Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Blue City

From the bastions of the Jodhpur Fort one hears as the Gods must hear from Olympus – the Gods to whom each separate word uttered in the innumerable peopled world below, comes up distinct and individual to be recorded in the books of omniscience.

-Aldous Huxley

Perched high atop a rocky hill, the staggeringly large Meherangarh Fort of Jodhpur is impressive indeed. Similarities to Olympus abound, and give credence to Aldous Huxley’s oft quoted prose, as the soaring bastions of Meherangarh tower like skyscrapers over the ancient Blue City. Like the Acropolis, the seat of power for the ancient Kingdom of Marwar dominates both the visual and the subconscious of all those in its shadow.

Built in 1459, the Fort is entered through a series of formidable gates. Evidence of former battles abounds, including dozens of scars where the strong walls ruthlessly turned away opposing cannonballs. Each gate carries its own significance, including the Lohapol (Iron Gate), which bears 15 immortal handprints – the sati (self-immolation) marks of Maharaja Man Singh’s widows who threw themselves upon his funeral pyre in 1843.

Below the Fort, the blue houses of Jodhpur sparkle in the desert sun. Bustling shops, including the famous Jodhpur hand loomed textile stores, draw people to the markets like moths to a flame. Monuments dot the landscape, and the painstakingly carved sandstone architecture is shockingly detailed and well done. Jodhpur deserves its place as one of the crown jewels of Rajasthan.

Enjoy the Jodhpur Photo Gallery.

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Sunday, November 28, 2004

Sandcastles In The Sky

In the far western corner of India, in the shadow of Pakistan, a massive fort thrusts its ramparts towards the heavens. Like an immense golden sandcastle, the great fort of Jaisalmer rises from the parched desert; an oasis in an otherwise barren land.

Unique in a land brimming with ancient fortifications and citadels, the Jaisalmer fort is alive. Thousands of people call the tortured streets of the fort home, and shops, restaurants, galleries, hotels, and even Internet cafes line the narrow corridors. Outside the bastions of the ancient sandcastle, the city nips at the surrounding desert dunes. Jaisalmer has grown, and once-distant desert villages cling to independence, perilously close to becoming suburbs.

Desert life continues here as it always has. If the monsoon is strong, people prosper in agriculture; if rains fail to materialize, residents must find another way to put food on the table. Roads through the lonely desert fight constant battles with encroaching sand, and tour companies with both camels and jeeps stand prepared for either victor. Wild peacocks roam the dunes, goats and sheep ply the wild grasses, and camels pluck at forlorn trees lining the occasional road. It’s an ancient land bent on avoiding the passage of time.

Enjoy the Jaisalmer Photo Gallery.

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Friday, November 26, 2004

Shaken, Not Stirred

In the grand Thar Desert of Western India, hides a jewel. With a tangled knot of quaint streets, a cornucopia of rooftop vistas, and a series of lakes complete with whimsical floating palaces, Udaipur has often been called “the most romantic city on the continent of India.” This jumble of whitewashed buildings welcomes guests with a unique warmth and hospitality all its own.

Yet despite its reputation as the “Jewel of Indian Tourism,” Udaipur is perhaps best known as the primary location for the infamous James Bond movie Octopussy. Who can forget Roger Moore sneaking into the magical, floating Lake Palace in his mechanical crocodile submarine? Or the Royal Rajput Yacht powered by bikini-clad beauties patrolling the mystical waters of Lake Pachola?

Today the Lake Palace is one of the world’s most exclusive and dramatic hotels, and entrance requires only a dinner reservation. Although Bond’s black tie did not make it into our packs, we managed to make ourselves presentable, and find our way to the Lake Palace. In keeping with its reputation, we were treated like royalty. Upon arrival by boat, we were greeted by a bagpipe and drum corps, which broke into a royal song of welcome at the sight of us. Lynn was then escorted under a jewel-studded parasol up the marble staircase to a landing laced with fresh rose petals, where two Indian women in sparkling, traditional saris warmly welcomed us.

Inside the hotel we feasted upon an amazing meal of Indian and continental cuisine, and treated ourselves to the first bottle of wine we have seen in two months. Traditional Rajasthani musicians and dancers performed in one courtyard, while exotic birds crooned in another. The entire Palace smelled of fresh Jasmine, thanks to large marble bowls filled with fresh blooms. The Lake Palace Hotel absolutely lives up to its reputation, with beautiful hanging and sunken gardens, fountains, and stunning ancient architecture.

However, Udaipur has not lost sight of its traditional Indian roots. The shores of Lake Pachola are the daytime home to dozens of dobi-wallahs engaged in their ancient laundry washing traditions. Temples dot the streetscape, and traditional India spice markets add to the vibrancy of the old city. Udaipur is littered with other stunning Palaces, as well as interesting shops, bookstores, hotels, and restaurants. Despite the current drought draining Lake Pachola, Udaipur is a magical town, straight from the pages of a child’s fairytale.

Enjoy the Udaipur Photo Gallery.

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Sunday, November 21, 2004

A Day At The Fair

As the sun peeks its saffron face over the horizon, the earth moves. Blue smoke hangs in the dusky pre-dawn air, and a sense of expectation envelopes you. Your eyes struggle in the pre-dawn darkness to make sense of it all. As the sun gains a foothold, the once-distant and gentle stirring grows exponentially, and the quiet dunes become a frothing sea of movement and activity. Welcome to the Pushkar Camel Fair.

In the Fall of every year, the holy town of Pushkar transforms from a sleepy village of 15,000, to a raucous party with 200,000 guests, and 50,000 camels. The rolling dunes outside town become a mass of animals, people, camel trading, camel races, camel parades, street theater, and other high-spirited festivities. There is nothing else like it in the world. Despite the carnival atmosphere, the camel fair is serious business for thousands of livestock traders from all parts of the Subcontinent. Animated business negotiations take place around campfires and over cups of chai, and the lavishly decorated camels are painstaking inspected by interested buyers.

Camels are shockingly large creatures, and tower over the men in charge of them. They are also surprisingly graceful and gentle, with an unexpected air of sophistication and charm. Camels have evolved a remarkable system of thermoregulation, and can elevate their core body temperature up to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit without perspiring, thereby limiting water loss. As a result of this unique ability, camels can easily work in the scorching desert for up to 7 days without water.

As the heat of the day draws to a close, the desert sky transforms to a blazing curtain of orange. Camels are gathered and organized for the coming darkness, and an endless sea of humps is silhouetted against the brilliant setting sun. Soon, all will be calm again.

Enjoy the Pushkar Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Camel Videos:

Singing Camel.
Camel Procession.
Camel Close-Up.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Pretty In Pink

The Pink City of Jaipur is not pink. Terra cotta, maybe. Burnt Sienna? I could be convinced. Pink? Definitely not. Nevertheless, Jaipur has been called the Pink City since the ancient walled city was painted “pink” many generations ago to welcome the then-Prince of Whales.

Today, Jaipur is among the most crowded and polluted cities in Rajasthan. Yet the vibrant old city remains full of delights. Colorful shopping bazaars reveal narrow streets jammed with vendors and shoppers. Spices, flowers, textiles, jewels, metal work, food – you name it, and it can be found in the Pink City.

Outside the old walled city, urban sprawl has gobbled up large tracts of land. On the outskirts, several ancient forts look down from hilltop locations on the metropolitan chaos below. The most famous of these is the dramatic Amber Fort. Once the ancient capital of the area, spectacular Amber is better known now as a backdrop for numerous Bollywood movies.

Jaipur is many things. It is colorful and vibrant. It is crowded and bustling. It is beautiful and fascinating. It just isn’t pink.

Enjoy the Jaipur Photo Gallery.

Please Note: Visitors can climb a spectacular set of carved stone stairs to the Amber Fort, or take a shockingly cruel Elephant Ride. The Elephants of Amber have been imported from the tropics, and cannot adapt to the massive temperature fluctuations of the Rajasthani desert (from 115 degrees to below freezing). Elephants require 250 liters of drinking water per day – impossible to find at Amber. Every day they are forced to walk 11km each way to Amber from their sleeping stable in the old city, suffering cracked feet, sunburn, and severe dehydration along the way. Help In Suffering Animal Shelter is an Indian Charitable Trust working to improve the predicament of these gentle giants. If you are interested in learning more about this noble organization, or in helping HIS reach its goals, please contact Help In Suffering.

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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Hippy-Trippy Rishikesh

Yoga was invented in Rishikesh, India, but the town didn’t garner the world’s attention until the Beatles came to visit their guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in the early 60s. The Beatles may be gone, but the 60s seem to live forever. In Rishikesh, groups of laid-back hippies happily pad around town barefoot, visiting the local Ashrams. Holy chants ring out over the river at all hours of the day and night. At dusk, priests and members of the Ashrams offer fire to the river, and thus to the gods.

In addition to the hippy-stinx mojo floating around, Rishikesh swells with a gorgeous, reflective vibe. Rishikesh’s religious communities drape lazily along the banks of the infamous Ganges River. Thickly forested hillsides rise up from the holy river, to add to the contemplative feel. Monkeys frolic in the forest canopy, while sacred cows loiter in the streets. It is a menagerie masquerading as a meditation retreat.

For us Rishikesh is a stop on the way to Rajasthan, but for some it remains a sacred place, and even a lifestyle.

Enjoy the Rishikesh Photo Gallery.

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Saturday, November 13, 2004

Welcome To The Subcontinent

India is a land of sorrow, energy, and inexplicable power. Its is a fascinating mix of residual British colonialism, a cornucopia of religions, and dozens of different ethnicities.

To travel in India is to be overwhelmed, swimming in a crushing sea of humanity. Every turn reveals a new assault on the senses. Touts attack from every angle. Children follow you everywhere, continuously soliciting money. A macabre stable of beggars with an astounding and disheartening array of diseases, amputations, and maladies haunt you at every turn. People stare, and grab, pull, and tug at your clothing. There is no escape.

Yet India breathes a life like no other. There is a vibrancy here; an energy unequalled around the globe. Only in India do cows, monkeys, camels, and elephants vie for road space with autorickshaws, Ambassador taxis, scooters carrying five passangers, and every other wheeled contraption ever conceived. Only in India do the man-made colors compete with, and surpass, the rainbow. Here, the fabric of life is so rich, so varied, and so deeply textured that the visitor simply succumbs. India takes you in, captures your imagination, and never lets go.

We flew into Delhi, fortunate to have friends willing to host us and ease us into the rigors of the city. With Roopa, Rahul, and their two delightful kids, we were given the chance to taste daily Indian life. Blessed with traditional home-cooked Indian meals, we celebrated Diwali together, and attended social gatherings and an authentic puja with friends. It has been the perfect start to what promises to be an incredible month.

Enjoy the Delhi and Agra Photo Gallery.

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Monday, November 08, 2004

I Think I’m Going To Kathmandu

Kathmandu, Nepal is a haven for travelers. Anything and everything is available in Kathmandu, or at least it seems that way after the desolation of Tibet. We stayed in an oasis known as the Kathmandu Guest House, complete with a lush flower and palm tree-studded courtyard. Our first night we gorged on a top-notch Italian meal, complete with Chianti, on a rooftop terrace lined with flowers and trees. Sunrise brought singing birds, bountiful breakfasts, and endless shops just waiting to supply anything desired.

Alas, we stayed for only two days, given the current political unrest in Nepal. Government soldiers patrolled every street corner, brandishing their steely-cold machine guns with menacing authority. All of the shopkeepers told us that tourism is way down, and we met no other Americans during our stay. Although everything seemed relatively safe in Kathmandu, leaving when we did felt right.

Nepal is a very worthwhile objective -- we will be back someday.

Enjoy the Nepal Photo Gallery.

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Saturday, November 06, 2004

Americans Ashamed

The world is confused and dismayed with the recent election of George W. Bush as U.S President. Although our experience is largely anecdotal, the world wanted Mr. Kerry to win, while the majority of Americans voted for Mr. Bush. The divergence of viewpoints is overwhelming.

Watching possibly the most important election of our lifetime in Kathmandu, Nepal, was an interesting, yet somber, experience. Every television in every guesthouse was turned to either CNN or the BBC. Hotel lobbies were full of westerners and Nepali alike, all devoutly interested in the outcome. As seemingly the only Americans in town, everyone looked to us for explanations: "How can anyone vote for Bush?" "Why do Americans care more about stopping gays from expressing their love than their soldiers uselessly dying in Iraq?" "Bush is stupid – why do Americans like him?"

Since the results were tabulated, everyone we meet has expressed dismay, outrage, and fear about the election. A Spanish man at the Kathmandu Guesthouse said, "the world is sad today." According to the clerk at the Delhi train station, "Mr. Bush is a bad, evil man." A Dutch man at the airport noted, "this election was very, very bad for the world." A Brit opined that a second Bush term would lead to the end of America’s status as a superpower, something akin to the fall of Rome.

Public commentary has been perhaps even less kind. The Delhi newspaper called President Bush a "brain-retard." A German newspaper compared Bush to Homer Simpson, and noted his "Simpsonesque penchant for monosyllabic speech." The former president of Malaysia called Bush "heartless and merciless." In Pakistan, one of Mr. Bush’s so-called strongest allies in the War on Terror, a public opinion poll pegs the approval rating of Mr. Bush at 12 percent, while the approval rating of Osama Bin Laden is 72 percent.

A repeat of the last election is unfolding in America, and we are watching the world's negative reaction.

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Friday, November 05, 2004

The Roof of the World

Standing below the face of the highest peak in the world is an amazing experience. The summit scrapes the jet stream, shooting off a constant plume of vapor against the brilliant cobalt sky. Everything is crystal clear in the rarified air, and the cold permeates your being. Dwarfed by the spectacular amphitheater of 20,000-foot peaks around you, one can’t help feeling very small.

The photographs speak for themselves. Enjoy the Mt. Everest Photo Gallery.

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Thursday, November 04, 2004

Friendship Highway

What happens when eight strangers, two drivers, and a guide, all of whom speak different languages, spend nine days in two ancient Toyota Land Cruisers, covering more than 1,000 kilometers over rutted four-wheel-drive “roads” at elevations exceeding 17,000 feet?

They have the experience of a lifetime, and become fast friends.

The cast:

Carolyn and Philippe from France
Edith and Maarten from Holland
Vanessa and Wilco from Holland
Lynn and Scott from the U.S.
Sonam – Tibetan guide
Gosan and Thalie – Tibetan drivers

The 11 of us set out from Lhasa on October 23rd. Our destination was the Nepali border, but like most things in life, the journey was much more important than the destination. We intended to see Tibet, meet its people, and learn the nuances of its culture.

Although each day had similarities, every sunrise exposed another layer of a fantastic journey into the heart of Tibet. Typically, we drove some distance over nearly impassable roads each day, and explored a monastery or village before finding a place to sleep for the night. With a couple of exceptions, most of our accommodations were simple guesthouses, with attached “restaurants.” There was no heat in the guesthouses, save the few restaurants with a yak-dung stove, a serious consideration on the cold, windswept Tibetan plateau. You can forget about running water.

We played with Tibetan children, drank Chang (barley beer) with local residents, and watched skilled butchers eviscerate goats in preparation for sale. We spent one night in a Tibetan schoolhouse, sleeping in a small storage room with a dirt floor. We ate in restaurants where there was no menu – to order you walked into the kitchen and asked for your sustenance. We visited Rongphu, the highest monastery in the world, and the important monastic center of Tashilhunpo – home of the Panchen Lama. We even spent a surreal evening huddled in the dark around a yak-dung stove, listening to Tibetans sing along with a garbled live version of Hotel California on a car-battery-powered boombox.

We spent three and a half days trekking 66 kilometers to the Tibetan Everest Base Camp, and were inundated with flush views of the highest peaks in the world. The names are legendary: Makalu (27,817 feet), Lhotse (27,916), Everest (29,021), Gyachung (25,984), Cho Oyu (26,741), Gauri Sankar (23,432), Melungtse (23,534), Shisha Pangma (26,279), and Langtang Lirung (23,766).

Our route included the following towns and sights:

Lake Yamdrok-tso 14,720
Gyantse and Pelkor Chode Monastery 12,956
Shigtse and Tashilhunpo Monastery 12,792
Sakya and the Sakya Monastery 14,038
Shegar 13,284
Pang-la Pass 16,793
Tashi Dzom 13,054
Cho Dzom 13,710
Rongphu Monastery 16,334
Everest Base Camp 17,056
Tingri 14,399
La Lung-la Pass 16,806
Tong-la Pass 16,793
Zhangmu – Nepal Border 7,544

As the road dropped off the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, our world changed dramatically. Gone were the high peaks and the barren Tibetan plains, replaced by a lush jungle and thundering waterfalls. As we neared the border, influences of the Indian subcontinent slowly revealed themselves. The sweet scents of spice and curry replaced those of yak and goat, and the culture took on a distinctive Indian flair.

As we neared the end, we looked at each other knowingly. The past nine days were not always easy, comfortable, or pleasant, yet we soaked in a culture many never see. The scenery, people, and experiences were simply spectacular, and we came away with the added bonus of a great group of international friends. The Friendship Highway through Tibet is, without a doubt, one of the world’s great journeys.

Enjoy the Friendship Highway Photo Gallery.

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