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9 days in Rajasthan; Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur

The Pink City, The Blue City and India's Most Romantic City

sunny 28 °C

The Indian state of Rajasthan is recognized for its Maharajas, magnificent forts, lavish palaces and desert. It is also said to be the one of the most majestic and romantic parts of India. Though we were worn-out by the chaos that is this country and all we wanted to do is to head south to hit the beach, there was no way we were going to forgo dreamy Rajasthan. So we put a hold on our beach fantasy and book ten days to discover what they call the Land of Kings. Our stay would see us visit Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur.
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While waiting for our train in at platform #2 at the New Delhi Train Station, we met Lara, a German from Berlin who quit her job and spontaneously decided to pack up, explore India and meet up with some friends here. This was only her second day in India and it was obvious that she was going through a serious case of culture shock. India will definitely do that to any normal person. Anyhow, though we traveled in different coaches, we met up again at our arrival in Jaipur and Lara followed us to our guesthouse where she checked in as well. We spent the next two days doing the touristy things in Jaipur with Lara.
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Jaipur

So our first afternoon in Jaipur consisted of walking around the city to soak things in and sorting out our train tickets for our next destination. Jaipur is known as the “Pink City” since the Old City walls are painted pink. As we walked through Jaipur’s city center, we noticed nothing different than what we’ve seen so far. The same dirtiness, crowdedness and chaos was still present and the harassment had only intensified now that trio consisted of two blond giants and an Asian. The wall that encircles the old city was quite impressive but nothing else really blew our mind. Fortunately, that feeling changed the next day.
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Though we’re not really fans of guided tours, the chaos of the streets had gotten to us so we signed up for a full day bus tour of Jaipur and its surroundings. The tour consisted of us and around 40 other Indians. The tour was in English even if we were the only foreigners in the group. The tour guide turned out to be useless because between the tour guide’s thick Hindi accent and the loudness of India, neither of us could understand a thing.

From 9am to 2pm we got to see the white marbled Laxminarayan temple, the Hawa Mahal, the Observatory, which had many massive, ancient tools used to tell the time, as well as the City Palace. The City Palace, a blend of Rajasthani and Mughal architecture, was quite elaborate and spectacular but most of it was off limits for our camera, which was a shame.
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We were quite famished after all that and we’re looking forward for lunch but our tour guide had different plans for us. He required that the whole bus stops and spends half an hour at this shop where everything is poor quality yet expensive, obviously he gets a commission out of every purchase.

After the shop we were brought to the very beautiful Nahargarh Fort where we also managed to have a quick lunch. Like all of our stops in this tour, except for the shop, we were rushed and didn’t get to enjoy it fully. After a forgettable stop at the Jaigarh Fort, we made the long ride to the highlight of the day: the Amber Fort. It was just spectacular, impressive and huge! We were given enough time to explore every nook and cranny of this place and loved all of it. The tour guide tried to force us to go to another shop, this time selling leather goods, but we weren’t having any of it. Lara, Mark and I refused to enter the shop and ditched the group to go explore the Kanak Vrindavan temple next door. After this long exhausting day, we dined on Chinese food then went back to the hotel. We said goodbye to Lara as we were going different ways the next morning, Lara was headed to Agra and we were going to Jodhpur.
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Jodhpur

Getting to Jodhpur was another case of very late train. However, once we got there, we felt this city was going to be different. It all first started with the rickshaw driver accepting an honest and reasonable price for the ride to our guesthouse. You should have seen our jaws drop, we’ve never experienced that in India. Arriving in the evening, the city looked very charming and colourful to us. Jodhpur is called the “Blue City” for a reason and we were looking forward to see it in daylight.

Our walk through the bazaar and Clock Tower area the next morning just confirmed our first impression of Jodpur. I’m not quite sure how to explain it, maybe it’s the small town feel, but the city definitely feels different. The bazaar was very entertaining with loads of shops selling spices, old dirty clothes, colourful textiles, bright powders for the upcoming Holi celebration and the most useless gadgets I’ve ever seen.
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On our way to our next tourist destination, Janwar Thara, we stopped to ask a young man for directions. Like most Indians who strike up a conversation with a foreigner he asked us our names, where we were from, our marital situation, etc. His name was Rahul and he invited us to his home for some chai. We ended up staying there around a half an hour. All his family members came out to greet us and they were all excited and curious to have us there. He showed us his room and his favourite belongings, including all the cricket trophies he had won. Since Rahul’s English was limited and our Hindi is non-existent we obviously couldn’t communicate very well so after we finished our Chai, we thanked everyone and went on our way to Janwar Thara.
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Janwar Thara is a memorial for one of the maharajas. It was exquisite and so peaceful. About 500 meters away was the major attraction of Jodpur; The Mehrangarh Fort, which would turn out to be my favourite attraction in India so far.
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Though it is not as impressive or majestic as others, the Mehrangarh Fort is very well maintained and clean, and extremely well guided with a very interesting audio guide tour. The view of the city from this fort is also spectacular and we got to understand why this city is also nicknamed “The Blue City“. Most of the houses and buildings have one or more walls painted blue. They also had an on site palm reader who’s reading was so accurate, especially for Mark, it was chilling. After the Fort, we got lost a few times in the maze of nameless streets that is Jodhpur before finding our guesthouse.
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We spent two more days in Jodhpur during which we visited the city’s Zoo & Garden and the Umaid Bhawan Palace.

The Zoo and Garden was a disappointment. Even though it had a few interesting animals (amongst which the most stunning tiger we‘ve seen), they all looked malnourished and neglected. The zoo keepers actually give the same food (some green grass) to all animals from birds to gazelles to turtles. As we walk around the grounds of the zoo, we felt like animals in cages ourselves as everyone was staring at us, trying to sneak a few pictures of us and even following us around the zoo.
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The Umaid Bhawan Palace, located a little outside the city center, was remarkable even if we only got to see about 10% of it since the rest is still being used as the current Maharaja’s home as well as a super high class hotel. It costs well over $1000 per night to stay there! It had very impressive displays of the splendour of the maharaja’s home. On the topic of the Maharaja, we also dined at a rooftop restaurant in central Jodhpur owned by the Maharaja himself. It was delicious, the view was breathtaking and the rooftop factor allowed us to escape the madness of the streets for a couple hours.
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Udaipur

The Blue City had been nice and interesting but we couldn’t wait to get to Udaipur where everyone raves at how romantic the city is. We took a flight to Udaipur two days before the big Holi festival, a national celebration, and got a quick glimpse of the city during the car ride to the hotel. We instantly understood what the fuss was all about. Udaipur seems to be a tad wealthier that the other Rajasthani cities and a lot more catered to tourists, who themselves, seem to be wealthier as well. The shops lining the streets are more modern and the products seems to be of better taste and higher quality. The quality of life also seems better than other cities we’ve visited. The traffic was very slow once you get to the core of the city but only because the streets are extremely narrow, the chaos doesn’t seem to be too present. That night we went to a recommended restaurant a few steps away from our hotel, Ambrai, which has spectacular views of the Palace at night. It turns out to be the classiest and romantic outdoor restaurants in the city, perhaps all of India, and it was quite affordable.
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As we stepped out of our hotel and walk toward the main area the next morning, we can feel something brewing in the air, something very festive. The city was actually in preparation for Holi, the Festivals of Colours, celebrating radiance in the universe. During this day, people gather the streets and throw powdered colours or tinted water on each other. The actual party will only happen the next day but everyone seems to be very eager. And since everything will be closed, we rushed to go see the City Palace to make sure we don’t miss it. The Palace, which is the largest in all of Rajasthan, was very bright and colourful but not at as impressive as what we had seen so far. On the way home Mark decided to load up on those bright powders and some white shirt and pants readying for the big day himself. I got my hand hennaed as it is tradition to do so during any celebration.
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The Holi Festival falls on the full moon of the lunar month of Phalguna and it also celebrates the first day of spring. It is a day to let loose and have fun throwing coloured powder and water at people. Though Holi seemed like innocent fun and games, everyone in India was concerned for our safety and highly suggested that we stay inside for the spring festival. The staff at our hotel even told us they were scared to venture out onto the streets on Holi. Unfortunately, some groups of men take it too far. Some get heavily intoxicated (from alcohol and ganga) and end up ganging up on tourists and also sexually harassing and abusing foreign women. Some people also use toxic coloured powder that can burn your skin or sting your eyes. After much reflection (only on Mark’s part since I was not going to go out there and risk getting molested), we opted to stay in but Mark still got to make use of his powders. We went up to the hotel rooftop to find some targets. We looked down and we saw a bunch of kids running after each other spraying themselves with coloured water. Mark took out his powders and started bombing the kids. Even though we were cheating a bit, being up on a rooftop, the kids still loved it and challenged Mark to throw some more. They even retaliated by throwing a few water balloons at us. It was a lot of fun.
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Besides that we didn’t do anything else that day because of the chaos outside. Once it was over, around 6pm, we went back to Ambrai for supper and got ourselves the best table by the lake. We feasted our eyes on a stunning moonrise, a perfect view of the Lake Picola and it’s Palace, and a spectacular fireworks display. It was truly romantic and the most wonderful way to end our journey of Rajasthan.
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Rajasthan is beautiful and although there are a lot of pics in this blog, we have many more to share. If you are interested in seeing more pictures, please click on the following link: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=400246&id=680240141&l=79f0910a8b

Varkala, Kerala is next and this is our final beach destination of our RTW trip. We’ve been told by countless dreamy eyed Indians and expats that Kerala is the most beautiful place in all of India. I have a feeling they are right.

Thanh and Mark
GO HABS GO!!
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Posted by thanh13 00:11 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Varkala (Kerala) is paradise!

One week relaxing underneath the hot sun and a little bit of sightseeing.

sunny 35 °C
View Thanh and Mark's RTW Adventure 2009-10 on malmn's travel map.

Varkala is perfect! Perhaps we think and feel this way because of our past four challenging weeks, but this place looks great and feels very different than what we’ve lived so far in India. It’s very laidback and that was a very welcomed change. We almost forgot that we were in India as it was so peaceful and quiet in Kerela, plus the people were very kind and didn’t harass us much.
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Varkala is located in the state of Kerala, which is very close to the southern tip of the Indian sub-continent. Unlike the cooler, drier, dustier and dirtier environment of northern India, Kerala boasts a tropical setting which is hot, humid, very lush and green, and looks much less polluted. Being asthmatic I can tell you that the air quality is most certainly better here. I can feel it! I’ve read that this state has had a freely elected communist government since 1957 and because of this that has allowed this state to be the most advanced and prosperous state in all of India. You do see much less poverty here than in the north.
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Varkala is a temple town and more importantly to us, a stress-free beach community. While there are quite a few foreigners here, it’s not overwhelming and annoying. Besides the beach, many tourists come to Varkala for the Ayurveda treatments and the yoga. I’m guessing 2/3 of the tourists here are women.

The beach is stunning and totally picturesque. It’s like it is out of a magazine. The beach is unpolluted, the water is warm and clean, it has a nice yellow-beige sand and is embraced by, what I am guessing, a 100 meter cliff lined with tall palm trees that gives the beach a dramatic and romantic effect. On top of this cliff resides numerous casual restaurants, shops, hotels and guesthouses. This beach is easily the best we have been to on this trip, and may be my all time personal favourite along with Nungwi Beach in Zanzibar.
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Our guesthouse was around a 15 minute walk from the beach, and we got lost going back to it on our first night. Fortunately, we stumbled upon a small but very entertaining and loud temple festival where the men celebrating were dressed in traditional wear and playing various percussion instruments like small symbols and drums. The atmosphere was pretty awesome and the many of the locals were dancing like crazy. Our luck got even better when a young, local rickshaw driver, temporarily out of work because of a strike, walked us back to our hotel. He didn’t want any money from us but only did it out of kindness. It was a pleasant surprise as we would have never seen that in the north.
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We spent the rest of our eight days in Varkala not doing very much except sleeping in, sun-tanning, swimming, using the internet, watching some TV and eating. Well, that’s not exactly true because we did take a day trip to Tamil Nadu and also experienced a temple festival near Varkala.

We hired a car and driver for one full day so we could go an explore a few sites in South India, more specifically in the state of Tamil Nadu, which is really at the end of India. We visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace, the Thanumalayan Temple, and couple of sites in Kanyakumari. Our day began early at 7am and we only got back to Varkala around 8pm.

Our first stop, Padmanabhapuram Palace, is located in, surprise!, Padmanabhapuram, which just over 110 kilometres south of Varkala. The palace dates back to 1550 and is the largest wooden palace in Asia. While it is pretty nice and well kept, it cannot compare to those monstrous and magnificent palaces of Rajasthan.
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The 600 hundred year old Thanumalayan (Sthanumalayan) Temple in Suchindram was our next stop. The temple architecture is traditional South Indian and there is a cool looking 22 foot statue of Hanuman inside. I had to take off my shirt and go bare-chested throughout the temple. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside.
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Our final destination was Kanyakumari, or also known as Cape Comorin. Kanyakumari is at the very southern end of India, where the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean meet. Sailing directly south would bring you to Antarctica. Kanyakumari is definitely a tourist destination but one thing that both Thanh and I noticed is that there were very few foreign tourists here. Almost all the visitors were Indian. There are many things to visit here like the Vivekananda Memorial and a huge stature dedicated to Thiruvalluvar. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to visit the Kumari Amman Temple and the Ghandi Memorial.
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The Vivekananda Memorial, which is dedicated to Swami Vivenkananda, who meditated on a rock at the same exact spot, and India’s Statue of Liberty, the 40.5 meter statue of poet Thiruvalluvar, are both located about 300 meters off shore. We had to take a very quick ferry ride to and from the islands. Worth noting is that as they do not have anywhere to store the life-jackets on board, so the ship’s staff gave us one upon embarking and we had to wear it.
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One evening, the super friendly, kind and thoughtful hotel owner of the Karthika Plaza, Raj, was so kind to drive us and Mihaly, our comical, Austrian/Hungarian/Russian neighbour, 15 clicks out of town to Parippally so we could experience the lively and popular local temple festival called Paripally Gajamela, which is celebrated at the Kodimootil Sree Bhadrakaali Temple. This place was absolute madness but it was very cool and fun! To me the festival felt much more like a carnival but with a religious twist. At the very center of the event was the temple where the locals would take the time to pray to various Gods. There were plenty of different finger foods and sweets, and other various goods for sale. Interestingly, this festival had an amusement-ride-looking-automated-story-telling-thingy, that recounted the story of certain Hindu Gods. My favourite part of this celebration was the area where around two dozen men played traditional wind and percussion instruments in front of decorated elephants.
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Some more observations:

- Almost all males in the south wear the lungi. It’s like a sarong and is always white. To me it looks like they are wearing bed sheets around their waist. If the weather is hot, the men lift and fold it in a way that makes the lungi look like a diaper. While we would see some men wear these in the north, they are called dhoti up there, men mostly wore pants.

- Surprisingly, most beachside restaurants in Varkala serve beef. It was the first time we’d come across that that in India. The menus here are obviously geared towards foreign tourists since the locals obviously do not eat anything from the sacred cow. Even though I was very tempted, I can proudly say that I refrained from eating beef. It just didn’t seem right to do so in India.

- The traffic and driving conditions in India are absolutely mind blowing. From Kolkata to Kanyakumari, driving in India is extremely frustrating, exhausting and dangerous! It’s completely nuts! From bicycles to motorbikes, slow moving rickshaws to huge overloaded trucks, and from cows to pedestrians, the amount of obstacles in the driver’s way is beyond belief. Because of the craziness it can take an hour to go 10 kilometres in the city or three hours to go 100 kilometres on a state highway. You constantly get honked at and it is also very common to see vehicles double and triple pass each other, while ignoring the solid white line or even doing it while taking turn. We almost lost our lives on our drive back home from Kanyakumari when our driver got us sandwiched between two trailer trucks. When possible, taking the train or plane is the fastest and safest choice.

So Varkala was our last beach destination and we loved it. We have left tanned, relaxed and very happy. We now have one week left in India and we are going to spend it all in Mumbai.

Mark and Thanh

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Posted by malmn 05:09 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

This is it! One week in Mumbai and we're out!

Nice city but one week may have been a little too long here.

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View Thanh and Mark's RTW Adventure 2009-10 on malmn's travel map.

Well, this is it. We have seven days left until our six week Indian adventure ends here in Mumbai, the city formerly known as Bombay.
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As our flight from Thiruvananthapuram was approaching Mumbai, we could see the many large slums scattered throughout the city. Mumbai (city proper) is the second largest city, by population (close to 14 million!) in the whole world, and apparently 60% of the Mumbai peninsula are slums. Visiting the slums was not part of our plans.

We settled in into our hotel after a complication regarding our reservation. To make a long story short, we were supposed to stay at a hotel in the Fort area, but because of the mix up, we ended up being shifted to their sister hotel in the Colaba area. This turned out to be a good thing because the Colaba area is a little more touristy and there are plenty of restaurants and shops around.
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We took a stroll around our neighbourhood and quickly understood that the central part of Mumbai is different than the rest of India. The city is much cleaner, easier to navigate, and the people here are more modern and tend to wear more “western” style clothing, especially the women. Additionally, women here wear shorts and drink beer. We even saw a couple holding hands! That night we ate at Leopold’s Café and it is a popular restaurant & bar for locals, ex-pats and tourists. Because of this, the popular hangout was the first target in the 2008 Mumbai attacks. 10 people were killed and many more were injured here. Security is tight to get in and in the back corner there is still a large bullet hole in the wall. Scary stuff!

On our first day we went to the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanjrahalaya, formerly known and easier to pronounces Prince of Wales Museum. This quality museum contains plenty of Hindu, Buddhist and other Asian exhibits to keep one busy for a couple of hours. Afterward we went to visit India Gate and the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower.
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The next day we wandered around the Fort and Colaba areas. We saw many landmarks including Mumbai University, the High Court, the three Maidans, and the UNESCO Hertiage Chhatrapati Chivaji (Victoria Terminal). That night we met up with Lara whom we visited Jaipur with. She was arriving from Goa and we had lots of stories to share.
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March 13th was Thanh’s birthday. After walking up late, we met up with Lara and all went to Mumbai’s biggest tourist attraction, Elephanta Island. The island is a one hour ferry ride northeast of the India gate. The site is another Indian UNESCO Heritage site and here resides several carved cave-temples. The main temple is dedicated to Shiva and the carvings are quite impressive.
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For Thanh’s birthday supper, the three of us went to a slick and swanky “European” style restaurant named Indigo, and it was absolutely amazing! It’s one of the best meals we have had all trip, maybe the best. Thanh had duck and she was more than satisfied. I have to admit that I had a filet mignon for my main course. It was the first time I ate beef in over five weeks and it was awesome!
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The following day was Lara’s last in India. She met us at our hotel late that morning and we walked a tiring and hot 4 kilometers to Chowpatty Beach. After lunch and a stroll along the beach, we went back to our hotel for a late afternoon nap. That night we said goodbye to Lara after having supper at a local Indian restaurant together.
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We didn’t do a whole lot with our final two days. I guess all the traveling is getting to us but the fact that there’s not a whole to see and do in Mumbai didn‘t motivate us to get out either. I think staying here for a one week may have been a mistake…we would have stayed at the beach in Varkala a little longer if we would have known…Anyways, we basically just slept-in, walked around the neighbourhood, watch TV, and finalize a few more travel plans. What’s worth noting is that I got a haircut and it only cost me 50 Rupees, around $1.25 Canadian! The job was quick and well done. I also finally found the courage to try Paan.

Paan is basically Betel leaf filled with a mixture and is used as a palate cleaner and breath freshener. It is crazy popular with Indian men and it’s sold at every street corner all over India. You are supposed leave it in your mouth while, chew on it, enjoy the juices, and spit it out. One’s mouth becomes red when you use it and you can tell who is a regular user as it turns your teeth black and crusty over time. There are several kinds of Paan and the most common are the Areca nut, Sweet, Trento, and Tobacco. I tired the Sweet one night and the Tobacco another. The Sweet one’s filling is made with coconut, fruit and rose petal preserves, and various spices like fennel. The Tobacco is filled with tobacco and Areca nut. Even though they were enjoyable, because of the increased chance of getting cancer and I that had to brush my teeth twice just to red the red out, it’s not something I would do everyday.
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Our final notes:

- Almost everyday while walking around Colaba we were invited to take part in a Bollywood movie as an extra. We were offered 500 Rupees ($12) for one day’s work. We never took them up on their offer.

- We went to watch Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and discovered that the Indian national anthem is played before the start of every movie and they have a 10 minute pee-break at the half-way mark.
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- We saw Mumbai men do a strange thing while drinking their chai. Served in a normal tea cup with a saucer, the men would spill a little bit of tea unto the saucer and the sip the tea from it. They did this until their chai cup was done. I figure they do this because the tea is so hot.

- Some of you may notice that I'm sporting a mustache in the pictures. Well I've been growing it since Delhi and I call it my "Tribute to India". Almost every man in India has a mustache, sometimes you even see women with them, and I thought it would be funny to grow one and maybe it would help me fit in a little more. I plan to shave it off when we head to Turkey (that will surely make my Mom happy.)

- After six weeks in India, our Bible-sized guide book, Lonely Plant India, which we received as a gift from Merryn last Christmas, has changed from mint condition to well worn and dirty. India is not the cleanest place and our book is a testament to that. We’ve never had one of our guide books get so filthy like this.

Leaving India is bittersweet. On one hand we are glad to leave the extreme pollution, the congested and dangerous roads, the foul squat toilets, the unsanitary restaurants, the pushy salesmen, the sleazy touts, the beggars, the sexual harassment, and the intense poverty. On the other we are going to miss the colors, the beautiful and majestic sights, the landscape, the saris, the weather, the train rides, the holy cows, the daily surprises, the inexpensive and tasty food, the Hindu culture and its countless Gods, the friendly people, and especially masala chai. One thing is for sure, by far, India has been the most challenging country we have ever visited and it may be one of our most satisfying accomplishments.

Now were are off to visit Istanbul, Turkey which sits right along the diving line between Europe and Asia. We have planned to stay there a full week to properly soak up the sights, smells, and atmosphere. While we are very excited to go, we are anxious about the cold weather that awaits us. We are mostly worried because we have been enjoying the warm weather climate for a while now and we really don‘t have any clothes that's suited for Turkey‘s spring weather….It’s presently 38C in Mumbai, and only 8C in Istanbul! We might need to buy a
sweater or two, or maybe some snowpants.

See you soon!

Mark and Thanh
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Posted by malmn 20:44 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Istanbul, but with so much history, I prefer Constantinople

Wow! No wonder this city has been chosen as the European Culture Capital for 2010!

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We didn’t know what to expect from Istanbul, but after a crazy six weeks in India, anything would have been a relief. Well Istanbul turned out to be way more than anything, it turned out to be excellent. Right from the beginning, we knew it was going to be a world of difference from what we’ve experienced in India.
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Although we were each hit with a expensive $60 entry visa, waited in an never-ending customs line, and then confronted with relatively cold weather, they would be the worst of our suffering in Istanbul. The city is so clean, modern and so easy to navigate through. And even as the fourth largest populated city in the world, it doesn’t feel crammed at all. We made our way from the airport to our guesthouse via public transportation and it was a breeze, even with our heavy backpacks. Passing by the many kebab houses, chestnut vendors, mosques and beautiful little boutiques, walking on romantic cobblestone streets without barely anyone bothering us, was all very pleasant.
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As soon as we arrived at our guesthouse and settled in, we went for our first non-Indian meal for what seemed like forever. We finished off our plates like over-starved carnivores. It was as if we just got out of prison or something. It was disgraceful, really.

Attacking the Grand Bazaar, the largest shopping area in the world, was our next mission. Shopping in Istanbul proved to be so different than in India. Though the vendors could still be pushy, it was not overwhelming and some of them even find creative ways to humor you: “Sir, do you want to buy something you don’t need?” or “Sir, can I please help you spend your money?” The place was also very clean and pleasing to the eye. The bazaar was a huge maze full of colorful shops selling pretty jewelery, gorgeous lighting fixtures, apple teas, Turkish delights, and the “evil eye” in every shape and forms. The evil eye, also known in Turkey as the Eye of Medusa, is believed to actually protect you from the evil of others. Our first day in Istanbul also offered us something we haven’t seen in a while: western prices! Ouch!
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During the next couple of days, we stuck to our neighborhood of Sultanahmet where most of the major tourist attractions of Istanbul are located. Sultanahmet was the heart of both the Byzantium and the Ottoman empire and that is why it is also the home of many places of worship and palaces.

We saw the gigantic Blue Mosque with a pristine and gorgeous inside. Though the sunlight obstructed our view a little, everywhere you look was magnificent with incredible details.
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Neighboring the Blue Mosque was the Hippodrome of Constantinople which used to be a social center during the Byzantine empire. An obelisk was taken from Egypt and placed here.
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Next to it is the colossal and magnificent Aya Sofya, originally an Orthodox Catholic basilica, later converted to a mosque, and finally became a museum. With its two levels of beautiful architecture and history, this place is definitely one of the most extraordinary and breathtaking sites we’ve seen on this trip.
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Almost as impressive as the Aya Sofya was the Topkapi Palace. The four hours spent there allowed us to see many spectacular things. I’ve never seen so many sapphire, rubies, topazes and diamonds. One diamond was as large as my palm! Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures of these riches.
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Not too far from the palace was the Basilica Cistern, the biggest cistern in town. The entrance will fool you as it is this little simple building, but the magic is all underground. The cistern was once used to store water for Constantinople’s citizens.
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Though not part of the popular tourist maps, we also went to see the gate of Istanbul University and the Bezayit Camii.
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Having exhausted the sites in our neighborhood, our fourth day saw us venture in the area of Western District. We traveled by metro along the ancient Wall of Constantinople to the area where the gorgeous Chora Church is located in. What this church lacks in size, it sure makes up in beauty with many spectacular depictions of Jesus’ life.
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Having left the church, we ventured through the steep streets to discover this very different neighborhood. Its residents are still very traditional and almost all the women wear the customary hijab. Everyone is very humble looking and the streets and shops are more what you’ll find in a rural town than the ones we’ve seen in downtown Istanbul. Laundry is hanging from every single laundry line and women are dusting their carpet carefully using their curtains on their face to hide it. You can feel that religion is very important here and people are very kind, friendly and no one is trying to sell you anything. For example, we were just standing looking at a magnificent city view at a local Mosque when this young woman,being very hospitable, offered us her lunch! We appreciatively declined but were totally amazed by her kindness. Instead we had lunch at this small, family run, chicken kebab restaurant where the whole family kindheartedly tended to our every need. We left this side of town with a lot of warmth in our hearts and too much food in our stomachs.
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The afternoon was spent in the crazy and crowded Spice Bazaar where we overdosed on sweets, mostly Turkish delights. We ended up buying three boxes to sustain our newly found addiction.
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In the evening, we crossed the Bosphorus river to the Kadikoy district for dinner. We chose this trendy area, where young hip locals flock, to enjoy mezes (cold appetizers) and down them with the local liquor, Raki. We did as the local and sat at one of those rare empty tables outside which are kept warm by tons of radiators lining the streets. The meal was alright but the service was awful. The waiter tried to force us to order way to much food, rushed us during the whole meal, and then wanted us to leave tip even if we were already charged us 12% for “service” (the locals don’t even tip).
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We still haven’t had enough of the mosques so the next day we hunted down another one out along the Marmara Sea; Kucuk Aya Sofya Camii. This little mosque was so pretty and in some areas of it you can still see the preserved walls and floors of the original construction. We stroll along the water where some old man kept on nagging us to buy some of his tea and another would offer to allow us to shoot a gun at some balloon for a small fee.

After a quick stop at the ruins of the Bucoleon Palace, a Byzantine structure built in the 4th century, we returned to the Spice Bazaar area to visit the local’s favorite mosque, the Yeni Camii.
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We then crossed the Galata Bridge, by foot this time, to discover that the bridge itself is quite lively and entertaining. Tons of locals congregate on it with their fishing poles hoping for the catch of the day, and some were obviously luckier than others. There’s also a level below the bridge with restaurants one after the other serving fish and seafood of all types. They also have the most relentless and sometimes rudest staff at the front trying to get people to come in with all kinds of tactic, mostly bullying.
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After we finally made our way to the other side, we climbed the steep cobblestone streets and went up to the top of the Galata Tower for magnificent views of the city. That night, we couldn’t stop marveling at how impressed we were of this city, not only it is clean and beautiful, you never run out of stunning things to see.
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The next day, we left Europe behind and took the extremely pleasant ferry ride to the Asia side of Istanbul. It was a bright sunny day which only made the many coastlines of Istanbul look even better with the mosques and palaces lining the horizon. Kadikoy was the first neighborhood that we explored and since it doesn’t have any historical monuments or major sites to visit, we just lost ourselves in the neighborhood. There was one main street with businesses and banks then you had many tiny streets with colourful markets of fresh produces and many lovely restaurants with terraces. We did as the locals: though it wasn’t summer weather, we still sat outside at this locally renowned restaurant to enjoy a lunch of mezes, perde pilav and the tastiest lamb kebab we’ve ever had. After lunch, a Dombus (minivan which waits until its full of passengers before heading to its destination) drove us to another Asian neighborhood called Uskudar. There too, we just roamed the streets passing through crowded parks with mostly men sitting around, all dressed up, holding their rosary, sipping on some tea, and gossiping the day away. We also stopped to visit two small mosques, Atik Valide and Cinili. Though all the mosques are similar, they still always have a touch of uniqueness and are always impressive to see. On the way back to the ferry, we stopped for some dessert where I tried the dondurma, a local chewy ice cream that you eat with a fork and knife! Though the Asian side of Istanbul has a slower pace of life, it is not very different from it’s European side.
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Though we’ve seen so many great things already, the city still had amazing things for us to discover. On our second to last day, we visited the Dolmabahce Palace which is loaded with riches and extravagance. Unfortunately we were only allowed to take pictures of the outside, and it was really beautiful, but the real gem of it is the inside. The palace was the most extravagant building I had ever entered before in my life. A guided tour was mandatory inside which was a shame since it didn’t allow us enough time to soak in all the grandeur, gold, crystal and wealth of the whole place. The Dolmabche Palace was unlike any I’ve seen before. It was absolutely splendid!
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We spent the afternoon strolling down the very wide Istiklal Caddesi street with tons of western shops, more doner kebap restaurants and, of course, tons of sweets shops to lose your mind and waistline over. We couldn’t resist and bought more Turkish delights, candies and ice cream.

Having done a pretty good job at discovering Istanbul in the past week, we took a break on the last day and just took our time and returning to our favourite spots… and bought more Turkish delights.

In terms of food, we did not lose any weight in Istanbul, of that I am sure. Every morning our guesthouse provided us with a very traditional breakfast of bread, cheeses, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, jams, yogurts and hard boiled eggs. Turkey is obviously known for its doner kebaps and kofta (lamb meatballs) and they are everywhere you turn and are served in various forms and with different side dishes. They were just so good that we just kept on having it over and over again. We also enjoyed discovering mezes of all kinds from hummus to vine leaves, to yogurt based dips and more. We also tried Turkish pides which are simple boat shaped thin crust pizzas but it just tastes amazing. Fried sardines was another delicious discovery. As for desert, if you have a sweet tooth, Istanbul will be your heaven. Turkish delights, candies, chocolates, cookies, pastries, cakes, ice creams, baklavas (chocolate baklavas!!)… they are everywhere you turn and they look so mouth watering (and taste even better) it is impossible to resist. Their teas and coffees are also delicious especially the Turkish coffee which comes with a whole elaborate plate of mint water, almond liqueur and a bite-sized Turkish delight.
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We were so extremely pleasantly surprised with Istanbul and are so glad we stayed a whole week, but it’s time to move on again. Next destination: Cairo, Egypt.

Observations in Istanbul:

- You haven’t tasted a real Turkish delight until you have a fresh ones from Turkey, the taste and consistency of what we have back home doesn’t even compare to the ones here.
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- Istanbulites (is that what they are called?) tend to dress in very somber monotone color.

- Touts range from decently polite to bouncer-like intimidating. But a lot of them still sell the useless gadgets we’ve seen all around India.

- Locals love to eat on outside patios even when it’s only 10C!! And shops and restaurants owners will keep their front door and windows open at that temperature.

- The people in Istanbul are the kindest and most courteous, but you always have the exceptions: merchants!! They will approach you even if it’s obvious that you’re not interested, then when you confirm that you’re not interested, they’ll almost insult you and make you feel like you just wasted their time.

- Men here walk around with their rosaries everywhere, sometimes more than one.

- There’s stray cats everywhere!! But the locals take care of them and leave food and water outside for them.

Thanh and Mark! :)

***Please click on the following link if you are interested in seeing more pictures of Istanbul.***
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=405826&id=680240141&l=5e63a4478a

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Posted by malmn 06:38 Archived in Turkey Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Visiting friends and the Pyramids in Cairo

The Giza Pyramids and the Sphinx are now off our to do list!

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View Thanh and Mark's RTW Adventure 2009-10 on malmn's travel map.

Istanbul was an amazing city with fantastic history with awesome sites to match, but now we were on our way to Egypt, which boasts some of the world’s oldest and greatest history of all and its most famous tourist venues. Needless to say, Thanh and I were very excited to be going to the land of the pharaohs, pyramids and Nile. Our flight back home is fast approaching (April 8th from Paris) so we only had time to visit Egypt for ten days. Our plan is to visit Cairo for five days and then and then Luxor for another four. This blog is about Cairo and we will have another one up for Luxor soon.
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I am fortunate to have good friends, Angela and Rob, presently living in Cairo. They are originally from Perth, Australia, but Rob works for an international oil & gas company and was transferred to Cairo over a year ago. They’ve settled in Maadi, a peaceful suburb an hour south of downtown Cairo. The married couple have a beautiful apartment and we were very spoiled to have stayed there. Angela and Rob took very good care of us.

Our plane landed around noon and Angela and her driver were at the airport to pick us up (Rob’s company supplies free car and driver for their employees). After unpacking a bit, eating stuffed vine leaves and cabbage rolls, the three of us took a stroll around the neighborhood for a couple of hours. Once Mr. Benkovic returned from work we met up with friends of theirs, Sam and Dave, at a very cool and atmospheric traditional Egyptian restaurant called Abu El Sid. I went crazy and ordered their specialty, stuffed pigeons. It was good but there wasn’t a much meat on the bones. When the meal was done we all shared a shisha filled with apple flavored tobacco Afterward, we all headed to a crowded bar full of expats and Cairanese Copts for a few drinks. Copts are basically Egyptians who embrace Christianity rather than Islam, hence their liberty to drink alcohol.
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The next day we woke up and made ourselves our first homemade breakfast in a long time; tomato, capsicum and cheese omelette. The four of us, Angela, Thanh, Rob and myself, took the metro to visit the Coptic neighborhood of Cairo. There we visited the Coptic Museum, the Greek Orthodox Cemetery, the Church of St. Sergius and the Hanging Church.

The Coptic museum was a fascinating museum with lots of art, especially Christian style art, dating back to the Greco-Roman times to the Islamic era. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures inside.
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After having a quick lunch at the museum, we strolled around the Greek Orthodox Cemetery and I discovered the Chruch of St. Sergius. This church is historically important because this is the place where Virgin Mary and baby Jesus sought refuge from the persecution of King Herod of Judea. I went inside and went to the historic basement and took some pictures.
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Before calling it a day and heading home we visited the Hanging Church, another historic Coptic place of worship, built around the 9th century.
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Our second full day saw us spend over three good but overwhelming hours at the Egyptian Museum, and then a super relaxing Felucca ride along the Nile with friends.

The Egyptian Museum may be one of the most fascinating and important museums on earth since it possesses countless of ancient Egyptians artifacts dating back over 5000 years ago. Unfortunately this is not a secret and we were not alone. The place was packed, wall to wall, with tourist, especially those on organized trips. Nevertheless, we got to see some pretty amazing stuff including a dozen or so mummies. Apart from Tutankhamen’s magnificent burial mask, the pharonic mummies may be our highlight in the museum, even if they creeped Thanh out a little but. We spent four hours here and we still left feeling that we didn’t spend enough time discovering. Sadly, cameras were not allowed inside the museum.
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Our afternoon was much more relaxing as we embarked on a two hour, peaceful, felucca ride along the Nile with Angela, Rob and our new friends Sam and Dave. This sail boat ride is certainly one of our Cairo highlights. Besides the good company, we enjoyed some good snacks, drinks and a fantastic sunset! After we docked, we headed to Sam and Dave’s friend, Mike, to have several cocktails before calling it a night.
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The next morning we woke up very excited, and with reason; we were going to the Giza Pyramids! The Giza Pyramids! The pyramids are high on most people’s do to list and we were about to check off this big one! Anyways, Angela organized a driver to get us to Giza and drive us around. Our driver, Mohammed Ali, was very kind and thoughtful. He brought us everywhere we wanted to go and also brought us to some places which had fantastic panoramic views of the pyramids. In total, we stayed four hours at the site to properly soak in the three pyramids, the Solar Boat Museum, and the Sphinx. We took to the time to take plenty of pictures, climb a pyramid, enter another, walk around the mid-sized one, just sit and admire, and we even spoiled ourselves by taking a camel ride! The Sphinx is the last thing before leaving the Giza complex and it didn’t disappoint us either. It’s not as large as I had imagined but it was fantastic just the same. Needless to say, the whole experience was amazing and very memorable!
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After checking off one of the wonders of the world the day before, we chose to visit downtown and Islamic Cairo, and the Khan al-Khalilli (bazaar) found within Islamic Cairo.

There’s not much to report regarding he dull downtown area besides having eaten “kushari”, for lunch, a mix of noodles, rice, black lentils, dried onions and a tomato sauce. It was very cheap, super yummy and very filling.
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Islamic Cairo was fascinating and interesting. This area felt very middle-eastern and exotic. The roads are narrower and more twisty-windy here and there are plenty of minarets standing high and tall. The men and women seem to dress in a more traditional fashion as you saw very few women without their head covering and many men wore the galabiyyas, which are a full length robes.
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Khan al-Khalilli is little like Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar but it’s much smaller, not covered, and doesn’t have as many nice things. We wandered around here for an bit until we stopped at the famous Fishawi’s Coffeehouse for some mint tea and a cherry flavoured shisha. This place was very cool and atmospheric. While there were several tourists there, the place was full of Arabs which made the experience feel authentic. Apparently it’s been open for over two hundred years!
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Luxor is next and our flight out of Cairo was in the late afternoon, so we didn’t do much on our final day in Cairo expect head out with Angela to get some fresh made pitas and falafels so we could make ourselves lunch back at the apartment. Unbelievably, twenty pitas cost us 1 LE ($0.20 Canadian)! That’s a penny each! Who knows how they make money with those prices?

Some Egypt observations:

- Work weeks in Egypt are from Sunday to Thursday, thus Fridays and Saturdays are weekends here.

- The use of roman numerals in Egypt is very rare. They use Arabic numerals for everything and it’s important for tourists to memorize them.
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- Certain carriages on the Metro are reserved for women only.

- Drivers here, like in most developing countries, have poor judgment and are very dangerous. We easily saw a dozen or so car wrecks around town. For some reason, the seem to leave damaged, un-driveable cars corrode on the side of a road or highway for days and weeks. Strange.

We would like to take the time to thank Angela and Rob for their hospitality and generosity. We felt very welcomed and we really appreciated the comfort of your home, the tasty meals, and especially the companionship.

From Cairo we now head to Luxor, which was the ancient city of Thebes. Luxor is where some the best historic sites of Egypt lay, like Karnak Temple and the Valley of the Kings! We can't wait!

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Posted by malmn 06:04 Archived in Egypt Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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