Saturday, March 18, 2017

My cup of tea

Back in the Himalayas, this time near Tibet! Darjeeling in West Bengal is another hill station, at 2100 meters, built on the side of a mountain. I can see the 8500m Kanchenjunga mountain from my hotel. The suites in the Dekeling Resort are incredibly comfortable, in 130-year old wooden buildings. During a heavy thunderstorm I had fires going in both fireplaces, listening to the rain drumming on the roof.

Darjeeling is in India, but almost all the faces here are Tibetan or Nepali. The dominant religion is Tibetan Buddhism. The two main roads wide enough to carry traffic are unbelievably choked with SUVs, but since the place is so steep there are narrow alleys and loooong stairways all over then place.

The main attraction - beside tea - is a British-era 60cm narrow-gauge train called the Toy Train. Its steam locomotive is wheezing down the hill to Ghum, just a few km away but the train is slow and the scenery pretty. At one point, it does a 360-degree loop to get over an especially steep section.

Friday, March 17, 2017

To burn in Varanasi

Varanasi is the most holy Hindu city. It is here where Hindus bathe in the Ganges, and where bodies are cremated in open fires on the Burning Ghats, stairs that lead down into nthe river. Much of Varanasi's waterfront is a series of ghats, often backed by palaces. Boats go out on the river with a great view of the fires - I saw ten of them going - and the daily celebrations with chanting and dances. Bathing, praying, and dying in Varanasi is a ticket to Nirvana in Hindu belief.

The old town begins on top of the ghats. It's narrow in the south and widens to a large neighborhood in the north. It's a dense maze of narrow twisting alleys, often so narrow that I can touch the walls on both sides. It's very easy to get lost even with GPS. The buildings are very old, poorly maintained - I saw some that have collapsed - and very uneven. The alleys are crowded with people at shop fronts, cows, and of course motorcycles. Lots of trash, because there was no collection during the Holi festival they say, but I am not sure I believe that.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Festival of colors

Holi is the Hindu spring festival of colors and love. Years ago I have been in India during Holi so I knew what to expect and bought a big white shirt to wear that day. Everybody carries a small plastic bag with brightly colored powder, which they dab on other people's for heads and cheeks in liberal quantities, wishing a Happy Holi. Soon everybody is a riot of colors.

Children find this inefficient. They mix the color powder with water and fill bottles, balloons, and water pistols to do maximum damage. Everyone's clothes, the streets, and even the cows are soon covered in red, purple, or yellow colors. For some reason my big white shirt seems to have attracted a lot of extra attention, and my face was changing colors every few minutes.

Holi cow

...Kühe sind lila.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

How to make bread

Here is how to make Indian Puri bread. First you need a restaurant with a kitchen. Form a small ball of dough with wheat, water, salt, and oil. Flatten it and throw it on the inside of your buried tandoor oven, where it will stick to the wall. Pull it out with a long poker after two minutes, rub some butter on it, and add a pinch of salt. Very fresh, very tasty. Pro tip: don't let the customer see the chai sieve that looks like a rat had died in it years ago (not shown).

Monday, March 13, 2017

Sex sells

My hotel in Khajuraho is so much more pleasant than the one in Gwalior! I have a door that leads into their beautiful garden. It's also only a few minutes from the Western Temple Complex.

Khajuraho has 22 temples, all a thousand years old and in almost mint condition. The ornamentation, the multiple bands of statues all around the temples, the friezes with elephants and warriors, and the interior is almost perfectly preserved, in sharp detail with almost no weathering. No surface here is flat, other than the floor. It's absolutely incredible, and a UNESCO world heritage.

The statues are not quite what you would expect in, say, a church. There are various gods, and thousands of curvaceous women in exotic dancing poses - this has got to be bad for the back, especially for women as top-heavy as these! And it doesn't stop there, many panels are clearly taken for the Kama Sutra, with a preference for the more complicated poses, and some are just orgies in sandstone.

We are lucky that the Mughals never took control here; Islam is even more prudish than Facebook and would have wiped out this architectural wonder.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Datia Fort

Between Gwalior and Khajuraho is a small rural village with a huge hulking Fort, at Datia. The entrance leads to a series of big dark caverns and wide stairways and arches, more felt than seen in the darkness. Two floors up it opens to a large square with connecting walkways, in various stages of charming disrepair. The central tower rises up to seven floors. Balconies with stone grilles look out far over the countryside. Some rooms still have the original paintwork. One large hall, the painting gallery, is behind heavy wooden doors locked with a massive chain and padlock. I know the door is heavy because the guard picked it up and heaved it to the side so I could enter, without paying any attention to the lock. This place was very beautiful before it was abandoned.

Sun State

The Sun State Hotel in Gwalior is the second-worst hotel in the world. Its business is tip extraction. First the guy who didn't carry my bag for carrying my bag, then the guy who replaced the unused towel with another unused towel for replacing my towel just after getting to the room. The room has hot water but the hot water isn't working so I got a bucket. Much later someone unlocked the door I had locked and stood in the room demanding a tip for that too. There are soggy bricks in the bathtub that fell from a hole in the ceiling.

(The prize for the worst hotel goes to that windowless cell with half-collapsed ceiling in Yuncheng, China, a few years ago, where the receptionists moonlight as prostitutes and I had one standing in my room at midnight who didn't like being thrown out.)

Maharaja Palace

The big attraction of Gwalior is its big fort on top of the hill above the city. Once it was one of the most beautiful in Madhya Pradesh, with intricately carved sandstone walls, covered with mirrors and precious stones. The the Islamic Mughals came and took them all away. But some of the tiles survived, and with its many towers, arched rooms, and courtyards with carved balconies it still looks exactly as a maharaja's palace is supposed to look like. They also have a museum on site that charges 7 cents admission, but it's easily worth twice that.

Today the maharaja, when he is in Gwalior, lives in a new palace in the city. Part of it is now the Jai Vilas museum, where all the maharaja stuff is shown: fully furnished banquet halls with ten-ton chandeliers (they put eight elephants on the roof before hanging them, to test the roof), a glass model railway running down the dining room table to serve drinks, coaches, dresses, the works. I was late, and behind me they were shutting off the lights and locking every room after I left it, spooky. Outside, I met a traveler from Jaipur, check out his blog:

Chatted with some local students in town who wanted to practice their English. One was very excited that last year, the existence of gravity waves was finally conclusively proven as predicted by Albert Einstein ("Einsteen") a hundred years earlier, and he also thought that Adolf Hitler is the beloved current king of Germany.