyed a bit of the afternoon sun sitting on our balcony. The lush forest are home to thousands of butterflies that feed on the rhododendron flowers, majestic eagles swooping through the Deodar forests and of course, the occasional buffalo grazing.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Sun setting in Mcleod Ganj

The Dhauladhar Range is the outer rim of the Himalayan Mountains. Covered in clouds most of the time, every now and then they peek through showing off their almost vertical sides. The peak right in front of us covered in snow was the Dhauladhar Peak, also known as the Dhauladhar Matterhorn. It’s 4946m high! Because of these mountains McLeod Ganj and the surrounding areas receive two monsoons. It rains quite a bit, almost daily.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Rainbows in Mcleod Ganj

It started to rain and with it the temperature dropped significantly. I also started to feel worse for wear and my headache was pounding away. I decided to head for bed and watched an old James Bond movie on TV. Most bathrooms in India come with a bucket as bucket showers are the norm. They’re a great way for saving water and much needed for travellers to do their washing in. Unfortunately for the first time our bathroom was bucket-less and my headache and now nausea wasn’t going away. Luckily we had a bin which ended up being much needed. Freezing I climbed into bed with the blankets pulled over my head only able to utter ‘hmmm’ noises to respond to Hubby’s questions.

Things got worse quite quickly and before I knew it Hubby was helping me and the bin down the steep staircase to a waiting taxi which our amazing Tibetan hotel manager organised. It was raining and since Pradeep was down the valley in Dharamshala, getting up the mountain in the dark with the big car would have been quite dangerous but would also have taken forever. The taxi was tiny and I filled the whole back seat as I tried to find some sort of lying down position.

This was the strangest ride of my life. A Bollywood hit was blasting over the radio. Funny enough I watched the movie on the airplane a few years back coming or going from South Africa so I immediately recognised it. (for the song you can watch it on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAlBw_RTEZw)

Now imagine this song playing and you’re hurtling down a mountain with sheer drops on the side twisting and turning, bouncing over potholes and then coming to an abrupt stop at what is supposed to be the hospital. We went to McLeod Ganj hospital as it was the closest. Initially we thought the hospital was closed as there weren’t any lights on. Big open windows allowed the icy wind to turn the hospital into an ice cavern. We finally found someone working and Hubby explained the situation. The nurse listened politely before informing us she was going off duty soon, so he would have to wait for the new nurse to arrive and then explain it all to her. I think I wasn’t looking too good because they moved me to the emergency room…which wasn’t exactly the picture of hygiene.

I remember thinking as I lay there freezing and wishing I was already dead that the emergency room is ok, as long as you don’t have an emergency. After what seemed like forever the new nurse on duty arrived and Hubby patiently explained to her how I was feeling (except he left out the part where I wished I was dead). After mumbling a few answers to her questions we got told that they would have to phone the doctor to come down, so more waiting in the icy room.

The doctor finally arrived and she turned out to be a very nice, Tibetan doctor with excellent English. She mentioned injections so I gave Hubby the job of ensuring they were new needles.  We were told that the meds the pharmacist gave us in Delhi were antibiotics, something he must have forgotten to mention! No wonder there are so many drug resistant bugs going around, most of the tourists are unaware they’re taking antibiotics and never finish the course. I was given the option to get rehydrated at the hospital but as it was freezing and I still felt really bad I wasn’t particularly keen to be lying there in the cold attached to a drip for the next few hours.

They gave me some rehydrate and pills and charged us so little. Hubby didn’t have any small notes so told them they could keep the change but they refused. After a few moments searching around they found some change and threw in some meds to make up for the amount outstanding. I have to say after the initial lack of interest from the first nurse, the doctor and other nurse were incredibly friendly and I am so grateful to them. Not to mention I have the best husband in the whole world!

Our taxi driver was still waiting for us and we hurtled back up the mountain at breakneck speed with music blaring. Once we reached our hotel where I got straight into bed and finally got some much needed sleep. I think poor Hubby didn’t sleep very much, because every time I moved during the night he would check up on me to make sure I was ok.

I felt much better the next morning but could only manage some strawberry tea and a slice of the best Tibetan bread for breakfast. For the South Africans reading, the bread tastes a lot like Stok Brood but minus the stok.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Monks preforming an early morning ritual

Armed with a bottle of rehydrate (I can no longer drink anything orange tasting thanks to the amount of rehydrate I had to drink) we decided to explore McLeod Ganj. I shuffled up the incredibly steep path to the town centre where we got to spin the prayer wheels. We had a nice lunch. I had something boring and simple while Hubby enjoyed a delicious smelling briyani. We slowly made our way back down the steep hill where we decided we’d relax for the rest of the afternoon to let me recover. By this time I was fast growing sick of the taste of the rehydrate but what can you do?

Below our hotel they’re busy building a new home or hotel. It was fascinating watching them as most of the work is done manually. The men dig the foundations and place the dirt in baskets which women then place on their heads and carry away.

On our final day we decided to visit Tsuglagkhang, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s temple and residence. Unfortunately he was away until November travelling overseas. But I was incredibly fortunate to have met him before in the strangest of places. My family moved to the USA many years ago for a year and a bit. It was the first time I ever went on an airplane and the first time I left South Africa. At the airport I was sad to say goodbye to friends and family and incredibly nervous about flying and the idea of living in a strange country. My mom and I noticed some Buddhist monks sitting a bit away, but didn’t take much notice.

I decided to go and buy a magazine to take my mind off things and visited the small shop (this was before Cape Town Airport’s massive revamp). On my way back from the shop I was wiping some tears away when this tiny man smiled at me and told me it was going to be ok. I think I smiled back, I can’t remember, but it was only until we were about to board the plane that my mom and I realised that he was the Dalai Lama! But he was right, it was ok and I had an amazing, unforgettable experience and met some amazing people I’m still friends with.

Hubby and I walked up yet another incredibly steep hill to the entrance of the temple. Most motorbike and car drivers keep their engines off as they free wheel down the hill so you have to be alert and ready to jump out of the way of any silent oncoming traffic. We decided to walk along The Kora, a path around the temple which pilgrims walk. It’s supposed to represent the ancient Lingkhor path which circles the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Kora is a miniature version of the Lingkhor path. On the one side of the path is the Himalayan Ceder and Oak forest filled with prayer flags and occasional views down the valley. The other side has stacked white painted stones and mani stones. The mani stones are painted in bright colours and have Om Mani Padme Hum engraved in them. It’s the mantra of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara. The Dalai Lama is the current incarnation of Avalokitesvara.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Me walking along the Kora

Pilgrims repeat mantras as they finger their prayer beads or spin small prayer wheels. It’s quite peaceful, a rare find in India.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Stones with Om Mani Padme Hum engraved on them

After our walk we entered the temple. We visited the museum which has amazing photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s crossing from Tibet into India back in 1959 during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. There are stories of some of the Tibetans who fled into India, most of them incredibly heartbreaking. People were killed, monasteries burnt down and families risked everything and lost so much crossing over the icy snow-capped mountains as they fled into India.

We visited the small temple where statues of the Shakyamuni Buddha, Avalokitesvara and Padmasambhava are housed. Hubby remained outside and took a photo of the Sakyamuni Buddha as cameras aren’t allowed within the temple. I left my shoes with him and went inside. Monks were busy chanting and it really was quite a magical.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Statue of Sakyamuni Buddha

Photo by Stephen Reid

Prayer wheels

This marked our last day in Mcleod Ganj and for the next three days we would basically just be driving and staying overnight at places as we make our way down the mountains to Rishikesh. Yes, the city where The Beatles allegedly wrote part of The White Album. Our journey was fast coming to an end but there were still a few adventures in store for us.

Amritsar

I spent the whole flight to Delhi with my head in Hubby’s lap. It’s quite difficult in a small plane with 3 seats on either side. I think the guy next to me was just hoping I didn’t get sick on him. By the time we reached Delhi I wanted to collapse. We had to wait for our counter to open to book in and since we were travelling to Amritsar we had to go via the International terminal as security is stricter there.

I refused to eat anything, the thought of food wasn’t a pleasant experience and for days after this we would refer to Varanasi as ‘the place that shall not be mentioned’, as all I could think of was that body floating in the water and the raw sewage being pumped into it and I must have touched or eaten something that came into contact with that water. The most comfortable position I decided was to lie down on the floor in the airport and use our suitcases as makeshift pillows while Hubby went in search of the medical centre. I draped my dupatta (long scarf) over my head to shut out some of the light. A lovely French couple kept an eye on me while Hubby went in search of some much needed meds. Somehow, I thought, that if Pradeep (our wonderful driver who took us from Delhi to Khujaraho) was there with us in Varanasi, I wouldn’t have gotten sick. I know, but at that point most of my thoughts weren’t making sense. Luckily Hubby arrived with a lucky dip of pills from the medical centre and some water.

We finally reached Amritsar at about 6 that evening. It was incredibly windy when we landed. We got our luggage but there wasn’t anyone to meet us at the arrival lounge. Worried, we stepped outside and saw a huge smile and arms waving at us. It was Pradeep! He drove all the way from Khajuraho to Amritsar in 2 days! I was so happy to see him. Feeling a bit better and my spirits cheered on by a familiar face, I was looking forward to the next leg of our journey.

We arrived at Mrs Bandari’s Guesthouse in the military cantonment as the sun was setting. I was still so happy that Pradeep was going to be with us for the rest of our holiday. I instantly liked Mrs Bandari’s. It reminded us of staying with family in Kimberly / Maggagong in the Northern Cape in South Africa when we were little. The beds were rock hard but I was so tired that it didn’t put me off. The incredibly friendly staff made us some yummy dinner before we turned in.

I woke up feeling much better. Yay! It was a good thing as we had some sightseeing to do including the Wagah Border ceremony. It rained during the night and the morning was quite cool. It made for a nice break after the heat in Varanasi. We had our breakfast outside in the beautiful gardens listening to the birds before meeting Pradeep and our guide.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple

Our first stop was Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Golden Temple. We walked through the busy market before checking in our shoes. You have to remove your shoes and wash your hands before entering the complex. You also clean your feet walking through a pool of water as you enter. You have to cover your head (the men too) if you want to enter the temple.

Photo by Stephen Reid

A very peaceful place with so many wonderful and friendly people

Guru Ram Das (the fourth Sikh Guru) started the construction of the gurdwara (temple) and it was completed by Guru Arjan Dev. Guru Arjan Dev completed the Sikh holy scripture and placed it within the gurdwara.
The Golden Temple was rebuilt in 1764 by Maharaja Jassa Singh Ahluwalia. Maharaja Ranjit Singh added the gold plating and marble between 1718 and 1783. Our guide told us that there is about 750kg of gold leaf on the gurdwara.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Golden Temple which houses the Holy Book during the day

It was really beautiful. The people were very friendly and everyone wanted to know where we were from. We visited the world famous kitchens (complete with chapati machine!). The volunteers feed about 50,000 people a day (easily double that number if it’s a special holy day). The meals are completely free of charge. Anyone can visit the temple and kitchen, no matter what religion you are. Volunteers also come from all walks of life.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The Chapati machine in action

We decided not to see the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh Holy Scripture). The line was incredibly long and we would probably have waited at least an hour. Our guide wanted to try and sneak us to the front of the queue as we were tourists but we refused. It would have been great to see the Guru Granth Sahib but I could never skip the queue. It means far more to all the pilgrims standing in line for over an hour and we felt it was wrong of us to jump the queue just because we were tourists.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The beautiful Golden Temple

After our visit to the Golden Temple, we visited Jallianwala Bagh public garden. It’s a beautiful garden only accessible through a narrow lane. Unfortunately this peaceful garden was the site of what’s known as the Amritsar Massacre.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The market outside the Golden Temple complex

Brigadier-General Reginald EH Dyer of the British Raj suspected a major insurrection was happening. There was a lot of unrest going on throughout India as people became more upset with British Raj rule and the gathering of more than 4 people were banned. About 1500 Hindus, Muslim and Sikhs were meeting in the gardens. An hour after the meeting started, Brigadier-General Dyer and 90 soldiers arrived and shouted for the crowd to disperse, but the soldiers were blocking the exit. He ordered the troops to start shooting into the densest part of the crowd, including at the women and children. People tried to get out of the way but the exit was blocked. Some, in their desperation, jumped into the well. It’s estimated that about 1000 people died that day with many more injured. Brigadier-General Dyer was forced to retire but became a hero for some with connections to the British Raj.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The memorial at Jallianwala Bagh

Our guide lightened things up by taking us to a tailor. They quickly measured both Hubby and myself and promised us we’d have a new work shirt and salwar kameez waiting for us later in the day. We stopped for some yummy food before returning to our guesthouse so I could get some rest and rehydrate. We would be heading off to the border between Pakistan and India later that afternoon.

Photo by Michele Reid

The Punjab countryside

The drive to Wagah border was relatively quick and the road quite good. We were told to bring our passports and cameras but to leave all bags behind as they don’t allow any bags inside. The female army officer who checked me as we entered complimented me on my salwar kameez (one I bought many years ago in South Africa) and told me to enjoy the ceremony. The people are just so friendly!

Photo by Stephen Reid

Come early if you want a seat

We showed our passports and were told to go to the VIP seating area. If you don’t bring your passport you have to arrive very early as there was no seating left in the stands any more. We squeezed our way into the VIP seating, grateful for a spot. The super VIP seating has the best view as it’s close to the border gate but it seems that it’s reserved for government officials.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The border between India and Pakistan

The Indian side was getting excited as some popular Bollywood songs began to play. Women filled the Grand Trunk Road (the road we mostly followed all the way from Delhi to Khujaraho and then again in Amritsar) and began to dance. A foreign guy got told off by the army guards when he wanted to join. After the women, it was the kids turn to show their dance skills. Things were strangely quiet over on the Pakistani side with the men and women segregated. There was no singing and especially no dancing.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Women dancing before the border ceremony

The army guards wear the most ornate headdresses, it’s quite impressive. A big shout off happens where both side shouts slogans to say that their country is the best before a trumpet sounds the beginning of the ceremony. The Pakistani side does exactly the same as the Indian side.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Indian flags

On both sides guards march at super speed towards the gates where they do a sequence of foot stomping that will remind any Monty Python fan of the ‘Ministry of Funny Walks’ sketch. It’s hysterical but at the same time amazing. They kick so high they touch their headdresses! There’s a lot of glaring at each other while guys with machine guns guard the border. But it’s all show.

Photo by Stephen Reid

High speed marching

Photo by Stephen Reid

Indian border guard

The two flags are lowered at exactly the same time. There’s the briefest of handshakes between the Pakistani and India guards before the gates are slammed shut.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The Pakistani side of the border

Once the flag has been returned and after some more foot stomping the ceremony is finished. People go to the border gate to pose for a photo and some guards even pose for photos with families. They’re all smiles now and don’t look nearly as intimidating as they did 5 minutes ago.

I was feeling much better and celebrated with a Kingfisher beer at dinner that night. We had an early start ahead of us as we were heading into the mountains!

I woke up feeling ok, not great but not too bad. I took some of the pills we picked up at Delhi airport at the pharmacy before we headed towards to the mountains to McLeod Ganj, home of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama.

Holy Varanasi

Photo by Stephen Reid

Holy man on the banks of the Ganga

Photo by Stephen Reid

Varanasi

The Lonely Planet Guide Book says Varanasi takes no prisoners, and boy is it true. We arrived at the modern but small Varanasi airport late in the afternoon. I nervously waited at the bag carousel but luckily our luggage made it. We were greeted by our travel representative and stepped out into the hot, muggy Varanasi air. The scenery started off quite rural with buffaloes grazing in fields but quickly changed to busy, congested city. After the relatively peace and quiet of the small towns of Orchha and Khajuraho, we were back into the chaos and cacophony of a big city.

Our driver stopped along a busy street. We would have to make the rest of the journey to our hotel on foot. It’s situated right on the banks of the Ganga through a labyrinth of narrow alleyways that make up the old city. Our hotel sent two very nice young guys who helped us with our bags and guided us through a myriad of obstacles dodging cow patties, dodgy stagnant water and litter. We stayed in Chowki Ghat and you had to walk through a food stall to get to Kedareswar Guesthouse’s entrance. We were led up a very narrow and incredibly steep stairway to the top of the building where our room was. We immediately switched the air-conditioner on but it seemed to struggle a bit in the humidity. Outside our room huge terrace provided us with beautiful views over the river and ghats.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Boat building along the Ganga

Photo by Stephen Reid

Buffalo relaxing on the river bank

Photo by Stephen Reid

Cooling off in the sacred Ganga

At dinner time we strolled down to the ghats and had dinner at a nearby restaurant. The area close to the river is considered an alcohol free zone but we were more than happy with our ice cold Pepsi’s. We listened to the evening Aarti nearby while watching people place little floating candles in the river from the banks and boats. After dinner we headed back to the mosquito free and cool interiors of our room. I then converted our large en-suite bathroom to a laundry but the humidity wasn’t really helping anything dry.

Photo by Michele Reid

Women having an early evening chat

We woke up really early and met our guide who was taking us on a sunrise boat ride on the Ganga. The river was a hive of activity with flower sellers, pilgrims and priests getting ready for morning puja.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Sunrise over the Ganga

Photo by Stephen Reid

Advertising is everywhere, even on the boats

Photo by Stephen Reid

Flower seller on the banks of the Ganga at sunrise

Photo by Stephen Reid

Early morning puja

Photo by Stephen Reid

Early morning on the river banks

We made our way through the crowds to one of the many boats and hopped into the rickety boat. I tried to ignore the slushing sound of water in the bottom of the boat (underneath the foot rest). The boatman then slowly started rowing us downstream. Pilgrims and families taking a morning dip in the Ganga and priests performing the morning Aarti slowly drifted by.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Morning Ganga Aarti

Photo by Stephen Reid

Morning Ganga Aarti

Along the way we passed beautiful buildings and old palaces. Our guide told us that Varanasi was originally called Kashi in the Rigveda. It was then renamed Banaras by the Mughals and then renamed Varanasi by the ‘Britishers’ (still love that word!) Our guide seemed to think the name Varanasi comes from two rivers that flow into the Ganga in Varanasi, the Varuna and Assi Rivers.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Varanasi in the morning

Photo by Stephen Reid

Temple on the river banks

It was already incredibly humid as the sun started to peak out through the clouds. A few people were out swimming and squirting water from their mouths. Others were drinking it. The Ganga is one of the most sacred rivers in India and is the embodiment of the Goddess Ganga. Her decent to Earth from Heaven is cushioned by the God Shiva, whose matted hair breaks her fall. Varanasi is also a sacred city for Shiva and all along the winding alleyways you’ll find Shiva lingams. The Ganga is believed to pure and has purifying powers. Bathing in the Ganga’s waters will wipe away the sins of a lifetime. It is also considered a vehicle of ascent from Earth to Heaven and it’s believed that those who die in Varanasi are cremated here and immersed in the river obtain moksha or salvation.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Kedareswar Bed & Breakfast where we stayed

Photo by Stephen Reid

Laundry time!

Unfortunately the river is also incredibly polluted. The city of Varanasi pumps 200 million litres of raw, untreated sewage into the river each day. For water to be safe for bathing there should be 500 faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml. Before the ghats in Varanasi the level is 120 times that and after the city it’s 60,000 to 1.5 million per 100ml.

As we got closer to Harish Chandra Ghat, the oldest cremation ghat in Varanasi, I noticed something white drifting in the water. I suddenly realised it was a body! Not sure if Hubby saw it, I didn’t want to point it out as I felt that might be a bit disrespectful. Hubby later told me he also noticed the body but didn’t want to say anything in case I didn’t see it.

At Harish Chandra people were attending to the cremation fires. A man was standing on one of the boats with a small, white wrapped bundle in his hands. He tied it to a big rock and threw it in the river. Our guide told us that the bundle would have been the body of a baby. There are certain instances when a person can’t be cremated. These include if you’re a child under the age of 8 years, a pregnant woman, if you were bitten by a Cobra or if you had leprosy. People who are too poor to afford cremation also sometimes place bodies in the river.

We turned around and made our way back up the river to Manikarnika Ghat, which is the main cremation ghat. Piles of different types of wood are stacked up in the alleyways near the ghat.

I made my way out of the boat back onto firm land and began exploring the labyrinths that make up the old city. Varanasi is also known as the city of temples and I can see why. There are shrines and temples dotted all over the place. We decided not to visit the Vishwanath temple. It’s a site that is somewhat controversial as a mosque used to be on the site. Hindus argue a temple used to stand there before the mosque. Security around the temple is incredible with armed Indian Army guards everywhere. Foreigners aren’t allowed inside the temple and we had to leave our cameras with one of the shopkeepers outside the complex if we wanted to see the outside. I felt it wasn’t worth the risk and effort as there’s so much else to see in Varanasi.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Horses dressed up for a wedding ceremony

Photo by Stephen Reid

Narrow alleys close to the ghats

Photo by Michele Reid

One of the many Shiva lingams in Varanasi

Photo by Michele Reid

Embroidery by hand – working on saris in one of the shops near our B&B

Photo by Stephen Reid

The vegetable shop near our B&B

The presence of the army and the early morning foot traffic (cars can’t fit in the narrow lanes, but unfortunately motorbikes can) seemed to spook a rather large buffalo. Hubby was walking in front of me and all of a sudden stepped back (onto my exposed toes!) and the buffalo came charging past. One of its horns managed to bruise my shoulder. Who needs the running of the bulls in Pamplona when you can experience that and so much more in Varanasi?

After a very yummy breakfast on the terrace and some delicious chai at our hotel, we decided to head out to Sarnath where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon. Our guide originally wanted to take us to the University first with Sarnath later in the afternoon, but it was so hot and humid already I didn’t like the idea of walking around in the sun in the heat of the day.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Buddhist temple in Sarnath

Photo by Stephen Reid

Inside the temple

Photo by Michele Reid

Prayer flags in Sarnath

We arrived at Sarnath and visited the Buddhist temple. It’s a relatively new temple as most of the original monastery was raised to the ground by the mughals. The temple has beautifully painted murals depicting the life of the Buddha. After visiting the temple we headed for the monastery ruins. Unfortunately all the buildings have been raised to the ground but from the foundations it gives you an idea of how big the Buddhist community must have been back then.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Ruins of the Buddhist monastery in Sarnath

Photo by Stephen Reid

The last remaining Stupa in Sarnath

We visited the archaeological museum which houses some spectacular finds including beautifully carved Buddha statues, Hindu statues, amazing stonework and implements from ancient history which people would have used. It was also wonderful to be out of the hot sun.

We then made our way back to Varanasi where we stopped at some weavers. Varanasi is very popular for many reasons, but one of them is for the beautiful Banarasi silk sarees. Many women dream of owning one, especially for their wedding day. They are beautifully decorated with zari (metal thread which were originally gold). Many of the old sarees no longer exist as they were burnt to retrieve the gold.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The looms the beautiful pieces are made on

Photo by Stephen Reid

Weaving like this is becoming a dying trade in Varanasi

Besides weaving sarees, they also do scarves and wall hangings. These days they don’t weave the intricate sarees anymore which is quite sad. There are only a few weavers left who can weave these and the younger generation aren’t interested to learn the skill. You can still buy silk sarees but they’re no longer done in the old styles. They’re done with more simple designs and on more modern machines. The intricate patterns are weaved on an old wooden frame and looks incredibly complicated.

Photo by Stephen Reid

One of the many beautiful pieces made on the handlooms

After lunch I was exhausted. It has been a long, hot muggy day, so we headed back through the labyrinth to our air-conditioned room. The air-conditioner was seriously struggling in the heat but I only needed to step into the bathroom to realise just how hot and muggy it was without it!

Our guide was meeting us later that night to take us to the evening Ganga Aarti. Hubby had a nice nap and I wrote down a few observations in my travel diary when we got interrupted by what sounded like one huge party. I thought it was probably some western kids having a big party in one of the hostels a few buildings down. Hubby decided to get up and investigate and quickly called me to come have a look.

It wasn’t a party but a wedding procession, Varanasi style. The bride and her family were cruising down the river in one of the big boats while a smaller one next to it had some serious speakers and a generator to run the sound system.

Things didn’t cool down as we made our way to the evening Ganga Aarti held at Dashashwamedh Ghat. Our guide suggested sitting with the other foreigners on one of the nearby hotel terraces but even though their entry fee was incredibly cheap, we decided to sit with the locals. I wanted to really experience the Aarti and be part of it, not just be an observer.

We arrived early and squeezed into a spot quite close to the front. I sat next to two very lovely aunties who complimented me on wearing my salwar kameez. Behind us sat a group of women with recently shaved heads. They shaved their heads as they were on pilgrimage in Varanasi. They still looked beautiful with their glistening gold nose studs, colourful sarees and bangles.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Evening Aarti

The Aarti starts with some devotional songs played over loud speakers and everyone singing and clapping along. Next the priests perform the Aarti involving several movements and then repeating them with different items (e.g. incense, fire and smoke). I found myself strangely moved by the mass of people who each night comes to participate in this ritual and it was one of my highlights.

As we walked towards the restaurant (we haven’t had supper yet and by this time my stomach was growling) our guide explained to us the meaning behind each of the movements. He then went to collect some Ganga water to pour over his head when a woman stepping out of one of the boats slipped and fell into the river, handbag and all. I don’t know if she was more upset about having fallen into the river or having gotten her handbag soaked.

We got back to our room only to find out that some people in a building next to us were celebrating a harvest festival. Funnily enough I recognised a few of the Bollywood songs. It wasn’t long though until we had a power failure (they’re regular, it’s strange when you don’t have one). Sad for us because that meant we only had a fan powered by the generator and no air-conditioning. The party was halted for all of 5 minutes and then the generator kicked in.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The alley in front of our B&B at night

Photo by Stephen Reid

The sweet shop

I woke up in the middle of the night feeling like I’ve been to a seriously big party. I hoped it was just fatigue and rolled over to get more sleep.

We had a nice breakfast on the terrace with chai and lemon sugar pancakes overlooking the Ganga. We were saying goodbye to Ma Ganga and the pilgrims and heading up north to Amritsar and the Pakistani border.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Sunrise in Varanasi

By the time we reached the airport and settled down to wait for our flight I realised something was wrong. I was not feeling my bright eyed and bushy-tailed self. My happy tummy was replaced by a gnawing monster eating away at my insides. I did manage to buy myself a book on the more popular Hindu myths at the bookshop before we boarded the plane.

Khajuraho

Photo by Michele Reid

One of the many decorated trucks in India

Photo by Michele

Fruit stall in one of the towns en route to Khajuraho

Photo by Stephen Reid

Transporting a truck tyre on a motorbike              

Situated in the state of Madhya Pradesh, is home to yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the famous temple complex. Build between 500 and 1300 CE out of Sandstone, there were originally 85 Hindu temples. Sadly only 22 remain. The area has temple ruins scattered everywhere but the ones inside the temple complex have been beautifully preserved.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Khajuraho Temples

Photo by Stephen Reid

Photo by Stephen Reid

One of the temples peeking out between the trees

Photo by Stephen Reid

Photo by Stephen Reid

The temples reach out into the sky

The temple walls are covered in beautiful, intricate carvings representing everyday life (including sex), gods and goddesses and animals. Each temple roof rises steeply into the sky and is said to symbolise the cosmic mountain, Mount Kailasha.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Small section of the outer wall of one of the temples

Photo by Stephen Reid

Close up of the carvings – some flute players

Photo by Stephen Reid

Each temple is covered with these amazingly detailed carvings

Photo by Stephen Reid

Beautifully carved Varaha

Photo by Stephen Reid

Lord Ganesha

After we visited the temple complex we made our way to the Jain temples. They look exactly the same from the outside except they have no Tantric carvings. We were allowed to go inside one of the temples still being used today and took some photos of the Tirthankaras (saints). The Tirthankaras look a lot like Buddha, except that they are completely naked.

We also stopped by a workshop where local men are creating replicas of the images found on the temples. They use traditional methods to make them. Sadly we couldn’t bring any of them with us as they were quite expensive (they’re entirely carved by hand) and quite heavy. Mostly it was a weight issue but I think hubby was relieved he wouldn’t have to hand over the credit card.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Keeping the stone carving tradition alive

By the time we finished our visit it was early evening. At the hotel we made a beeline for the swimming pool. We were staying at one of the Taj hotels so it was quite luxurious. The dip in the pool was really nice and cool and we decided to enjoy the thunder and lightning show with a Kingfisher beer by the poolside.

The next morning we headed for the local village. We were lucky enough to get a guide to take us through the beautiful village. We were invited into one of the homes of a Brahman family.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The kitchen inside one of the homes

Photo by Stephen Reid

These dung amulets hang outside many of the houses

Photo by Stephen Reid

Beautiful horses on the roof – apparently they bring rain

Initially the different coloured houses depicted which caste you belonged to. Our guide, who lives in the village, told us that today the colours can be used by anyone. But the water pumps and some of the shrines and temples are still restricted to certain castes. Outside the doors we noticed some writing. Apparently it was a way to keep track of which kids had been vaccinated and when.

Photo by Stephen Reid

The town Mill

Photo by Stephen Reid

A beautiful door in India

Photo by Stephen Reid

Cute goats having a nap in the shade

After our visit to the village it was time to head back, pack, get an early lunch and head out to the airport. We took a quick dip in the pool and took our sandwiches as takeaway to eat at the airport. They packed them in a cake box complete with condiments and chips!

Sadly we had to say goodbye to Pradeep. We had gotten used to having him with us every day and he really looked after us. I wasn’t sure if we would be able to survive without him. He found Hubby highly entertaining. Every morning while driving, Hubby would try and figure out which direction we were going in. Inevitably he would get it wrong and Pradeep would correct him politely, but with a smile.

Khajuraho airport is tiny, not well air-conditioned and not particularly clean. Our flight was delayed so we tucked into our sarmies from the Taj hotel. They were absolutely delicious and probably the best sandwich I’ve eaten.

After the standard extensive airport security screening, we finally boarded our flight for the shortest plane ride we’ve ever had. Before we knew it, we arrived in Varanasi, one of the most holiest cities in India…

Beautiful Orccha

Indian Countryside - Photo by Stephen Reid

Countryside on our way to Orccha

I fell madly in love with Orchha. It’s a beautiful, small town in Madhya Pradesh. It was established by Maharaja Rudra Pratap Singh in 1501. He later died trying to save a cow from a lion. It’s amazing how much the countryside has changed, from the cities to scraggly bush to wheat fields and sugar cane. Pradeep says they even have rice paddies here and I can see why. It’s the end of the dry season yet there’s still plenty of water still around. Every hilltop either has a fort or a temple on it. The temples have these long stairways leading up the steep hills. Amazing.

Fort ruins - Photo by Stephen Reid

Ruins of a fort we passed along the way

We stayed at the beautiful Amar Mahal where I had the best gulab jamun in India. It’s 2 balls made from dough and spices soaked in a sugary syrup. They served it with ice cream and I kid you not, it tasted very close to malva pudding (a South African dessert). I was in heaven! Besides the yum food, the staff is also incredibly friendly. After a very delicious lunch we headed off with our guide to explore Orchha.

Amar Mahal - Photo by Stephen Reid

Courtyard at Amar Mahal

Amar Mahal Pool - Photo by Stephen Reid

Swimming pool at Amar Mahal with the Chhatris peeking out in the background

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Me feeling very regal at Amar Mahal

Our first stop was Jahangir Mahal, built by Vir Singh Deo as a welcome present for the Mughal Emperor Jehangir when he visited the state in the 17th century. It’s three stories high and has many beautiful carved windows. The local monkeys came to say hello as they played around the palace. It reminded me a bit of The Jungle Book. The area is surrounding by dhak (called Flame of the Forest in English) forests and it was very humid. We even had a nice thunderstorm as we were exploring the passageways and rooms.

Jahangir Mahal - Photo by Stephen Reid

Jahangir Mahal

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Ruins in the dhak forest

Monkey business - Photo by Stephen Reid

A monkey playing in the palace ruins

We then walked next door to the Raj Mahal. It was started by Rudra Pratap and completed by Madhukar Shah in the 17th century. The interiors are beautifully decorated with murals depicting the Ramayana and different gods.

Mural - Photo by Stephen Reid

We then made our way to the other side of town to Chaturbhuj Temple. An old man was sitting on the steps playing his flute. Chaturbhuj Temple was originally built in the 9th century. The name Chaturbhuj is derived from the Sanskrit words meaning four arms referring to Lord Vishnu who has four arms. The temple is particularly significant as it’s the first place where the symbol ‘0’ is recorded.

Orccha - Photo by Stephen Reid

View of the town from Chaturbhuj Temple

Photo by Stephen Reid

The sun (or Vishnu perhaps?) giving us a beautiful display of sun rays while visiting the temple

The statue of Vishnu is no longer in the temple but people still come here to pray to him. The walls are decorated with more recent images of the wars between the Britishers and the Indians.

Indian army - Photo by Stephen Reid

Mural depicting the Indian army

British army - Photo by Stephen Reid

Mural depicting the British army

We then headed towards the Chhatris. They are beautiful buildings built in memory of kings. They were often built on the cremation site. It was late afternoon and quite humid so there weren’t that many people around. I found a rare moment in India where I had one of the monuments all to myself. The sun popped out from behind a cloud as I watched a local family come down to the Betwa River to bathe.

Chhatris - Photo by Stephen Reid

View of the Chhatris from Amar Mahal

Chhatris in Orccha - Photo by Stephen Reid

We had most of the complex to ourserves

Photo by Stephen Reid

Beautiful view

Our last stop that afternoon was the Lakshmi Temple in the town itself. It’s built in a similar style of the Chaturbhuj Temple. We walked through the small bazaar where delicious sweets and beautiful dyes were on display. We then returned to our hotel where we had yet another delicious meal and enjoyed some traditional music in the courtyard.

We were very lucky to be invited by our guide to visit the evening prayer at the Ram Raja Temple. What makes this so special is that this is the only temple in the world where Lord Rama is worshipped as a king. We couldn’t take any photos inside the temple. You enter through the doorway where you ring a bell to wake up the god.

Inside everyone gathers in the courtyard. There are several shrines of other gods located around the courtyard. Lord Rama is located behind a closed, beautiful silver door and he has his own security guard. Our guide informed us that only a Brahmin can have that job as his caste allows him to work within the temple. The priests begin to chant and the doors are opened revealing Lord Rama. It really was an amazing experience and we had some local kids coming to talk to us in perfect English. They wanted to know where we came from. The poor people wait outside the temple. Priests come to provide them with a free meal. This happens every night.

Photo by Stephen Reid

Shop selling beautiful dyes and wood block stamps in the market outside the temple

Photo by Stephen Reid

Sweet shop

I really enjoyed our very short stay in Orchha and wish we stayed longer. The people are incredibly friendly. I only hope that in future we can return to Orchha and spend more time visiting the beautiful people and scenic surroundings.

The next morning after a delicious breakfast we left for Khajuraho. The road was terrible and once again our lives flashed in front of our eyes at least a dozen times or so. I made sure I drank lots of water before we set off as it’s been quite hot but regretted it about 10 minutes into the drive. Thankfully we stopped about 2 hours into the drive at a shop and restaurant! Secretly I think Pradeep is psychic. He just magically knows what to do. Our adventure in Khajuraho will have to wait until next time.