Keep Calm & Climb Sichuan’s Sacred Mountain

Leshan/Emeishan, Sichuan Province, 21-22 October

From metropolitan Chengdu our travels lead us to the more rural south. Though still passing the occasional urban settlement on the way down, slowly the scenery changes to a greener setting. We’re staying at the foot of Mount Emei, in a little town called Baoguo next to the bigger town of Emeishan. Mount Emei is the biggest of China’s Holy Buddhist Mountains.

The town of Baoguo is a pretty pleasant sight. It has a river that runs through it and lots of greenery, even better, there’s not a skyscraper in sight! As is usually the case with popular religious destinations however, the main road of the town is covered with trinket stalls and crawling with touts. The holier the place it seems, the more aggressive are its shopkeepers, a problem of all the ages, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned during our time in India it’s how to ignore touts.

As Baoguo town has only a handful of side streets we easily find our hotel, drop of our bags and immediately catch a local bus to the nearby city of Leshan, to see a giant Buddha statue.

The Leshan Giant Buddha is a 71-metre tall, 8th century stone statue depicting Matreiya. Matreiya is supposed to be a future Buddha, who will bring back the teachings of Buddhism at a time when it’s forgotten. Carved out of a red sandstone cliff near the city of Leshan, Matreiya sits at the confluence of two rivers flowing beneath its feet and faces the holy Mount Emei. It is the largest stone Buddha in the world and the tallest pre-modern statue worldwide.

China’s rapid economic development means a large middle class has formed and its domestic tourism is at an all time high. Happening at pretty much every tourist stop, being caught up in masses of middle-aged farmers-turned-tourist coupled with an entire younger generation with single child complex and a lust for sightseeing is enough at times to make you want to rip your hair out and start flailing your arms around like a lunatic, but in the end it’s best to go with the flow and try and keep calm while not letting anyone walk over you. China is not the place for politeness, and no-one expects you to either.

At the Leshan Giant Buddha keeping your sanity includes making the decision not to attempt to take the plank steps down to the foot of the statue, as every Chinese tourist on the steps with a good view of the Buddha simply refuses to move on, even though it means blocking the entire path. The park’s management has resigned to its inability to police here. Instead there’s a sign to warn you it can take two hours to get to the bottom, fair enough.

Thankfully the scenic area is very big and after a while all the noise dies down and we find ourselves entirely alone in peaceful surroundings, this is great!

In the distance we can hear chanting and decide to follow the sound, which leads us to a small temple at the top of steep steps. Inside we find monks sat at a table inside a beautifully adorned main hall practicing their hymns. They’re happy for us to have a quiet walk about and even take a few pictures.

The scenic area up on the cliffs that overlook the rivers around Leshan make for a pleasant afternoon stroll and we enjoy exploring the various caves, tombs and temple buildings scattered all around.

Before the exit we pass through what is called a ‘traditional’ fishing village, looking an awful lot like a street full of restaurants. The fresh-looking daily catch is displayed out on the street though, and it’s quite the selection: cat fish, eels and water snakes, turtles (sadly), and even a huge salamander (might actually be critically endangered), all caught locally and freshly prepared while you wait. Seeing the murky, grey river behind the restaurants does not exactly entice me to try what’s on offer, but it’s pretty sweet seeing the fishermen out on the water.

Dinner in Baoguo consists of dumplings in broth with dipping sauces, spicy Sichuan pork with bell pepper and a big plate of french fries, don’t judge me alright?

The next morning we wake up early to visit Mount Emei, which actually consists of four different mountains, and has its highest peak at 3,099 metres above sea level. Stone steps just five minutes away from our hotel starting at the Baoguo Temple lead past Qingyin Pavilion and the Wannian Temple all the way up to a plateau at the top of the mountain, the Golden Summit, high above the clouds.

Baoguo Temple, the entrance gate to Mt Emei

The uninterrupted path leads through dense forests inhabited by monkeys (as well as red pandas we’re told) and is littered with waterfalls. A poet from the Qing Dynasty summed up the landscape of Mount Emei into ten scenic views, now known as the ten old views of Mount Emei, with names such as the Smoke Cloud in the Thunder Cave, the Moonlit Night in Elephant Pool and the Lucky Light at the Golden Summit. Since then, ten new views have been added, each given their own equally appealing name.

Slit in the Sky (no joke!), one of the new views of the mountain.

Now the best way for a true pilgrim to visit Mt Emei (and quite possibly avoid having to fork out on the expensive ticket) would be to start hiking up from Baoguo Temple when it opens at 7AM and reach Wannian Temple at the end of the day at 1,020 meters high. Then stay the night at one of the many monasteries that offer beds, hike up to near the Golden Summit on day two and go up the next day to witness the Lucky Light at the Golden Summit, an incredible sunrise over the plateau. We’re clearly not that devoted so settle for a much easier though be it slightly less rewarding route.

In the early morning the two of us and a sleepy looking monk take the tourist bus through dramatic scenery up to Wannian parking lot. The monk quickly heads off to the cable car, but we start our ascend on the stone path leading up to Wannian Temple.

View from the bus

The 3km long climb takes us through a sleepy little village with a tea shop, a group of old men playing a game of Mahjong and stalls selling plastic crap and bamboo sticks for fighting off cheeky macaques to use further up the mountain. It’s peaceful and serene here in the early morning and a welcome change from visiting China’s mega cities.

In total there are more than 30 Buddhist temples on the mountain. On the way up we stop off at one of these to nose around, use the toilet (another word for a hole in the ground) and play with the tiny resident kitten. A short while later we reach our first viewpoint.

On the final climb up to Wannian Temple we see a guy use a slingshot to shoot squirrels from a tree. On the opposite side of the path his wife is selling mystery meat shishkebabs from a stall, although.. not a mystery anymore..

Tour guides describe Mount Emei as a place to be one with nature and find spirituality and peace in its mystical, rugged beauty. Most Chinese tourists on the other hand use it as a place to pose for group pictures with subjects ranging from sign posts to every individual object found inside and outside the temples. Once a series of pictures has been completed, the picture taker will then swap position with another group member for the whole thing to repeat itself. Now you can offer to take the picture for them so everyone’s in it at the same time, but this will just slow things down. Now you have to be in the picture too, and before you know it you’re part of their whole switching routine. Finally once everyone has had a turn you get about a second to take a picture of the temple before the next group arrives, so here I have it for you, Wannian Temple!

So long as you don’t get annoyed with shops, crowds and noise, climbing Mt Emei makes for a pretty rewarding day however. Both the scenery and the long walk up are guaranteed to take your breath away!

And in case your legs cramp up from all the walking, there are always some alternatives on offer to cheat your way to the top instead. Presenting the Sedan Chair, the lazy man’s vehicle of choice:

When we reach Qingjin Pavilion in the afternoon the sign reads it’s another 50km to the Golden Summit. We’re almost starting to consider the Sedan, but then meet the real heroes of the mountain. Ever wonder how a temple gets built at 3,000 km above sea level? This would be step one..

Yup, that would be a ton of bricks strapped onto their backs.

Obviously we’re not going to see the Golden Summit, but finish our day looking for the macaques instead. Everywhere one the mountain there’s warnings signs telling you to be careful around the monkeys, but we feel like we’ve been lied to, there’s not a monkey in sight! They could be anywhere on this mountain, having loads of fun attacking tourists, which is kind of a comforting thought I guess. The monkey area is not to blame though, plenty of things to climb here.

We may not have reached the top, but have had a pretty great day on the mountain either way. With tired legs we drag back to the hotel and complete our adventure in Emeishan with a beer and a Sichuan feast of chilli beef and tofu stew, garlic mushrooms, different greens we’ve never seen before and rice, shared with a guy we met earlier today at the bus stop.

Join us next time when you will see us follow the Yangtze River east!

Visit to Turtle City

Pingyao, 9-10 October

Our first stop after Beijing is one of China’s four best preserved old cities, the Ancient City of Pinyao, famed for its Ming and Qing urban planning and architecture, temples, and a grand City Wall.

Located roughly 600 km southwest of the capital in the central Shanxi Province, Pingyao was first recorded around 800 BC and considered an important financial centre of the Qing Empire in the late 19th century, controlling most of China’s silver trade. In 1997, together with the nearby temples of Shuanglin and Zhenguo, it was inscribed a world cultural heritage.

Pingyao is called Turtle City because of its city wall. Along the wall are six gates, four of which are symmetrically placed on the east and west sides to resemble the turtle’s legs. The Southern and Northern Gate are its head and tail respectively, while the crisscrossing lanes of the city form the patterns on the turtle’s shell.

It’s cold and dreary when we step off the train at Pingyaogucheng train station, but a bus is stood waiting to take us to our hotel without delay. Though Pingyao is a quiet city of only 50.000 people there’s four lanes leading to and away from town. There’s no such thing as small in China. In 30 minutes we arrive at Jiaxin Guesthouse, which is full of character and settle in quickly.

The next morning we set out to visit a few sights. The driver of bus 108 is a total badass playing loud drum ‘n’ bass and smoking cigarettes from behind the wheel. Without much trouble we make it to Shuanglin Temple, a large Buddhist temple founded in the 6th century and notable for its collection of over 2,000 decorated clay statues from the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. We’re about the only people here and have a great time checking out all the incredibly detailed and lifelike sculptures. This would have to be one of my favourite stops so far.

After the polished, restored ancient buildings in Beijing it is welcome to see a temple both well-preserved and well-worn over time, rather than done up. And one that isn’t overrun with other tourists either!

After such a great morning it shouldn’t be a surprise that the other sights in the Ancient Town are a little underwhelming. Pingyao is pretty touristic and there’s more shops than actual sights. In fact, every building that’s in a good nick is either a shop or restaurant, and everything that’s not a shop or restaurant is a total wreck. It makes for a nice afternoon stroll nonetheless before we head back to the hotel to plan our next trip to Xi’An, home of the Terracotta Army.

Greetings from the Imperial Capital

Beijing, 5-8 October

After visiting the Great Wall we continue to explore the lives and times of China’s emperors in the capital city. Located in the northeast of China, Beijing is the third most populated city in the world and one of the world’s leading centres for culture, politics, business and technology, but also one of the oldest cities in the world, with a rich history dating back three millennia. Welcome to Beijing, where the old meets with the new!

The first walled city in Beijing was called Jicheng, built in 1045 BC. After the First Emperor unified China, Jicheng became a prefectural capital for the region, but it wasn’t until much later that Jicheng (Beijing) would become the powerhouse it is today.

In 1213 the city was besieged by Genghis Khan and razed to the ground, to be rebuilt two generations later by Kublai Khan. Centered on the Drum Tower, the city now became more important than ever before.

Drum Tower and Bell Tower

Finally on 28 October 1420, Beijing was officially designated the primary capital of the Ming Dynasty after completion of the new imperial residence, the Forbidden City. By the end of the 15th century Beijing had taken it’s current shape. Once the Qing Dynasty had taken over in the 17th century only slight modifications to the city were made, and to the northwest of the city the Summer Palaces were established.

On the 1st October 1949, Mao Zedong announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China from atop Tian’anmen, where in 1976 the cultural revolution was brought to an end. Today Beijing is a thriving metropolis we’re excited to get to know a little over the next few days.

Tu’Er Ye, or Old Man Rabbit, the unofficial Beijing mascotte

Day 1: Joining the Party

Retracing our steps back from the Great Wall to the city we meet an American guy on the subway who happens to work near our AirBnB and delivers us right to the door, where we’re greeted by the owner, a very sweet lady and her amicable brown poodle Cookie. Things are running smoothly so we have ample time to go out and explore a bit on our first day.

We’re hoping to dive right in and sample Beijing’s street food scene, but are faced with our first reality check. Recent urbanization has brought about the loss of historic neighbourhoods and Wanfujing Snack Street is sadly shut down, to be re-developed into a shopping mall.. After settling for fast food then, we set out to find a bar in one of the famous hutongs, narrow alleyways in the cities traditional housing style, only to be foiled again: the bar is permanently shut down. Not the best. It’s beginning to get dark too so we need a new plan. We sit down by the side of the road when a big crowd of people with national flags painted on their faces and holding red banners pass us by and we decide to go with the flow and find out what’s happening. Before we know it we’re in the middle of a queue steadily pushing for Tian’anmen Square.

Four days ago on the first of October China celebrated its 70 year anniversary of the People’s Republic, and because this week is a national holiday, folks are out in numbers to visit the birthplace of the Republic.

We see the Working People’s Cultural Palace and Altar of Earth & Harvests beautifully lit up in the midst of an excited crowd, before making our way back to Tian’anmen Square, where we realize an entire metro line is shut down for tonight’s occasion. A few hours later and with sore feet we arrive at a German bar for a much needed pint before heading back to the apartment.

Day 2: Lama Temple & craft beers

In the morning we visit the Yonghe Temple, or Lama Temple, a temple and monastery of Tibetan Buddhism converted from a Ming residence for court eunuchs in 1722 during the Qing dynasty by the Yongzhen Emperor, who’s body was buried in the temple following his death. His successor gave the temple imperial status by replacing its turquoise tiles with yellow tiles, which were reserved for the emperor. The monastery became the national centre of Lama administration and residence for Tibetan Buddhist monks, which it still is today.

After the temple we go in search of a tea shop which presents us with another new reality. Beijing’s authentic tea shops are more and more becoming a thing of the past. In its place, craft beer is getting very popular however. Sure it’s only twelve but when a cafe appears out of nowhere we seize the opportunity. (When in Beijing and all..)

Given the time of day it’s no surprise we are the only customers when we walk into Beer Girl 77. It’s very much a hipster place and serves loads of different craft ales, lagers, stouts and ciders from their own micro brewery. The bar staff lets us taste a few and we end up staying for most of the afternoon. Between the beers, a translation app, their growing confidence speaking English and our trying but failing to learn Mandarin, plus some good will, we manage to connect on many levels with these nice guys and have a great time!

Day 3: Shopping & Temple of Heaven

Today I find a few of my preconceptions about China do not quite hold up. First of all, once again today it’s a beautiful, sunny, smog free day in Beijing while we’re headed out to do some shopping, and the roads are quiet. We’re looking for a French supermarket in another hutong, but can’t seem to find it. When we ask an older lady sitting on a plastic chair in front of her house for directions, within minutes no less than ten people are banded around us, all trying their best to help us out. Who ever said the Chinese are standoffish?

Yesterday we were told that a few years back a lot of businesses were moved from the city centre to the outer rings to create more breathing space for everyone. I suppose this explains why we haven’t been able to find certain shops and bars, and why there’s no real overcrowding and subsequent bad pollution, which may in turn shed some light on the fact that Beijingers are not exactly short, quite a few of them are taller than I am! That’s my prejudices out the window, consider me schooled.

After shopping for souvenirs, we find a shop that sells baguettes, and actual Gouda cheese and sliced ham! We have been fantasizing about this for a few weeks now, it’s the little things right? We relax for a bit by a lake in the city’s biggest green space, Chaoyang Park, where you can ride a giant rubber duck.

With a few more hours of daylight left in the day we decide to visit the Temple of Heaven, a Taoist temple complex which was constructed around the same time as the Forbidden City, between 1406 and 1420.

First built by the Yongle emperor, the complex was extended and renamed Temple of Heaven in the 16th century, and renovated in the 18th century. With the downfall of Qing, the temple was left in disrepair, but since 1918 has been open to the public. It’s symbolic layout and design have had a big influence on architecture and planning in the Far East over many centuries.

In ancient China, the emperor was regarded as the Son of Heaven. To be seen to be showing respect to the source of his authority, in the form of sacrifices to heaven, was extremely important. The Temple of Heaven was built for these ceremonies, mostly comprising prayers for good harvests.

Hall of Prayers
Harvest receptacles
Altar of animal sacrifices

Twice a year the Emperor and all his retinue would move from the Forbidden City to stay in the temple complex and perform a procession and ceremonies no ordinary Chinese was allowed to witness.

Mahjong players in the Long Corridor

At the end of a successful day we feast on noodles and dumplings at a proper family-run hole-in-the-wall type restaurant where our translation app once again proves its worth.

Day 4: Ending Beijing in style

We wake up to big plans for our final day in Beijing, as we still have the Forbidden City and Summer Palace to visit. The area we stay in is quite lively with a few convenience stores as well as a few nice bakeries by the metro station. The portuguese style egg custard pastries are delicious and make for a good breakfast today. Afterwards we start off with exploring the coveted Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City is the former Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty (1420-1912). It served as the home of emperors and their households and was the political center of Chinese government for almost 500 years. The emperors clearly liked their real estate as the complex consists of a whopping 980 buildings spread out over 72 hectares of ground, and today most of it is sprawling with tourists.

Ancient tree in the emperors garden

We spend our afternoon on the Summer Palace, a short journey out of town to the so-called Fragrant Hills. Between this and the Forbidden City we’re transitioning from Ming to Qing and from extremely busy to pleasantly quiet. Much like the emperor himself back in the day we escape the hustle and bustle of town and find a place to relax.

Having said that, I’m pretty sure we’re being shadowed by guys wearing earpieces throughout the afternoon.. I guess by the end of it they realized we’re really not that interesting. Much unlike the Summer Palace, where you could spend an entire day from start to finish and still not see it all!

The Palace was built around 1749 by the Qianlong Emperor to celebrate his mother’s 60th birthday (nope, it’s definitely not the thought that counts), and is centered around the Great Temple of Gratitude and Longevity (I’m sure she lived long to express her son a lot of gratitude). Best to let the pictures speak for itself here.

So we’ve stood on the emperor’s wall, we’ve trudged through his home, explored his most sacred temple and chilled out at his summer palace, what better way to end our Beijing trip than by eating the emperor’s own food: Peking Duck! We find this succulent Chinese meal at Li Qun Restaurant, a favourite among famous Chinese actors!

Beijing was a great experience and hopefully a sign of good things to come for the rest of our journey through China. Next we’re travelling to the Ancient City of Pingyao!

Stopover in Singapore

Singapore, 2 October

Today is one of the biggest travel days for us as we’re flying from New Delhi to Beijing to kick off our China adventure! Since we’re travelling on a budget, we end up booking our flight with an 8 hour layover at Singapore’s Changi Airport, which is near south Malaysia, so a pretty big detour.

Changi Airport has to be a serious contender for the title of ‘best airport in history’. It recently opened the world’s biggest indoor waterfall, or rain vortex, made from collected rainwater, which has a daily light show!

The airport offers free daily sightseeing tours of Singapore for travellers stuck in transit (sadly fully booked by the time we arrived), but there’s plenty other facilities on offer, such as a free movie, showers, beds, and loads of lounges, restaurants, bars and shops. It even has a butterfly garden!

We leave Delhi at 9AM local time and arrive in Singapore at 5PM local. The time zone here is GMT+8, same as in China. Since our flight to Beijing is not until 1AM, we decide to visit the famous rain vortex and enjoy our first soup dumplings. Look it up if you’ve never had them, they’re amazing! As Sri Lanka and India have no real supermarkets of mention, simply being in one at Changi Airport feels great. It’s always fun to check out some weird items sold abroad, such as melon flavoured crisps and chocolate covered gummi bears, which are actually pretty tasty!

Time flies at Changi Airport and in the blink of an eye we’re on our way to China!

India: The verdict

New Delhi, 1 October

Time spent: one month. Distance travelled (land): 1775 km. Distance travelled (air): 2500 km. Places visited: 13.

So the time has come to look back and reflect on our month spent in India. As is our custom, let’s start with the price of a pint.

This explains a lot..

The beer we drank in India is called Kingfisher. It comes in either a 500ml can, a big, or a small bottle, and offers a choice of lager at 4.8% and ‘strong’ at ‘less than 8%’. The most we’ve paid is 350 rupees (£4) for a can of lager, the least 170 rupees (£2) for a big bottle of strong. Is it something we would ever drink back home? Probably not, but on a warm day an ice cold Kingfisher goes down a treat nonetheless.

Then for the final scores as awarded by our lovely judge Lauren:

The people score 7/10. Even though we’ve met some amazing and wonderful people, it’s hard not to also remember India for the annoying selfies, the aggressive tuktuk drivers, and the scam artists at temples. Pushkar is infamous for its so-called Pushkar Passport. Someone puts a bracelet on you or shoves a flower in your hand and then orders you to make an outrageous donation to the temple i.e. their own pockets. We are waiting in a queue at an ATM when we spot some guys handing out these ‘passports’. One of them approaches us. As usual he starts off by asking where we’re from, but Lauren, wise to the scheme, sighs and just says: “What do you want?” You can tell the guy is taken aback a bit and he mutters: “flower for you madam.” To which Lauren replies: “Absolutely not.” And that’s the end of that. Legend.

The food scores 9/10. Even though we finally did end up with Delhi-belly, the Indian food is pretty amazing. There’s a ton of choice and the cooking is not too spicy and very flavourful. Coming from two diehard carnivores, we both actually fell in love with the vegetarian food options. Best dish: Paneer Masala and everything we ate in Bundi. Worst dish: The dodgy goat that made us sick.

The travelling scores 7/10. Though travelling through Kerala was as convenient as Sri Lanka, busses and trains in Rajasthan are not exactly comfortable. Even when reserving the expensive AC seats, the travel isn’t relaxing because Indians love putting their phones on loudspeaker. Love it. Seriously I don’t think anyone up north has heard of headphones. On one train journey I remember a guy entering our carriage a few times around 6am just to make a loud phone call.. We used an app for tuktuk rides which is necessary in Rajasthan if you don’t want to be overcharged, but on the other hand the taxi hire for long distances was great and we managed to some great deals for that.

Best animal: This would have to be the black-faced langur, hands down. Though known to push napping, elderly people off of ledges on occasion, this langur is not generally dangerous and extremely cute with its wee humanlike face, plus some of them are trained to protect people from the more aggressive red-faced macaques, pretty awesome right?

Though I can’t see us return anytime soon to the places we’ve visited this time around, India has been an amazing experience and one that pushed our boundaries a bit too, which is not a bad thing. A trip to the far north and north east of India might someday be on the cards for us and at any rate we would love to come back one day to see tigers in the wild.

Overall, India passes the mark and receives Lauren’s certificate of excellence! Good times!

Party town near the Thar Desert

Pushkar, 28-30 September

We were happy to trade in Jodhpur for our next stop of Pushkar, a small town of 20.000 people near the desert. Situated in the Ajmer region, Pushkar is a pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Sikhs, as well as a meeting place for hundreds of Israeli tourist as it turns out, who are in town to smoke some dope and celebrate Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Shana Tovah everyone!

Pushkar is built around a lake, which has loads of stone steps down to the water where pilgrims bathe. It’s considered a sacred city by Hindus which means it’s forbidden to consume meat, eggs or alcohol within the town limits.

At our local, the Funky Monkey Cafe, it takes about two seconds before we’re served beer, I mean cappuccino, in big mugs. The shop across the street sells all sorts of smoking paraphernalia and is run by the campest looking couple of older Indian dudes you will ever meet, wearing unbuttoned Hawaiian shirts with chest hair poking out, bluejean hotpants and big coloured sunglasses. These guys are more than keen to let you examine their special stock too. Pushkar is a bit of a party town, we’re liking it.

Pushkar is also the home of the annual camel fair for trading livestock, happening over five days in November and attracting more than 200.000 visitors to the small town each year. We’re next to the Thar Desert, or Great Indian Desert which covers an area of 200.000 square km and forms a natural boundary between India and Pakistan. Right now the only camels in town are used for tourist safaris or occasionally as mode of transport by the locals.

Our accommodation, HosteLaVie, is great with a huge grass courtyard where it’s not hard for us to relax and get a few things prepared for our upcoming journey to China. In the afternoons we do a bit of sightseeing and at night play games with other travellers.

There’s hundreds of temples in Pushkar, but it’s one of the few places in the world which has a temple dedicated to Brahma, aka the naughty god. A bit further out of town we take a dodgy chairlift up to the Savriti Mata temple on top of a big hill overlooking the town, where they sell offerings to Hanuman, the monkey god, to feed to the resident langurs.

I’m not feeling brave enough to step inside the chairlift for a second time, so we’re taking the stone steps to get back down. Have you ever been told cows can’t walk down stairs? I certainly hope they can, because about halfway down one is quietly taking in the views.

With our train tickets to Delhi booked (thanks to the lovely hostel owners) and our trip to China prepared, we’re getting ready to watch Scotland play Samoa for the Rugby World Cup, ‘mon boys!

When we’re at our airport hotel tomorrow it’s time for some reflections on our time in India.

Hitting a wall in Jodhpur

Jodhpur, 26-27 September

We were flying too close to the sun over the past two weeks in Rajasthan and India came back to punish us for it. After the not so pretty Agra, our hotel in Jaipur was an absolute steal, we felt relaxed and at home in the small town of Bundi and then came Udaipur, easily our favourite painted city. But when we drive into Jodhpur, the Blue City, in the dark, it feels like we’re back to square one.

Who ever wrote that India is an attack on the senses must have spent some time in Jodhpur. The traffic is insane again, with bad roads and worse drivers producing deafening noise while competing for business. The occasional whiff of incense offers only temporary relief from the nauseating smell of rotten garbage found everywhere by the side of the roads. If you can tell a city by how it treats its animals I would suggest skipping Jodhpur. In Udaipur we’ve seen dogs get their eyes cleaned, get fed and injected, here, seeing all the sick and miserable dogs is gut-wrenching. This city has a bit of an edge to it.

After a hectic drive through Jodhpur town centre, our check in at the hotel is quickly dealt with and we end the day having a beer on the rooftop terrace. We’re joined by the grandad of the guesthouse and his drinking buddies: a gang of old boys with a serious thirst for whiskey. When his friends have gone, grandad decides to relieve his bladder in the sink at the back of the terrace partly behind the fridge, the perfect excuse for us to contemplate the views we get of Jodhpur city and its Mehrangarh Fort, lit up beautifully at night.

The next day we take it easy with a much needed long lie in. We have breakfast at lunchtime by the clock tower, before meeting our travel companions for dinner and drinks.

The food at Cafe Blue Bird is pretty good. Almost all the Rajasthani food has been delicious, but since Udaipur we’ve felt a bit sick after eating a Rogan Josh and a Lal Maas containing goat meat, so we’re back to eating vegetarian only. The dish I have is called Aloo Gobhi Adraki, which is a potato and cauliflower curry, and Lauren likes everything with paneer, Indian cheese, which is like a solid cottage cheese. When the owner finds out Lauren is Scottish he pours us a pretty lethal dose of Indian whiskey, which leaves us staggering back to the guest house through the city’s small alleyways at the end of the night.

In the morning Lauren’s stomach is feeling worse for wear. As we’ve got some sorting out to do for our upcoming train journeys to Pushkar and Delhi we spend most of the day in the hotel to recover a bit from our first two months on the road. We return to Cafe Royale for lunch where we end up talking the afternoon away with the owners and their son, who used to live in Berchem next to Antwerp for five years, about the meaning of life, plastic reduction and the so called King of Kidneys, an Indian surgeon who illegally removed and sold over 600 kidneys from his patients and had an indoor swimming pool built in the shape of a kidney! A gentle reminder to try not and get hurt while abroad because with enough money anyone can buy a medical degree in India.

Although we didn’t make it to any of the sights, I feel our time in Jodhpur was still of value. It may not be a clean or even a pleasant city, but we’ve met some really nice people! There’s one final stop coming up for us in Pushkar, before we head back to Delhi and fly to China. Farewell to the last of Rajasthan’s painted cities.

Living like royalty in Jaipur

Jaipur, 17-19 September

Our first stop in Rajasthan, Jaipur, is the capital and largest city of India’s royal state. Together with Delhi and Agra it forms the western part of the Golden Triangle tourist circuit and it is the first of the three painted cities we’re visiting in India. Jaipur is named after its founder Maharaja Jai Sing II, ruler of the kingdom of Amer, and was designed to be and established as the royal capital in 1727. After seven weeks of backpacking we can do with a bit of royal treatment ourselves, so it’s the airconditioned reserved seats on the express train getting us from Agra to the Pink City by nightfall.

Usually when booking a hotel we follow a simple rule set: get the cheapest private room, with a private bathroom, along with a decent rating and in a central location. In Sri Lanka and India, with prices for this type of stay ranging from £5 to £15 a night, you just know there’s almost always something wrong with it. Mostly it’s just minor flaws such as a couple loose wires, missing towels, no hot water, etc, but other times, for example in Agra, you find out your hotel doesn’t change the sheets between stays and charges extra for using toilet paper, but they’re also out of toilet paper.. At any rate, it’s very unusual to come across a budget hotel where everything is spot on, it’s just a roll of the dice.

The hotel we have booked in Jaipur is called Rawla Mrignayana Palace. We arrive there late, already a bit weary because we just came off a crazy taxi ride across town with driver Rahul, who is a bit of a character: clearly coked off his face and talking to himself out loud, Rahul was in no fit state to find the hotel without our help. But we made it, the lobby looks nice and we’re just eager to get the paperwork done so we can grab a bite to eat.

With all the forms completed we expect to be shown our room, only to find the receptionist has now disappeared from his desk. Suddenly music starts playing and the same guy, resurfacing on the balustrade, waves at us to follow him upstairs. Halfway up Lauren gets a good fright when out of nowhere we’re being showered in flower petals. The balustrade leads us into a candlelit courtyard where we’re greeted by a full complement of staff and given bindis and flower garlands, not bad for a budget stay!

After the welcome ceremony we’re swiftly guided along, deeper into the hotel. The courtyard leads to another walkway, which opens up into another courtyard. Stairs take us up to a big balcony with a stone fountain and this where we finally find our room. We have to pinch ourselves, did we end up in the wrong place perhaps? It’s completely surreal, this hotel is actually kind of magical. Our room is huge, luxurious and simply stunning, fit for a king and queen. We can’t believe our luck, looks like we booked ourselves an actual palace!

Waking up the next morning we learn it’s not too far from the truth either. Rawla Mrignayani is part of an 18th century Haveli, commissioned by Rai Kripa Ram, former prime minister of the then state of Jaipur. At some point the Haveli was gifted to the nobles of Karnot and it’s their descendants who still own Rawla Mrignayani today. Apart from the hotel, the immense property also houses a school and the owner’s residences. After three nights we’re still discovering new parts to it and the rooftop terrace has wonderful views of the city.

The Pink City

During the rule of Sawai Ram Singh I, in 1876, Jaipur was painted in its trademark pink colour to welcome Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, hence its town centre is nicknamed the Pink City.

Hawa Mahal, or, the Palace of Winds

Amer Fort and surrounding area

On our first day we visit the Amer Fort and Palace, 11km from Jaipur, which was the residence of the Rajput Maharajas and built in the same style of Mughal architecture we’ve seen in Agra.

Afterwards our tuk-tuk driver brings us to the nearby Step Well, built to collect rainwater as well as being a Langur family’s favourite hangout, and Jal Mahal, the Water Palace in the middle of Man Sagar Lake, to conclude a successful day of sightseeing.

Nahargarh Fort

The next morning we stay in the city and visit Nahargarh Fort, built in the hills overlooking Jaipur. Its original walls extended over the surrounding hills all the way to the Jaigarh Fort in Amer where we visited yesterday.

Having seen all the forts, we dedicate the afternoon to figuring out our next mode of transportation. We’re getting off the beaten path which is the touristic Golden Triangle to make a side step to Bundi, a tiny village down south. Although we know there’s supposed to be an AC bus going to Bundi, it proves impossible to find it, so this morning we’ll be collected by a private driver instead. We’ve done Jaipur in style and it was great!

The return of the King

Munnar, 11-13 September

Today is Thiru Onam (Sacred Onam Day), the most important day of the annual harvest festival in Kerala. Yesterday the hotel owner has left to Alleppey for a family celebration so we’re locking up after ourselves before travelling by bus to Munnar.

We hear the legend of King Mahabali aka the Demon King, whose spirit visits Kerala at Onam: Mahabali once ruled the entire world and his reign was one of peace and prosperity: All of his subjects had a roof over their head and enough to eat, and there was no division based on caste or class. He was so loved by his people they started saying Thank the King, instead of Thank the Gods, which naturally didn’t go down too well with the latter. And so it was that Vishnu decided to take on the form of a little boy and visit the King to end his rule.

Upon their meeting, the king, known for his generosity, told the little boy he could have anything he wanted. The boy then asked for three feet of land, which was granted. It was then that Vishnu grew from a little boy into to a gigantic figure, who measured the Earth using one foot, and the entire universe with the next. Mahabali, knowing that his time had come, let Vishnu place his third foot on his head, causing him to drown in the netherworld. The king’s final wish was to return once every year to make sure his people are still prosperous and happy. Today people celebrate Onam by purchasing new clothes for their children and elders and sharing a big feast with family.

After hearing no division based on caste or class, suddenly something clicks. We’ve seen communist symbols all over Kerala: the hammer and sickle, portraits of Che and Fidel. It makes a lot of sense now. And communism to an extent seems to work here. For instance we’re told that poverty in Kerala is less compared to the rest of India. Though partly because of tourism, and partly because a lot of Keralans have jobs in the Middle East, but also because the state creates jobs. The state ferries have been an absolute joy, and every major town has a District Tourism Promotion Council office, but perhaps the weirdest initiative is that the state employs tuktuk drivers, who, for a nominal fee, take you to all the major tourist sights in an area, and receive extra payment in kind if they can get you to agree to enter either a state run spice garden or tea shop. You don’t even have to buy anything, simply stepping in to the shop means rice for your tuktuk driver!

So when we walk to the bus station in Kumily, preparations for Onam have already begun and everyone’s in their Sunday best. Munnar in the Western Ghats is about a hundred km north, which should be about a 4 hour drive over winding mountain roads, but unfortunately, due to heavy rainfall which has caused a landslide to block off the main road, our bus is stopping at Pooppara, a tiny little village about 30km from Munnar. After a few attempts we find a local bus to take us on the scenic 60km route to Munnar where we arrive before nightfall.

Munnar is in the heart of tea country, and nicknamed the Kashmir of South India, but the town (a big, giant eyesore) and the surrounding area (valleys draped in a rich tapestry of tea plantations) are like night and day.

The electrician awoke. Thankfully it was only a bad dream.

Suffice to say we’re not spending more time in town than we have to and book our tour with the Tourism Council, which conveniently takes us to all the worthwhile sights – and every dam, there are a lot – in the area.

Kerala has been a great start to our India adventure, next up we’re preparing to explore the opposite end of the country: Rajasthan.

In the home of Tigers

Kumily, 9-10 September

A two hour ferry journey, followed by a four hour bus journey takes us from the backwaters of Alleppey to the elevation of the Cardamom Hills. We’re staying in a place called Kumily, which is a small gateway town between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and also where the entrance to Periyar Tiger Reserve is.

After the heat and chaos of Alleppey, visiting the cool and quiet hill country is an absolute treat. The name of the Cardamom Hills comes from the cardamom spice that grows here alongside pepper, coffee and of course plenty of tea. Passing by some breathtaking scenery on the way here it’s no wonder this is a World Heritage Site.

Not only the climate is better, compared to our last stay the new hotel is a breath of fresh air too. The balcony has an actual view this time and there’s loads of cheeky bonnet macaques running about in the gardens. Add a hot shower in the mix and Alleppey is nothing but a distant memory anymore.

In September, all National Parks in India are closed for the season, except for Periyar. The protected area covers 925 square km and is home to as many as 40 tigers. Obviously we would love to see one, but given the fact we’re only trekking for one day, we’re still in the rainy season, and the park is humongous, this proves to be too much to ask for. The park is beautiful though and we manage to spot Malabar Giant Squirrels, Nilgiri Langurs, Sambar Deer and Indian Bisons, and a lot of Elephant droppings, but just no Elephants..

We finish off a day well-spent with a lake cruise inside the park, held up by a group of Germans (not so punctual on holiday are they?)

As night falls on the pleasant little town of Kumily we’re preparing for what will already be our final destination in Kerala. Tomorrow is the big celebration of the Onam festival and we’re travelling north to Munnar.