Planning our first Indian bus trip, discovering the best coffee ever, and we may never eat again.

Day 125: Udaipur, India. We spent this morning sorting out transport and accommodation for the next stage of our adventure. Tomorrow we head to Mount Abu, a hill station about 160km west of Udaipur.

We’d originally intended to catch the train to Mount Abu, however there’s no direct line, and the closest station (Abu Road) is about 45 minutes drive away. So we’re going to be brave and risk our first Indian journey by bus – a four hour journey with no air conditioning. Oh joy.

With bus transport and accommodation booked, we slung on our day packs and headed out for a long sunny walk to and around Fateh Sagar Lake, the northernmost of the two main lakes in Udaipur. The circumference of the lake is about 9km, and it’s a fabulous walk. A major highlight is that there’s a proper pavement for a large chunk of the way, which is pretty unusual in these parts.

As always, we responded to lots of people calling hello and waving as we went along. One couple carrying a toddler said hello and asked us how we were, as we went past. We turned into a small park and as we were walking around, the couple came running up behind us, calling and asking us to wait for them. Apparently their toddler (who we now know is called Sia) had started crying because she didn’t get a chance to say hello to us herself, so they decided to run after us to she could say hello, and shake our hands. How sweet. We gave Sia an Australian kangaroo keyring, which made her smile even more. As we left, her mum said “you will be in my memories forever”.

We stopped to look across the water at the Udaipur Solar Observatory, which is Asia’s largest observatory. Its major responsibility is solar observation, filling in between Australia and Spain. The lake water helps to keep the temperature consistent which makes for better images. Sadly no visitors are allowed on the island.

We had a quick break at a small coffee shop alongside the lake. Lil reckons the coffee was the best she has ever had (and given how many cups she gets through every day, that’s a big call). It was perfectly made, served in clay cups with bitter chocolate powder on top, and tasted absolutely divine.

We continued walking but got stuck a little further along, as two cows were in the middle of the road, and one had started head butting the other (a means of asserting dominance, and which can sometimes turn nasty). So we hung back, not inclined to try and pass them while they were jousting. A motorcyclist saw us cowering (no pun intended) on the pavement and got off his bike to shout at them and shoo them to the side of the road. We thanked him, and walked very warily around the animals for fear they started their head butting antics again. Never a dull moment.

We passed by the Moti Magri Hall of Heroes, and decided to go in and take a look around. It’s a great little museum with lots of paintings depicting stories from various kings of Mewar, an older name for the area, together with some very cool intricate models of Udaipur City Palace, Chittorgarh Fort and Haldighati Fort.

The museum also has a small selection of weaponry, with their weights displayed above each piece. One was a 16kg suit of chainmail, and Jim couldn’t resist giving the interactive exhibit a go, just to show how strong he is. Lil said he looked like a twit.

The grounds of the museum were also great – English style gardens and a huge outdoor upper level with marbled tiled floor and views across the lake and city.

We finished the lake walk and headed back towards our guesthouse, dropping into a supermarket along the way to pick up some toiletries. It was a fairly small store with goods piled haphazardly onto shelves. One of the staff was sitting on a stool talking on her phone in the middle of an aisle, and another staff member was lying napping on a large bag of rice.

The cash register was the most archaic piece of computing technology we’ve seen in a long time. For every single item, the elderly man behind the counter had to scan the bar code, which brought up a list of items on the computer screen, often not containing the item scanned. He then had to pick the right item, or substitute another item which cost the same amount, before moving on to the next one. It was tedious watching him going through the process. We bought eight items and it took us over five minutes to pay – if we’d bought a weekly shop we’d likely have spent all weekend in there.

Closer to the guesthouse, we stopped again to pick up water at one of the cute little sweet shops on our street, piled high with all sorts of goodies.

This evening we caught an Uber across town to a renowned thali restaurant called Natraj Dining Hall. When we walked into the restaurant, empty thali trays and dishes were already laid out on all the tables (it’s the only thing they serve).

We were only seated for a minute, with just enough time to wonder how it was all going to work, when a thali swat team descended on our table with serving bowls and baskets, filling our trays and dishes with vegetable curries, dahl, pickles, rice, chapatis and puris alongside big cups of buttermilk.

Every time we ate or drank a little of anything, someone would appear at our sides wanting to top up our dishes or pile more chapatis and puris onto our trays. By the time we left, only 40 minutes later, we were ridiculously stuffed. The food was out of this world – the best thali ever, but we felt like we might never need to eat again.

Then back to the guesthouse to start packing with a glass of warm Indian wine, followed by an early night.

Tomorrow we’ll be up very early, to finish packing and head to Udaipur bus station for our bus to Mount Abu. Let’s hope the Indian family in the room next door aren’t on the same bus, singing ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round…’

More then.

Traumatised by a bus with wheels, a steep climb to a palace of 007 fame, and snake avoidance tactics in the long grass.

Day 124: Udaipur, India. Lil woke this morning, and declared herself ‘completely better’. She demonstrated her super-quick overnight recovery by doing a bunch of star jumps, before we headed upstairs to the rooftop for breakfast.

A large family is staying in the room next to us at our guesthouse. We’ve said hello a couple of times, but they seem to speak only Hindi. Except the entire family seems to know every single word to the kids’ song ‘The wheels on the bus go round and round’, in English, sung with lilting Indian accents. We’ve been traumatised by people singing that song on the bus to work in Sydney, on the train in Malaysia, and now we have to suffer hearing it repeated over and over next door to us in a guesthouse in India. Lil says someone should unscrew the nuts on the bus wheels, so they can’t go round anymore. (She’s definitely feeling better).

Keen to escape the nightmare bus, we set off for a walk to Sajjangarh wildlife sanctuary, around 2.5km from our guesthouse. After a lot of confusion about ticket purchases (there are separate kiosks for the wildlife sanctuary and the Monsoon Palace, both of which we wanted to visit, but you’re supposed to buy them in order depending on which you’re visiting first, and we didn’t, which was the fault of the security guard, but never mind), we eventually made it through the gates of the sanctuary.

Sajjangarh wildlife sanctuary is fab – it’s like a mini zoo in a large green space. The animals look very well cared for and have heaps of room to move around. The sections of land in between the animal pens are very overgrown, but that just adds to the ‘wild’ feeling. Lil spotted a sign in some bushes with a snake on it – we asked where the snakes and reptiles were housed. There aren’t any – the sign was simply warning visitors that their are snakes lurking in the overgrowth. Perhaps a good thing we didn’t spot that until the end.

And as Lil pointed out – this is the first visit to a zoo we’ve been to, where all the animals are native to the country we’re staying in. Yikes.

A group of girls asked for a selfie with us, so in return Lil took one of them and Jim too – another pic for our album of random strangers. We also couldn’t resist being ‘big kids’ and took some pics with our heads stuck through cut outs in animal heads. A family walking past laughed their heads off at the crazy foreigners.

After the sanctuary, we walked up to the Monsoon Palace, which also featured in the 1983 James Bond movie, Octopussy as the residence of Kamal Khan, an exiled Afghan prince. We can see the palace from the rooftop of our guesthouse, and have been keen to hike up there. It was a pretty tough 4km climb, but the scenery was fabulous, it was a gorgeous sunny day and we really enjoyed the walk.

When we reached the Palace, we plonked ourselves in the cafe for much needed coffee and muffins, before taking a look around.

The Monsoon Palace is also known as the Sajjangarh Palace, and overlooks the Fateh Sagar Lake (and a very large chunk of the city and surrounding countryside).

The palace was built for Maharana Sajjan Singh in 1884, primarily to watch the monsoon clouds. Maharana Sajjan Singgh originally planned to make it a five storey astronomical centre, however construction was halted at 3 storeys due to his premature death. It’s a fabulous building, albeit it looks like it could do with a good clean and maybe a lick of fresh paint.

There were some models of animals inside the palace – including a rather gruesome one of a leopard carrying a dead monkey with a broken neck. Probably not the best sight for young kids passing through – though on a positive note it might temporarily stop them singing ‘The wheels on the bus…’.

When we’d finished at the palace, we retraced our steps part way down the hill and picked up the start of a hiking path from a viewpoint to Badi Lake. It started off well, a small paved path that was easy to follow, but after about 500m it started getting more and more overgrown, to the point where we found ourselves waist height in grass, then shoulder height.

Conscious that there are bound to be heaps of snakes about, we walked along stamping our feet, hoping to scare any slithering beasts away, and just hoped and prayed we’d make it through the trek unscathed. We did. Except when we reached the end of the trail, the iron gate was closed and padlocked, so we had to climb over a high stone wall and jump down the other side. Our own little 007-like escapade.

We stopped for a bit by the lake, taking in the amazing scenery. There are warnings not to go in the water as there are crocodiles about, which didn’t seem to deter the local fishermen.

Then we walked back to town, a scenic 7km trot through tiny little villages with lots of cows and goats, saying hello to families and kids along the way. The views from the western side of the palace were even more fabulous. In total we walked 20 kilometres today, another fabulous day enjoying scenery and sun.

This evening we had dinner at a rooftop restaurant a few minutes’ walk from our guesthouse. A storm started when we were in the middle of dinner, so we had to gather plates and glasses and scarper inside. By the time we left, thunder and lighting were still crashing overhead, but we once again managed to avoid the rain walking back to the guesthouse.

Tomorrow we need to sort out our travel and accommodation plans for Mount Abu, our next location. And hopefully the family in the room next door to us will have packed up and left. On the bus.

More then.

A day mostly spent getting better, bamboozled by hindi dinner menus, and plug sockets without any plugs.

Day 123: Udaipur, India. This morning Lil was still feeling poorly. Thankfully still just a head cold and perhaps a touch of flu. With all the local outbreaks of dengue fever, swine flu and, more recently, congo fever, we keep a beady eye on any symptoms. To give her a chance to recover, we decided to hang about at the guesthouse for most of the day.

We say ‘most’, because Lil has to be one of the worst patients ever. She says she’s feeling really sick, then after a few hours sleep, declares herself to be completely better and ready to go and climb a mountain. Late afternoon she was itching to go out for coffee. Jim managed to convince her that one of the Nescafe sachets provided by the guesthouse, and a dubious chocolate wafer bar bought at the local shop, were a much better option.

Thankfully we have a room with a view across green fields and mountains, so being stuck inside isn’t too dreadful. So long as you lie on at least four pillows so you can see out the window.

By evening time, Lil was desperate to escape the four walls, and insisted we needed to go out for dinner. We headed out into a glowery evening, with large black clouds overhead that indicated a fairly major storm. Thankfully we somehow managed to avoid any rain (unusual for us).

We stopped at a local ATM to get some cash. Given the recent ATM dramas in Jaipur where there was a power cut, we didn’t get any cash, but our account was still debited, our standard routine now is that Jim does the ATM transaction, and Lil photographs the ATM serial number, in case any more disputes arise. We must look a right dodgy pair.

Some of the ATMs here are seriously ancient and take forever to do a simple cash transaction – we spotted a sign the other day that said ‘powered by Pentium processor’, which must make the machines at least 20 years old.

Lil had picked out a restaurant about 2km away, so we set off down the main road past shops and fruit and vegetable stalls and cows. Once we’d turned off the main road a little further on, we found ourselves in pitch darkness, with no street lights and only occasional car headlamps to help us pick our way through the potholes, mud and cow poo.

We reached the restaurant, which was completely empty. The waiter tried to put us into an outside pagoda which looked like a mozzie breeding chamber, so we asked to sit inside instead. They can’t have been expecting many people as a bunch of guys suddenly swung into action, turning on lights and fans and, a little bizarrely, lighting joss sticks and waving them around our heads.

The waiter brought us the menu, which was completely in hindi. No amount of staring at the hindi script was going to help us, so we looked up some dishes on our phone, and with a bit of pointing and a very patient waiter, managed to order a couple of dishes, chapatis and rice.

While we were waiting for dinner to be cooked, the waiter gave us a snack to nibble on – a mix of peanuts, apple, onion, fresh tomato and fiery hot chilli, which was delicious.

Jim nudged Lil and warned her to be careful about a power point that was right next to her shoulder. Instead of using a plug, the wires from the fan overhead were just pushed roughly into the socket. Holy moley.

Dinner arrived and both dishes were delicious, if a little on the oily side. Rajasthan state is the second largest consumer of ghee in India, and we reckon the restaurant must be a major contributor to those figures. The waiter was dismayed that we hadn’t scooped up all the ghee with our piles of chapatis – difficult to explain that we would probably consume the same amount of fat in a month in Sydney, and also we wanted to live a little longer.

We couldn’t face stumbling back through the mud and cow poo in the dark, so ordered an Uber to take us back to the guesthouse. The driver took a wrong turning at one point, realised his mistake and apologised before simply reversing at speed into a busy roundabout to change direction. Anything goes, as they say.

Tomorrow – assuming Lil is in top notch form again – we’re planning to visit the Monsoon Temple and Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary. And if she’s not, she’ll probably insist on going anyway.

More then.

Balancing cow pats on heads, getting shooed out of the museum, and competition for the highest rooftop bar.

Day 122: Udaipur, India. Today marks four big months of Asian Rambles. It’s gone crazy quick, however it also feels like a very long time since we were standing at Sydney airport with our backpacks on, grinning our heads off.

Every day tells a different story (sometimes many of them), and the fun and experiences we’ve had along the way have been wonderful.

Today began with a long call to our bank in Sydney. The cancelled ATM transaction in Jaipur (when the power went out while Jim was trying to get cash) has since been debited to our account. So a dispute has now been lodged between St.George and State Bank of India. While it will likely take some time to play out, at least it’s out of our hands for the moment.

After a very late breakfast, we walked into the old town and out the other side to visit the Ahar archeological museum and cenotaphs, a group of 19 monuments commemorating the kings who were cremated there. It was a chaotic 7km walk along dusty noisy streets, with lots of local life happening.

The great thing about walking is you get to see so much more along the way, with lots of opportunity for people watching. We’ve been intrigued by the huge loads people carry on their heads here, and whether the practice causes any damage. A quick Google search later in the day indicates that it’s actually pretty efficient, as ‘it’s right on the weight bearing axis of the body, so causes no torque in the spine’. Another article suggests that carrying loads up to 20% of your body weight causes no damage.

The lady in the photo below seemed to be carrying a large collection of dried out cow pats on her head, which suggests it might exceed the 20% safety limit.

The roads we walked along sold everything from clothes to medicine and stationery – one strip of shops was even dedicated to selling drums. Along with a mix of tabla drums, there were lots of automated drum and bell combinations called arti, which are widely used in Hindi temples.

We reached the Ahar cenotaphs, and walked into what we thought was the entrance gate. It wasn’t, and we failed to spot the newly laid cement that we had just walked into – and sunk into – causing lots of amusement for locals.

With cement caked shoes, we walked around to the other side of the cenotaph grounds, but all the gates were locked, so all we could do was take a couple of pics over the wall.

We walked down to the museum just down the street. Despite one of the Udaipur tourism web sites saying the museum was open every day except Friday, and today was Monday, there was a sign hanging on a fence outside saying ‘closed today’. We went inside to double check, given it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the sign had been left out over the weekend.

We asked an elderly man if the museum was open. He said “yes”. So we replied ‘oh good’, and started to walk in. He said “no” so we stopped again and asked if it was closed. He said “yes” followed by “no”. He was also staring intently at Lil’s shoes, which had clumps of drying cement hanging off them. Eventually he waved us out of the museum, which we assume means it was definitely closed – or perhaps cement caked shoes aren’t allowed.

Feeling a little deflated, we caught an Uber to Gulab Bagh park, 100 acres of land near the told town, which is billed as ‘a beautiful lush green place to get away from the bustle of the city’. It’s not. It’s a largely overgrown public park with a few walkways, no central focus and a shed load of mosquitos. The park gets its name from the countless varieties of roses that it had – we certainly couldn’t spot any there now. A sign also points to a public zoo which is no longer open, which we reckon is a very good thing, assuming the animals have been relocated elsewhere.

We left the park and walked into the old town in search of a beer. We spotted a sign for a rooftop bar on top of a hotel, and walked up endless flights of grimy stairs, with wallpaper falling off the walls. We eventually popped out on the rooftop, which was dismal and looked as if an explosion might have taken place up there recently. We left again quickly, saying we couldn’t stay as there was no shade, and we would burn in the sun (which is true).

We found another rooftop bar that was heaps better, and had a cold beer in the sun, with more great views. There’s hefty competition in the town to be the ‘highest rooftop bar’ – lots of places seem to claim the same title, including the one we were sitting in. Ours had another level above us, which looked like a shoddily constructed wooden box balanced precariously on a pedestal. We decided to stay sitting where we were.

On the way back to the hotel, we spotted a music van with loudspeakers parked at the side of the road. This one belongs to the Udaipur Shahi Darbar brass band, which is a popular band here for weddings.

We had dinner at the hotel, listening to one of the guys in the kitchen coughing his lungs up, and then a very early night. Lil has a head cold and maybe a touch of flu (hopefully not caught from the guy in the kitchen), so we’ll be taking it a little easy tomorrow.

More (but perhaps not very much, depending on Lil’s health) then.

Second hand false teeth for sale, an opportunity to revisit Octopussy, and sipping warm wine on the rooftop.

Day 121: Udaipur, India. We woke to the first clear morning in days, and climbed the steps to the rooftop restaurant for breakfast in the sun.

We ordered a couple of dishes we hadn’t come across before – poha, made from rice that has been parboiled, rolled flattened and dried into flakes, and upma, a thick porridge made from dried roasted semolina. Both delicious, filling breakfast dishes – and they made a nice change from chapatis and cornflakes.

We left the hotel around lunchtime to walk into Udaipur town – a two kilometre walk along busy but interesting roads. A bunch of cows was having a lazy Sunday afternoon snooze in the sun, and then several packs of donkeys went running past us. No idea where the donkeys were off to, but they looked very intent on getting there.

When we reached the city, we stopped at a tiny hole-in-the-wall cafe for another caffeine hit. Again the coffee came served in clay cups, and again we were told to chuck the cups in the bin when we’d finished – we’re still baffled by the wastage. The man at the cafe said “cups – one use only” – he didn’t explain why though. Still a mystery to be solved.

We had a few items on our sightseeing list today. The first was a visit to Jagdish temple, an impressive building which was built by Maharana Jagat Singh in 1651, and dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The three-storied temple is 79 feet high, and beautifully adorned with sculptures of demons, elephants, dancers, musicians, deities and other animals. Jim particularly likes the cat demons on the bottom layer of the carvings, which are there to warn off evil spirits – very useful. The temple holds five services each day and the sermons, which are songs for the gods, are sung by the priest, sitting on the floor of the temple with a drum, with participants gathered around.

Then we walked down to the lakeside at Gangaur Ghat, where a guy was playing a homemade musical instrument, which sounded pretty good.

This is the spot where James Bond steps off a boat to meet his CIA contact in the movie Octopussy, which has a number of scenes shot here in 1983. The movie is screened free every evening at a number of restaurants and bars around town to attract tourists. A local guy, under the guise of welcoming us to Udaipur, and pretending to be interested in where we’ve been and what we’ve liked most so far, tried to lure us into a tour of the famous Octopussy locations. No thanks.

Next we walked through town to the entrance to Udaipur Palace, a majestic complex built on top of a hill overlooking Lake Pichola. Construction of the palace started in 1553 and was completed over a period of nearly 400 years. We spent a couple of hours walking around the main palace, and all the extensions built over the centuries by various rulers. The palace is a fusion of Rajasthani and Mughal architectural styles, and is pretty amazing.

The palace has been well preserved and offers great views over the east of the city. Some of the doorways are a bit small for Jim though.

And a little unexpectedly, the glasses that Ben Kingsley wore in the 1982 movie Gandhi are now on display in the Palace museum. Lord Richard Attenborough donated them to the museum in appreciation of the warm welcome he received by Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the custodian of Udaipur, when he visited Udaipur to shoot a sequence for the movie.

Then we went for a wander through the lane ways of the old town. There are lots of fabulous old buildings, many of which are adorned with hand painted scenes of royal ladies and men on horses. A little kid on his bike asked us where were from, and on hearing Australia said “Canberra is the capital of Australia. I know because a chapter in my school book is about Australia.” Good to hear.

There are lots of interesting shops and businesses dotting the side streets around the city. It looks like the local optician does an intriguing side line in used dentures, with a glass case full of old false teeth to choose from. The mind boggles.

After a long hot afternoon of sightseeing, it was time for a beer. An Australian girl, who was sitting on a step with some Indian friends, suggested we go to the a bar along the street, which has a sensational rooftop with views across the place, lake and city and the hills beyond.

We had icy cold beers, while some irritating huge wasps buzzed around (one had a quick swim in Jim’s beer), then had a great dinner while the sun set and the lights came on across the city. Out of the corner of our eyes we could see dozens of monkeys scurrying across the rooftops – thankfully they didn’t come near us.

As we left the restaurant, the waiter asked us to take two slips of paper from a basket which had hand written motivational sayings. He also gave us two cute little heart shaped cookies. (Jim scoffed his cookie in two seconds flat, so the photo only shows one).

On the way home, we popped into a local wine shop to check out their selection of wines. Wine shops are a catch-all phrase for liquor shops here (the sale of alcohol is tightly regulated). We bought a bottle of Indian red wine, which was toasty warm on the shelf – perhaps not the best storage conditions.

When we got back to the hotel, we slung our packs into our room, then headed up to the rooftop to enjoy a couple of glasses of the warm red wine, along with some music from our phone playlists.

And then to bed. Tomorrow we’re planning to visit another museum and take a walk around our local area. And perhaps we’ll watch a rerun of Octopussy, so we can spot some famous locations.

More then.

A final effort from the monsoon, meeting a bovine Ned Kelly at the station, and a chapati oven goes up in smoke.

Day 120: Chittorgarh & Udaipur, India. This morning the rain was still coming down in force. We were woken several times during the night with crashing thunder and lightning – a final effort from the annual monsoon before it packs its bags for another year.

The monsoons cause severe devastation and loss of lives across the country each year, but they’re a crucial source of water for agriculture, industry and householders. A report in yesterday’s paper said that overall, the state of Rajasthan has received 34.7% more rainfall this year, so locals must be pretty happy.

We asked the hotel to order a tuk tuk to take us to the station, but they couldn’t get one, so one of the hotel’s managers drove us through the flooded streets in his car, which was lovely of him.

We were an hour early for the train, so we settled down on a wooden bench and watched the world go by. Jim is in desperate need of a hair cut, which would would have been a good way to fill in the time, but he wasn’t too keen to try out the local barber.

We had a large cow for company at one point – it looked like it was eating a plastic bag, but then we realised it was trying to get a large piece of paper out of the bag.

When it had scoffed the paper, it dropped the plastic on the platform. It’s a shame cows can’t be trained to put litter into the bin (rather than just taking it out), particularly as that was its next port of call anyway. As we watched it shoved its head into one of the swinging metal litter bins, looking a little like a bovine Ned Kelly.

Next thing some seriously loud drumming started, and a group of men came wandering along the platform and into a room behind us. One of them had pink dye smeared on his face and down the front of his white shirt (no amount of Surf washing powder is going to get that lot out). A celebration of some sort started in the room, with people dancing to the drum beat and lots of clapping and cheering. Five minutes later, it was all over. We’ve absolutely no idea what the heck that was all about, and Mr Google hasn’t been much help either.

When it was getting closer to our train departure time, we walked across the footbridge to platform 4. In the three weeks that we’ve been in India, we haven’t seen a single escalator anywhere. Given there were ladies making their way up the steps, carrying what looked like sacks of cement on their heads, we’ve got nothing to complain about.

We mentioned in yesterday’s blog post that there were no air conditioned seats on the train, so we booked two air conditioned sleeper seats. We’d no idea what to expect (we are still working out the vagaries of Indian trains), but actually it was fine – particularly as we were travelling during the day, the journey was only two and a half hours, and we weren’t attempting to climb up into bunks to sleep.

There were three bunks each side of the cubicle – during the day the middle bunk is folded down so people can sit on the bottom bunk. There’s a yellow metal ‘ladder’ to reach the upper bunks – we can see Lil coming a cropper on one of those at some stage, given her impressive ability to fall off things.

We were given brown paper bags with sheets and towels, which we didn’t need to use – perhaps another time.

The journey went past quickly – lots of great scenery whizzing past through the window – and for once we had a window that we could (mostly) see through.

We arrived at Udaipur station, and ordered an Uber. A tuk tuk driver talked our ears off, telling us that cars can’t get into the old city as they’re forbidden by police, so we should use his tuk tuk instead. We have no idea if any of what he was saying is true, and in any case we weren’t staying in the centre of the city, but we were very happy when our Uber arrived and we could leave him behind.

Our guesthouse is about 2km outside town – it’s a heritage property, with a small rooftop restaurant. We got settled in, then headed upstairs for dinner – and of course as soon as we sat down, it started raining. A dozen of us squished around three tables under a small corrugated iron roof, while the rain clattered down a couple of feet away.

Dinner was good – paneer lababdar and aloo pyaaz paneer and lots of roti, though there was a fire in the kitchen while we were eating, which didn’t make it easy for the guys in the tiny cooking area. From what we could see from peeking around the corner, their chapati bread oven had gone on fire. Huge wafts of smoke were billowing across the restaurant, so we finished our dinner quickly and scurried off to our room.

Tomorrow we’ll either explore the city, or go to Sajjangarh wildlife sanctuary, depending on how the weather is looking. And hopefully the monsoon will have decided enough is enough for this year.

More then.

Wading through a whole spectrum of poo, luring a hungry cow with chapatis, and Lil joins a Hindi business class.

Day 119: Chittorgarh, India. The weather this morning was even worse than yesterday. When we peered out the window first thing, the rain was beating down relentlessly.

Lil, the ever optimistic weather forecaster, predicted it might clear in an hour or so, so we headed downstairs for another large buffet breakfast, while we waited for the change to come.

After breakfast the rain had got even heavier. Big dark clouds were rolling overhead with occasional thunder and lightning thrown into the mix. It was 9.30am, so we agreed that whatever the weather at 10am, we were going to order transport and head to Chittorgarh Fort regardless.

A lovely guy called Papu picked us up in his loud rumbling tuk tuk – we climbed in and sped out of the car park towards the fort. At one point Papu took a short cut and turned into oncoming traffic (it seems to be a thing here). After making our way to the correct side of the road, we followed a motorbike for a bit, which appeared to be transporting an entire tree.

The rain got heavier and heavier as we drove along. Cars and motorbikes – and our tuk tuk – had to steer around the large lakes of water that were rapidly forming. We had visions of friends and family watching reports of Indian floods on TV and going “Oh look, there’s Lil and Jim floating past in a tuk tuk”.

We arrived safely but soggy at the fort entrance – open sided tuk tuks don’t offer much in the way of rain protection. Jim bought two foreigner tickets for the fort, and then we were on our way to start exploring.

The fort complex is huge – it’s like an entire village within the old fort walls. Thankfully Papu drove us from place to place unprompted, or we would likely have spent half the day staring at maps working out where to go.

We started at the the Kumbha Palace, originally built in 784 and much renovated over the centuries, though now in complete ruin. It’s thought to be the birthplace of Udai Singh, the founder of Udaipur, which we’re traveling to tomorrow.

Next, and the highlight of our visit, was climbing Vijay Stambh – a nine storey tower rising to a height of 37 metres. The tower was built by the Rana Kumbha in the mid 15th century to mark his triumph over the forces of Malwa and Gujarat.

We had to take our shoes off at the entrance, which made climbing the narrow steep slippery steps even more precarious. There were lots of bats hanging from the ceilings, flapping and squeaking loudly. As we wound our way to the top, we found ourselves squelching through bat, pigeon and monkey poo – as Jim so eloquently put it “it’s a whole spectrum of poo”.

As we climbed the steps, monkeys peered in the windows and a couple started to make their way inside. We flapped our arms at them, and despite one of them baring his teeth at us in return, we managed to shoo them away.

Despite the poo and monkey dramas, the tower was absolutely magnificent, with incredible intricate carvings in the marble all the way up the inside, and the views from the top (at least what we could see through the mist) were spectacular too.

We also visited the Jain Swethamber Temple, a collection of five incredibly decorated cell shrines built around 1450, surrounded by 27 smaller cells each with an idol inside. Women’s menstrual blood is considered to be impure in several significant Jain texts, and a sign outside requested that ladies in their menstrual cycle refrain from entering the temple.

At the Ratan Singh Palace, built between 1528 and 1531 as a winter abode for the royal family, a group of women were bathing and washing clothes in the lake. Given the colour of the water, we’re not sure they’d be any cleaner afterwards than when they went in.

We visited a number of other temples and palaces during our visit, some in good conditions, others in a sad state of disrepair, but all fabulous regardless.

When we’d finished, Papu dropped us off in Chittorgarh town, amongst chaos and cows and mud. We said goodbye and thanks, and he gave us his number in case we fancied another bone-shaking ride in his tuk tuk later.

We were starving, so stopped for late lunch and coffee at a restaurant and bakery in the town. There was a guy making nan bread at the front, which was fun to watch – however our entertainment was short lived as the waiter waved us into the air conditioned area at the back. We ordered stuffed dosa with paneer and masala and coffee, which was pretty good.

While we were waiting for the food to arrive, Lil asked where the bathroom was. A waiter took her up a flight of stairs and pointed to a hotel room with an open door, where there was a small bathroom with a squat toilet. There was a guy in there having a wee with the door wide open, so Lil had to hover in the corridor until he’d finished. All a little odd and she was glad to get back to the table.

After lunch we darted through the traffic to Arun’s Sports shop across the street, to see if by any chance they might have ping pong palls (given we’d put an end to the hotel’s only ball yesterday). The open-fronted shop is fabulous – it’s like someone has piled an entire Rebel Sport store into their living room and roughly rearranged the goods on shelves. We pointed to a picture of ping ping balls on Lil’s phone and after a bit of rummaging, the guy proudly held up a box of balls.

A few doors down, a cow had walked up some steps and into a restaurant for a spot of lunch. We watched amused while one of the waiters grabbed a handful of chapatis and lured the cow out and down the street. When the cow had finished scoffing the bread (it looked pretty content with its lunch), the waiter touched the cow on the forehead, then blessed himself. The unique relationship between people and cows here continues to fascinate us.

We walked to a hotel bar a couple of hundred metres down the street (our first beer in days, as our own hotel doesn’t serve alcohol). At the hotel, a guy at reception waved us into the restaurant area, which doubles as a bar. There was a large room at the end of the bar, with frosted glass doors. The waiter pointed and said something – Lil couldn’t understand, but Jim thought he said “Indian wedding”.

We could hear lots of cheering and clapping, and Lil kept straining her head to try and see what was going on through a small clear patch on the door. The waiter spotted her, and waved her through the door and into an empty seat inside. But there was no sign of any wedding celebrations. Instead, Lil found herself sitting with 50 guys in some sort of business coaching session conducted in Hindi. She waited ten minutes (to be polite), staring at endless powerpoint slides in Hindi, then made her escape back to Jim, who was laughing his head off. While she was in there, the waiter had pointed to the door and this time Jim heard him say “business meeting”.

We finished our beer, and caught a tuk tuk back to our hotel. As Lil climbed out of the tuk tuk, she stepped straight into a large cow pat. Thankfully the hotel had an outdoor tap, and thankfully Jim was happy to clean her shoe (he’s a lot less squeamish than Lil) – all while one of the hotel staff stood by supervising Jim’s efforts and chattering away, telling us he has a friend in Sydney and he’d left us some extra mineral water in our room.

We had another six games of table tennis with the new ping pong balls, then headed down to the restaurant for dinner, to top off another big day.

Tomorrow we pack up again to head to Udaipur, a two and a half hour train trip south west of Chittorgarh. The train we’re travelling on has no seats, only sleepers, which will doubtless be a whole new experience.

More then.

Fattening up Jim at breakfast, getting confused about pink wombats, and putting cow dung to good use.

Day 118: Chittorgarh, India. We woke this morning and peered out the window, anticipating another glorious sunny day. But nope. It was a rainy mushy morning, with low hanging grey clouds, and not at all conducive to wandering around a very large fort.

The wi-fi at the hotel didn’t seem to be working, so Lil popped down to the reception desk to ask if there was an issue. The guy said “yes, there is a technical problem”. When Lil asked what the technical problem was, he simply replied “it is raining”. Apparently the internet stops working when it rains.

Lil reckoned the weather should improve in an hour or so (though it’s worth noting her weather forecasting skills are typically a little on the optimistic side). So we had breakfast while we waited for the rain to ease and the sun to break through.

Breakfast was fabulous – a buffet with cornflakes and toast and jam for Lil, and chickpea curry and dahl and spiced couscous and bhajis and chapatis for Jim. Happy days. The waiter must have thought Jim looked like he needed a bit of fattening up, as he kept scurrying back and forth to our table to bring him more food. By the time we’d finished breakfast, we were seriously stuffed, and there was still no sign of any sun.

With the rain still falling, we decided there was only one thing for it. A few games of table tennis in the giant white space along the corridor from our room. As we were passing the hotel reception desk, Lil thought Jim must be having some sort of odd moment, as he said he wanted to go and ask for some pink wombats. Lil asked him to repeat what he said, and again heard “we need pink wombats”. Either Lil needs her ears washing out, or Jim needs to speak more clearly – perhaps a bit of both – but eventually Lil worked out what he was actually saying was “we need ping pong bats”.

We had four great games of table tennis before the ping pong ball decided it had had enough of being bashed about, and developed a large crack. Feeling a bit guilty, we returned it to the reception desk and asked if they had a spare, which they didn’t. So that was the end of ping pong. Lil has since looked online and there’s a sports shop in Chittorgarh town (surprising for such a small place), so we’re hoping we can pick up some more balls after our visit to the fort tomorrow.

The sun never appeared, and the fort remained covered in mist, so we extended our stay by one night, and spent the rest of the day reading and snoozing. We also did some more travel planning, though we had to hot-spot to Lil’s phone, as the hotel wifi remained out of action all day.

It’s always fun to catch up with the local newspapers and read what’s happening locally and in other states.

There was an interesting article today (relevant to the recent cow theme) about a women’s co-operative in Jamnagar, a city on the western coast of India, which is successfully manufacturing and exporting cosmetics made from cow dung and urine to Europe, the US and Asia.

They also make Panchgavya, a mixture used in traditional Hindu rituals made from cow dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee, which is then allowed to ferment and is claimed to boost immunity and cure disease. When used in Ayurvedic medicine, it’s also called ‘cowpathy’ (gotta love it). Apparently they have 120 cows to ‘keep the supply coming’. (If it’s just dung and urine they’re after, we’d suggest there are lots more cows roaming the streets who could help out).

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant again. The experience was less like Fawlty Towers this evening (a little disappointing, given how much we enjoyed the entertainment last night). The food was superb again – paneer tikka masala and gatta masala (chickpea rissole), adding another dish to our growing list of favourites.

The forecast is still looking a bit mixed tomorrow, but whatever the weather, it’s off to the fort we go, as we leave Chittorgarh the next day. And hopefully we’ll be able to pick up some more ping pong balls along the way.

More then.

A cashless trip to the ATM, musical chairs on the train, and a nerve racking trip in a tuk tuk.

Day 117: Jaipur & Chittorgarh, India. We left our hotel in Jaipur around lunchtime, to make our way to the railway station for a train to Chittorgarh, a small town 300km south west of Jaipur.

Before we left the hotel, Jim wandered down the street to get cash from an ATM (it’s a big cash society here). As he was waiting for the cash to be dispensed, the power went out across the city. He waited 10 minutes for the power to come back on, at which point the ATM said the transaction was cancelled. However our online account said the transaction was still pending – so a lengthy call to St.George ensued to get it all straightened out.

We jumped into an Uber for a last daredevil ride across Jaipur. Dodgem car driving skills are a must here, and funnily enough we haven’t seen any accidents, apart from when our Uber bumped another car a couple of weeks ago, at which point both drivers just shrugged their shoulders and drove on.

Jaipur station was busy – the platform was overflowing with people sitting in groups on the ground, and the waiting rooms (only accessible to people with higher class fares) were just as packed. A family moved over to free up two seats for us, and we watched the train schedule go round and round on the screen – interspersed with an infomercial on San Francisco banning plastic bags in 2007. All a little random.

The train journey took just over 5 hours. Jim reckons the train must have had square wheels as we were bounced and shaken all over the place. We had assigned seats, which turned out to be two aisle seats opposite each other, so we shuffled with another couple so we could sit together. For the next five hours we watched, amused, as a monster game of musical chairs unfolded. Despite assigned seats, it seemed to be a bit of a free-for-all or perhaps local people just like trying out different seats. Every time more passengers got on or off at a station, people started shifting seats all over again.

We arrived in Chittorgarh just after 7pm. As soon as we walked through the exit gate we were pounced on by an over-excited tuk tuk driver, with another dozen or so drivers perched behind him looking very hopeful. We agreed a price for the journey (to be honest we were too tired to bother haggling so just accepted his quoted price, which was only a few dollars anyway). And before we’d even got into the tuk tuk, the driver was trying to upsell us on a trip to the fort tomorrow.

It’s the first time we’ve been in a tuk tuk in India, and it was a little nerve racking. There was one particularly interesting bit where we found ourselves driving on the wrong side of the road, to save having to go around the long (and legal) way to the hotel, with traffic hurtling towards us. Then the driver terrified the life out of the hotel porter by tearing into the car park at speed and skidding to a halt in front of him. Before leaving, the driver insisted on giving us his phone number and some inflated prices for visiting the fort tomorrow. Lil asked him his name, and couldn’t help giggling when he said it was Bunty (the name of her favourite kids comic growing up).

Names got even funnier when Lil asked the slightly surly guy at hotel reception what his name was, and he said Imran Khan. She snorted, thinking it was a joke, but nope. Embarrassing.

Our hotel room is huge – there’s plenty of space to go for a quick jog if you want to burn off a few chapatis. Actually the whole hotel is huge, or at least full of big open voids which have been filled with table tennis and snooker tables. It’s like someone built it, then had to work out what to do with all the space.

Thankfully the hotel restaurant was still open for dinner, which saved us a trip into town. The restaurant is like an Indian version of Fawlty Towers, with waiting staff flitting around tables, lots of hiccups with orders, and every time the super smiley waiter swept into the kitchen, we could hear muffled arguments going on behind closed doors. We could well imagine there was an Indian Manuel in there being given a good talking to and a good clip round the ear.

We asked for our dinner to be added to our room bill. Thankfully they gave us a copy to check – and thankfully we checked it – as we appeared to be paying for a large party of very hungry people, with all sorts of dishes listed including a green salad, which we didn’t even know was a thing here.

Stuffed with delicious paneer korma, bindhi (okra) with garlic, spicy dahl and nan bread, we headed upstairs for another quick jog around our room, followed by a long night’s sleep.

Tomorrow we’re planning to visit Chittorgarh Fort, which is the largest fort in Rajasthan (or even India, depending on which online articles you read). And we may even take Bunty up on his offer to drive us there – though Lil is going to have to work on stifling her girly giggles.

More then.

Intrigued by self-assembly shrines, 365 knee-grinding stone steps, and getting pigeon poo between our toes.

Day 116: Jaipur, India. We had a chilled morning doing not very much at all at the hotel, then headed out late afternoon to visit Garh Ganesh, a small but significant temple on the Aravalli Hills, in between Nagaragh and Jaigarh forts.

We walked through the old city across to the base of the temple steps. We were intrigued to see lots of guys drumming, and what looked like shrines being put together by groups of people. While the shrines weren’t quite flat pack, they were definitely self-assembly. We found out later that the celebrations were for Islam New Year, which falls today.

We said hello and waved madly to lots of kids (and some adults), walked past a huge pot of syrupy gulab jamon (a milk-based sweet with rose water and cardamon), and steered our way around lots of cows and pigs.

Cow update: Lil’s research indicates that there are over 5 million stray cows in India, which roam the streets freely and invoke chaos, including causing traffic accidents and foraging fields of crops. Farmers and others who can’t afford to take care of their cows once they stop producing milk, simply leave their animals on the streets. In the city, we’ve seen a couple of people feeding hay to cows as we walk past, however mostly the cows seem to rummage around in bins and piles of rubbish for their food. There are nearly 2,000 recognised cow shelters, however they’re overflowing and volunteers are struggling to keep cows healthy and fed. More fascinating cow facts to follow.

After a hot and humid walk across town, we reached the 365 stone stairs that lead up to Garh Ganesh temple, signifying 365 days of the year. By the time we’d reached mid-August, we were feeling pretty flattened.

Garh Ganesh was constructed by Sawai Jai Singh II and pre-dates the city of Jaipur. The temple is devoted to Lord Ganesha and it’s believed that Ganesha is present in the temple in the form of a small child, called Purushakriti. Photography is strictly prohibited in the temple, and we were amused to see that a local dentist had taken the opportunity to advertise his services on the No Photography instructions outside.

The views from the top are astounding, with sweeping vistas across the city including the City Palace.

While we stood looking out across the city, a couple of guys started chatting to us. Their names are Ashu and Solivinti (perhaps not how they’re spelled, but that’s how they sounded). They were lovely guys, with excellent English, which is lucky, given we still haven’t managed to accumulate any Hindi words. They quizzed us about Australia, about cricket, what our travel itinerary is, and which Indian dishes we like. The latter may be because Ashu’s aunty runs Indian cooking classes and he was prospecting for business.

They also filled us in on the history of the temple, and the background to the story behind Ganesha which is fascinating. He was created as a boy from clay by his mother Parvati who set him to guard her palace while her husband Shiva was away. When Shiva returned, they didn’t recognise one another, and Ganesha would not let him enter the palace, resulting in Shiva cutting off his head. Shiva, realising that he had killed his son, ordered a substitute head to be found, and the head of an elephant was brought to replace it.

Lil took a photo of Jim with the two guys (the ones wearing stripey t-shirt and red shirt in the pic below). A few other guys who were hanging about on the viewing platform made the guys shuffle up, so they could jump into the pic too – the more the merrier, and all that.

Before entering the temple we had to take our shoes off, and we soon found ourselves treading through blobs of gooey pigeon poo. Inside, there was another small viewing platform and a fabulous ornate shrine where locals were placing offerings, with a statue of Ganesha and lots of incense and candles.

When we’d finished at the temple, we walked back down the 365 knee-grinding steep stone steps. At the bottom we stopped to took a look at the Royal Gaitore, a royal cremation ground for the Kachhwaha Rajput kings and members of the royal family. It’s an impressive building, however sadly it was closed to visitors while we were there, so we had to peek through some gaps in the wall.

Then we walked across the town to the Hawk View restaurant again for dinner. Along the way we stopped to take a very quick look at Tal Katora lake, where the buildings were reflected beautifully in the moonlit water.

Dinner was fabulous once again – we had navratan korma (spicy vegetables and fruit), handi chicken, rice and nan. We’re starting to get a little concerned at the amount of ghee and cream in Indian food – we may need to start ordering some lower fat options, whatever they might be.

Then back to the hotel for a long night’s sleep. Tomorrow we head to Chittorgarh to visit India’s largest fort, which should be fun. And hopefully we can keep our shoes on at the fort, so we don’t get any pigeon poo between our toes.

More then.