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Norway 2022

Living Daylight

all seasons in one day 10 °C
View Norway 2022 on david.byne's travel map.

This was a trip that we had waited three years for. Booked in 2019. We eventually packed our cases in June 2022 for the taxi ride to Gatwick and a short flight to Bergen in Norway.

The cute port of Bryggen in Bergen is a World Heritage site and having been there with work some years before I can confirm that it is certainly worth a day or two if you have the time. However, we were straight out of the airport on this occasion and onto the shuttle bus that would take us to the Hurtigruten Terminal where we would be organised for boarding our ship, the MS Nordkapp.

The MS Nordkapp is one of a fleet of ships operated by Hurtigruten and their trip described as “The world’s most beautiful voyage” was our choice of holiday. The ship would take us from Bergen all the way North, inside the Arctic Circle, to the port of Kirkenes, a border town with Russia. It stops at 34 ports on the Northbound journey and the same 34 on the Southbound journey. Invariably, those that you see during your waking hours while travelling North will be the places that the ship stops at while passengers sleep on the Southbound leg and vice versa,
This voyage is undertaken by the Hurtigruten fleet on almost every day of the year. Aside from being a ship used for the benefit of a few tourists, it is also the Post Boat i.e it delivers the post up and down the Norwegian Coast; additionally, it is effectively a Cargo Vessel (delivering whatever supplies need to be moved up and down the country) and also provides a bus/ferry service for both car and foot passengers.

The MS Nordkapp carries a maximum of 400 people and for hardened cruise lovers would probably be regarded as a bit basic whereas for others, like us, it was a luxury ferry without the entertainment and formality of the large cruise ships. Having said that, the excellent crew and staff on board busy themselves in such a well-rehearsed manner that there are often many things to do during any downtime that may occur – should you need much more than the amazing scenery that is (?).
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The time of year is significant with this trip. Visiting as we were in June we found ourselves (knowingly I may add) in the middle of their two-month period of total daylight (which runs from the end of May to the end of July). From the end of November until the end of January nature balances its books and you can enjoy 24 hours of total darkness. As grim as this may sound you would of course benefit from having the greatest chance to see the Northern Lights.

It doesn’t take long on board to forget what day it is – and this is almost encouraged by constant reference to it being Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 etc rather than Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or whatever.

Our cabin was more than adequate. We had an Arctic Superior cabin on Deck 6 and this gave us easy access to the Sun Deck, viewing lounge, Explorer Bar and also the ship’s cafe (all on Deck 7). Deck 5 is the only deck that we could walk all the way around the ship (useful for photographs) while Deck 4 had the restaurants, kitchen, shop and lecture rooms.

The food is prepared on board by a group of very capable chefs and the extremely fresh ingredients are all locally sourced, often from the ports of call during the voyage. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all excellent with salmon and other fish being a predictable feature on the menu along with Reindeer!

Right, on with the trip. We departed Bergen around 20:30 by which time dinner had been taken and we were settled into our cabin. Permanent daylight can of course be misleading but the wet weather as we departed Bergen detracted from the obvious scenery as we headed towards midnight.

By the time we woke from our first night the ship had visited and departed three of the thirty-four ports. The fourth, Alesund, was reached during breakfast but we stayed for a mere 15 minutes before sailing on towards Gerainger.

As a part of our booking, we had chosen several excursions from the boat. The first of these on Day 2 happened to be the longest. We would disembark the ship at Gerainger at 14:30 and meet up with it again in Molde, approximately seven hours later.

Trips off of the boat either involve walking or a coach ride (or very occasionally a small boat). Today for us would be a coach ride with several stops. Primarily, we wanted to see the Gerainger Fjord and the surrounding viewpoints plus the Trollstigen Pass. It was a terrific day with an unexpected highlight of several metres of snow still occupying the higher land of the Pass.
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As we were late back, dinner was supplied at a restaurant during the excursion. However, with it still as light as midday the Sun Deck and the Explorer Bar would soon become a regular place to relax until common sense determined that it really was time to get some sleep.
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On Day 3 we would reach Trondheim via, in the middle of the night, a stop at Kristiansund. The ship stops for three hours in Trondheim and, although we had no excursions booked, it was an opportunity to spend some time off the boat and walk into town independently. The ship can usually supply a tear-off map of the towns so, using that, we found our way to the centre for a stroll, a coffee and a visit to the Cathedral. The walk back took us a different route back over the river and views of the colourful warehouses on the waterfront.
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Four more ports came and went during the night and before we took breakfast on Day 4. We had another excursion booked when we docked at Bodo. Again, the weather wasn’t being at all generous and, maybe as a result, the sight-seeing tour of Bodo was a bit uninspiring. However, it was the visit to Saltstraumen that was the real motivation for this excursion. The strait of Saltstraumen is the site of a convergence of several different currents which has, on occasions, seen small boats consumed by its whirlpool effect.
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The ship left Bodo mid-afternoon and headed for Stamsund and Svolvaer (the Lofoten Islands). The Lofoten Islands were a ‘must see’ for me but we would wait for this treat until the Southbpund leg of the journey. Day 4 was also the day when we crossed into the Arctic Circle. The ship’s crew don’t let you forget it and hold am entirely voluntary ceremony on Deck & to mark the event,
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Five more ports later and we arrived at Tromso (on Day 5). With a population of 75,000 people Tromso is effectively the capital of the Arctic Circle. Sightseeing in the city took in the Cablecar, the Cathedral and the Polar Museum and Aquarium. Tromso is a place that I really enjoyed and felt it was somewhere that I could live.
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That evening we witnessed the “land of the Midnight Sun” for the first time. It was the best day we had had in terms of weather and the light at midnight and beyond was magical. It coincided with our short diversion into the Trollfjorden. It was here that the Captain of the ship ‘showed off’ a bit by turning the ship 360 degrees three times at the end of the fjord (which was little wider than the ship itself) to allow passengers to take the photos they wanted.
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Day 6: Skjervay, Oksfjord, Hammerfest and Havoysund preceded our arrival at the port of Honningsvag. Honningsvag also gave us our first close-up of Reindeer as a herd ran through the town as we were disembarking the ship. Regarded as a nuisance in town the Reindeer numbers have to be controlled but, of course, that is hardly an issue with them being such a key source of food in Norway.

We took the excursion and were on our way to the North Cape. Basically, the North Cape is the last accessible point in a Northerly direction before you reach the North Pole. It is marked by an iron globe monument and has a visitor centre with a café and one or two other attractions including a tiny chapel and museum.

Whale spotting isn’t unheard of in this part of the world and while the ports of Kjollefjord, Mehamn, Berlevag, Batsfjord, Vardo and Vadso were ticked off we had our first sight, albeit distant, of a pod of Orcas. However, a flashing dorsal fin gave us hope of further sightings during the rest of the voyage.

The sight of Fish Farming was now a regular feature, Visible on a regular basis, the circular and square containers were just visible on the surface of the water, marked usually by small floats . Predominantly Salmon but occasionally Haddock these farms helped ensure that the fish we were enjoying on-board was always super-fresh.

The final destination on the Northbound half of the voyage is the town of Kirkenes. We reached Kirkenes on Day 7. A border town with Russia, 10% of the population are indeed of Russian descent and our stop of three hours allowed us the time to find our own way around the town while others took the excursion to the Border or the alternative hike to the higher points locally. We headed once again for the centre of town and the nearest coffee shop and inevitable church. At times it’s just enjoyable to walk independently and relatively aimlessly for a while and see what we find, especially as the weather had been much kinder since the first two days of the trip.

After Kirkenes, the boat turns and begins to travel South and returns to Vardo in late afternoon, having only been there at 03:30 that morning. With no time to get off and see the small fishing villages we were quickly on our way to and from Batsfjord, Berlevag, Mehamn, Kjollefjord, Honningsvag and Havoysund en route to Hammerfest once again on what was now Day 8.

Hammerfest is defined as the Northern most town in the world. On approach to Hammerfest you will see the most expensive project in Northern Norway. The construction of the large liquefied natural gas site on Melkøya island has resulted in an economic boom and new optimism in Hammerfest in recent years, a stark contrast to the economic downhill and negative population growth most other municipalities in the area are experiencing.
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Rumours were flying around among passengers about a sighting of a couple of Hump-Back Whales but I have no firm evidence to confirm the claim. However, it wasn’t long before the Ship’s Expedition Team were announcing that Minke Whales could be seen on the Starboard Right-hand side of the ship. At last, a proper sighting as the Whale rose and fell in the water, arching its back around 300 metres away from the ship.

Our stop at Hammerfest was just under two hours and then we were sailing once more; this time towards Oksfjord, Skjervoy and Tromso where we would arrive around midnight on Day 8. Having seen Tromso on the Northbound voyage we were keen to see it at the time of the midnight sun. We wouldn’t disembark but the Arctic city is quite attractive with it’s Cathedral and bridge being the focal points against a background of steep snow-capped mountains. It was another lovely evening with a few more photos capturing more memories of a great trip.
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During the voyage we attended several of the lectures given by the on-board Expedition Team. These included sessions on Whales, Seabirds, the Fishing Industry and also the Politics related to the Norwegian Oil and Gas industries. The Expedition Team also gave daily updates on the weather and forthcoming points of interest and the excursions available.

I can’t speak highly enough of those working on the ship. They were all friendly, helpful and very good at what they do.

Finnsnes and Harstad were two small villages that passed us by in both directions on the voyage. Both were very quick stops and both were at inconvenient times but even dockings such as these can be fun to witness from the deck as various things are unloaded and loaded onto the ship. On one occasion, about a dozen high-performance cars were driven on-board. Of various makes and colours and all with equal shine the cars and their owners were annual regulars on the trip. They travel for around 24 hours and then disembark to undertake whatever tour they have decided upon ‘in convoy’. Ferraris, Porsches, and Lamborghinis all made their way as we pushed off towards our next port of call.
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Day 9 and we were heading back towards the Lofoten Islands calling first at Risoyhamn, Sortland and Stokmarknes before reaching Svolvaer at 18:30 in the evening. We had decided to take the tour and were really pleased we did as the Lofoten Islands were a highlight. On a global scale they represent a tiny dot on the map but they have an excess of outstanding scenery, assisted at last by the weather which also was lovely, The fish racks were becoming a fairly regular sight as we sailed North on the voyage. You do see them before you smell them – but only just. Our transport for the tour took us to Stamsund to meet up with the ship again some 4 hours later. The evening meal had been supplied as a part of the excursion at a restaurant and again the quality of both the food and the hospitality were high.
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We had only spent two full days on-board and Day 10 was also quite a quiet day for us. However, after brief stops at Bodo, Ornes, Nesna and Sandnessjoen we would return to Bronnoysund where the ship would dock for two and a half hours. So, with tear-off map in hand, we made our way into the small but very tidy town on a lovely bright Norwegian day, By now you can probably guess the routine: Stroll, Town Centre, Church, Coffee Shop. Having said that, Bronnoysund had the addition of a lovely decked promenade so we completed a circular walk by following the prom back to the ship with the busy harbour and numerous small but nearby islands adding to the scene.
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With just ten ports including Bergen to call at we were already reflecting on what we had done and seen and how this trip had been more than worthwhile. The tenth day ended with a 9 p.m. stop at Rorvik before a nine hour sail to Trondheim, a town that we enjoyed on the Northbound voyage. We stayed in Trondheim again for three hours but between 06:30 and 09:30 it was a bit early this time around and clashed with breakfast. Furthermore, we knew we were getting off at the next port of Kristiansund and it was from here that we took our Day 11 excursion to the Atlantic Road. We would meet up with the ship again in Molde some four hours later.
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The Atlantic Road has recently become better known for its part at the end of the latest James Bond movie “No time to die”. The road joins a number of small islands over a 9 km stretch and the scenery is breath-taking although nothing unusual for the outstandingly attractive Norwegian Coastline.

Again, we had our evening meal off the ship at a nice fish restaurant before heading for Molde and a quick tour of the city before getting back on the ship.

We stopped at Alesund late on Day 11 and left in the early hours of Day 12. Alesund looks a nice town but was one that got away in terms of only ever seeing it from Deck 7 on the ship. The villages of Torvik, Maloy and Flora would get us to breakfast on the final day – Day 12. Thereafter, it’s a straight run of 6 hours at sea to our destination of Bergen.
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We docked in Bergen at 14:45 with some initially disappointing news. Our flight back to the UK at 7 o’clock that evening had been cancelled due to a Technician’s strike at the airline. Hurtigruten are generally a very impressive company and they immediately stepped up to the plate and sorted out a hotel for the night in Bergen plus new flights the following day. The disappointment of not getting home when expected soon became an opportunity for us to spend some time in Bergen. Our hotel was walking distance from the airport and Hurtigruten organised the transfer there for us. For there we got ourselves to the Bryggen in Bergen and enjoyed a few hours there which we didn’t expect to have. A small bonus.
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We eventually arrived back in the UK at 3 pm the following day on a flight from Bergen that took us first to Stockholm to pick up the flight to London. A bit of an inconvenience? Maybe, but nothing could detract from the pleasure gained from the world’s most beautiful voyage. I can recommend it, so much so that we have already spoken about taking the same trip in a few years’ time in the Winter, probably November, to enjoy the different things that the opposite season can offer. We will see.

Posted by david.byne 11:00 Archived in Norway Tagged landscapes waterfalls mountains bridges churches buildings skylines animals birds sky snow boats architecture Comments (0)

JORDAN 2019

“WE ARE THE SWITZERLAND OF THE MIDDLE EAST”

sunny 25 °C
View Jordan - March 2019 on david.byne's travel map.

An eight day visit to the Middle East in the spring.
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Jordan was our destination which, given the lack of stability in so much of that region of the world, may be stating the obvious to some.

Flying into Amman, Jordan’s capital city, we were to then move on to The Dead Sea, Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba before flying back to Amman to fly home.
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So, Amman was our first stop. Introduced to our guide, Ibrahim, he would stay with us for the journey from Amman to Aqaba and in-between before leaving us to our own devices in Aqaba which would effectively be a couple of beach/pool days for us at the end of the trip. Ibrahim was a priceless source of information.

Amman is an interesting city. No high-rise as such so a bit of a sprawl in many ways but containing so much history within it. We took a city tour and visited their Blue Mosque and the ancient amphitheatre as well as seeing much of the everyday life going about its business.
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When considering whether to go to the Middle East or not and then planning the trip it was difficult to rid ourselves completely of a slight apprehension in venturing to a part of the world that is almost landlocked within territories that have and still are experiencing such turbulent times. A couple of days in Amman helped remove that last lingering element of apprehension.

The people are friendly and so too is the climate ….. in March and April. But beware, temperatures a month or wo later can reach 50 degrees in the shade.
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On our second day in Jordan’s capital city we travelled about one hour outside to the town of Jerash. Comparable to The Forum in Rome, Jerash presents an impressive area of Roman ruins that once formed the old town. Substantially complete roads and pillars leave slightly less to the imagination than does The Forum when trying to cast the mind back to what it may have looked like in its heyday.
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Photographically, much of the landscape around the ruins was awash with Rapeseed when we were there, adding colour to the scenery.
Back in the city for the night we prepared to travel the following morning down to The Dead Sea. On route we stopped at Mount Nebo to take in the view. Jordan and Israel were originally combined as The Holy Land before separation and Mount Nebo is a memorial to where Moses stood looking across The Dead Sea to Israel on the other side as he neared his goal of reaching Jerusalem.
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It was a short drive from here to our hotel on The Dead Sea where we spent just a single night. This was still time enough to experience floating in the water, taking in the view across to Israel and covering ourselves in the mud; you know, healing properties and all that!!
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Fully rinsed, showered and dressed for dinner, the temperature was gradually warming up as we worked our way south from northerly Amman.

After breakfast on day four the road to Petra, many people’s highlight of a visit to Jordan, beckoned. It was a longish journey with a few stops (including a Crusader’s Castle at Qalat Ash Shawbak and an ancient church mosaic in Madaba) en route and Ibrahim came into his own with the history of Petra and the surrounding areas proving both informative and interesting. There was just enough time to visit Little Petra before finding our next hotel where we would stay for two nights.
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The hotel in Petra was in the design of a walled village consisting of individual chalets plus the obligatory reception, dining area, pool etc etc and it made a change from the slightly more expected and predicable designs of 4 and 5 star hotels around the world.

We made an early start following an even earlier breakfast for the very short trip to Petra - deliberately early to beat the anticipated convoy of coaches that tend to arrive at a given time each day. The distance to The Registry from the main entrance is a good 25 minute walk although reined horse and horse & carriage alternatives are options for those wanting a slightly faster arrival.
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To be honest, the walk is worth it if it’s not too hot because the landscape builds and sets you up for what is at The Registry and beyond. Petra is a huge site and in seven hours we didn’t see anything close to all of it but we at least felt that we did it justice in that time. Again, Ibrahim supplied the narrative to the city as we walked its roads and entered the various tombs and palaces.
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There are also places to eat and drink and even a few shops to pacify most of us. Throw in a few camels (that can be hired) and one or two other surprises and Petra doesn’t disappoint; it is so much more than the photograph we have all seen.
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By the time we were strolling back to the exit the temperature at Petra had warmed significantly and even at 3 pm there were visitors entering the site which closed at 5. After seven hours we had probably seen approximately 50% of what Petra had to offer.

Our next stop exploring Jordan was the movie set that is Wadi Rum. In effect a dried-up river bed with geological features seen in films such as ‘The Planet of the Apes’, ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ and ‘Star Wars’.

Along the road towards Wadi Rum we stopped at the train featured in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, another film shot in this area, and also a ranch keeping Arab horses.
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We were then back on the road to our hotel at Aqaba, the Red Sea resort, for a couple of day’s relaxation. Apart from the hotel, the pool and the beach there was also the town of Aqaba itself, within easy walking distance of where we were staying. And so the Souk would be our first target. Several shops and Dinars later and a café stop was well-earned. The Intercontinental Hotel matched the consistently good quality of the other hotels we had stayed in while in Jordan.
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The Jordanian food and drink was very good although alcohol is predictably expensive. The people were very friendly and the service we received was also very good. And we found the country to generally be a very neat and tidy place, regarded by many Jordanians as ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’. Not for its snow-capped mountains (obviously) and lakes, nor for its economy but more for the fact that they sit in neutral isolation among the countries around it simply because it is a country without oil; a fairly unique position in the area. They feel safer as a result as, to their mind, they have little of what anybody else wants and evidence to-date would appear to support that belief.
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What they do have however is a rising sense of tourism with 2018 being a record year for tourists and 2019 looking almost certain to beat it. Visiting Jordan certainly ticked our Middle East box and without massive expense. The eight days that we had and enjoyed were probably just about right. It is doubtful it will make our list of places that we want to return to but we are so pleased that we did it the once.
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Posted by david.byne 12:06 Archived in Jordan Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises beaches churches buildings people birds trains architecture religion city Comments (1)

The Maldives - 2017

Baros, a little bit perfect

sunny 32 °C
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Our flight from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Male Maldives took less than ninety minutes. From Male we would then transit by speedboat to the island of Baros for four nights and days of unprecedented luxury following a busy 12 days touring Sri Lanka.

Met upon arrival at the airport our bags were swiftly removed from our keeping and placed invisibly on board our boat. All on board, we left the quayside at Male and moved towards the empty horizon. Quickly, it became apparent that all was not well and the pilot of our speedboat explained that he wasn’t happy with the gearbox and that we would be provided with a better vessel for our journey to Baros.
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Baros Maldives20170004


Within a few minutes a gleaming white boat with BAROS in Gold lettering on the side arrived and we transferred mid’ Indian Ocean to resume the 30 minute transfer. This time the boat purred and gradually accelerated to propel us through the water at speed until, with the jetty at Baros in clear view, we slowed to a sedate cruise until we pulled in and tied up.

Two members of the Baros staff were there to meet and greet us by name and escort us to Reception for check-in and a glass of ‘bubbles’. Our bags remained invisible until we reached our room a little later on.
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Baros Maldives20170091


With the arrival formalities completed we were then taken on a short tour of the facility by Fee (our Room Host) and by the time we reached our pre-selected water villa we knew precisely where the three restaurants were, where the pool was, where the gym, the spa, the marine centre, the boutique, the Sails Bar and the Palm Court area were. And we were in no doubt that nothing would be too much trouble.
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Baros Maldives20170158


At full occupancy Baros only accepts 150 guests to occupy the 300 staff. For our stay occupancy was at 50% (not high season). Everything was in our favour. The water villa was everything we had hoped for and, as we discovered, was constantly refreshed with fruit, water, tea, coffee and cookies.
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Baros Maldives20170252


The air conditioning in the room was very effective. Baros is as close as we had ever been to the Equator, just 4 degrees above, and it was very hot, even when cloudy but it didn’t matter as we literally had nothing to do for four days. Maybe a bit of reading, a visit to the Spa or the Gym, a Yoga Session or two, maybe some snorkelling and walks around the perimeter of the island; this took around ten minutes each time. Beyond all of that it was all about the relaxation, the food, the drink and the service.
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Baros Maldives20170198


The room appeared to be tidied almost every time we left it for a while, even to the extent that the towels were changed as many times as you used them during the day but the staff never interrupted your privacy to get their work done. Only at around 6 pm would you hear a knock on your villa door and it was the member of the service staff responsible for your villa asking if you needed your room tidied and checking that everything was ok.
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Baros Maldives20170093


Our third day on Baros was also our wedding anniversary (37th) and we started the day with a glass of sparkling wine with breakfast. Jan tried snorkelling and saw many fish including two bright Blue in colour that we were later told were Jack Fish. We walked clockwise around the island and took photos before stopping for a beer around lunchtime; something that had slotted nicely into our daily routine. We found no need for any lunch because breakfast was so good, as was the food in the evening. And with fruit in the room we simply didn’t need any more than half board in The Maldives.
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Baros Maldives20170258


Later that day we attended a Cocktail Party hosted by the management team on the island. This preceded dinner which we took at The Lighthouse Restaurant. All three restaurants are very good but The Lighthouse offers Gourmet Dining and scores just that bit higher than the other two. During the meal (which was fantastic) we were presented with a cake to mark our anniversary and a couple on the next table (whom we had spoken with very briefly) wanted to buy us a drink and a small bottle of champagne was delivered to our table. One of the starters that we ordered was cooked and flambéed at the table and while we ate our main courses an Eagle Ray swam past, then a smaller Ray followed by two small Black-Tipped Reef Sharks. Brilliant!!
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Baros Maldives20170269


It was a good day and a great evening and on return to the water villa the staff had been into the room again, delivered the cake back to the room, tidied up and decorated the bed with a ‘Happy Anniversary’ message written in palm leaves and flowers.

The following day was our final full day on Baros. It was very hot but after breakfast we decided to walk around the island again. We walked anti-clockwise this time, just to make it a bit different and we saw crabs, a chameleon-like lizard and some water fowl. We also saw Fruit Bats flying around the trees in the middle of the day. At the Marina Centre we stopped and chatted to one of the management team who had worked in Fiji, The Seychelles and The Maldives and as we stood there talking a small shark appeared close-by in the water.

Jan wanted to go snorkelling again and also spend some time in the pool. She also took some underwater video and saw lots of different shapes and colours of coral, a sea cucumber, lots of very tiny coloured fish plus some larger bright Blue and multi-coloured ones. We finished drying off by the Pool at The Lime Restaurant with a beer and spent time enjoying one of our final few hours looking at the colours of the reef and the Indian ocean.
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Baros Maldives20170151


A Fish BBQ was being held at the Palm Court area in the evening so we booked to attend that as an alternative to an evening meal at one of the restaurants. It turned out to be a lovely way to spend our final evening despite the threat of some rain. We had one or two brief downpours during our stay but it held off for the majority of this evening and when it did finally rain we had the Sails Bar to run to for cover. The food from the BBQ was really good and the candlelit setting under the palm trees made it special. We finished the night with a drink while chatting to Grenville (Thynne) and Raha (Saber) who had travelled from Dubai and who had bought us the champagne at our anniversary meal the night before.
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Baros Maldives20170096


It had been an outstanding few days on Baros and from being very much a one-off treat when we left the UK it has now been added to the ‘must go back’ list of destinations. Added to what was a busy couple of weeks in Sri Lanka the entire trip sits among the best holidays that we have ever had. Better start saving!!

Posted by david.byne 12:46 Archived in Maldives Republic Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches trees animals birds night boats Comments (0)

Sri Lanka - 2017

It’s definitely not like India.

semi-overcast 32 °C
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Having spent an amazing holiday in Northern India back in 2014 thoughts for future trips had touched on Kerala in Southern India but we had a curiosity for the island of Sri Lanka and when it came to making a final decision we decided that Sri Lanka would probably offer us at least some of what we would experience in Kerala while at the same time tick another country off the bucket list.
So, with August being our only option for taking almost three weeks holiday, we climbed aboard the Sri Lankan Airlines plane at Heathrow bound for Colombo. Approximately 10 ½ hours later we were met and transferred on the very short journey to Negombo where we spent the rest of the day and our first night. Colombo and Negombo are both coastal and our hotel was right on the beach with the Indian Ocean crashing the life out of itself onto the rocks and sand. With time for a walk by the sea and another along the main road, stopping at a convenient bar along the way, it was a nice introduction to the island even though there really wasn’t sufficient time to unpack or even consider the hotel pool, despite the 30 degree heat.
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SriLanka20170005


After being extremely well fed at both dinner and then the following morning at breakfast we checked out and were met in the hotel lobby by Charma who was to be our driver and guide for the next 12 days.

Charma drove us to Habarana which took us several hours from the coast towards the centre of the island. On route we passed through areas farming rice, tobacco, mangos, coconuts, bananas and papayas while the landscape changed noticeably; something that would become a feature whenever we drove for two hours or more on Sri Lanka.

At Habarana, Cinammon Lodge would be our base for the next four nights. Set alongside a lake the grounds were extensive with the rooms being in separate units among trees and away from the Reception, Dining and Pool areas of the hotel. There is a nice walk alongside the lake and a cartload of Grey Monkeys are never too far away, often passing through the grounds ‘en masse’.
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SriLanka20170583


Charma did his best to point out anything of interest when we were driving between places and often stopped if he sensed our interest in anything particular. We stopped at both a Buddhist and Hindu temple but merely passed through the area at Kadjugama where the farmers were selling their Cashew Nuts at the roadside.

It was difficult not to start comparing our experience of India with what we were seeing in Sri Lanka but we soon decided that the two are very different and in no way did it ever feel like we were repeating something from three years before. It is true that there are as many Tuk-Tuk’s as there are in India but most look newer and in better condition. Also, the roads are better, life generally feels more orderly and organised, the towns and cities feel tidier and the climate slightly friendlier.

Charma was taking us to Polonnaruwa and as he drove pointed out two Jackals running across the road and he then pulled over to show us a couple of large Water Monitor’s, one of which emerged from a drain cover! Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s answer to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; a huge site with numerous palaces, temples and other buildings and this was to be one of our first proper sightseeing stops of the holiday. It was hot but some of the buildings are well preserved and worth seeing despite the ongoing requirement to keep removing shoes before entering each temple.
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SriLanka20170323


You generally see and hear three languages written and spoken in Sri Lanka; Sinhala, Tamil and English. 70% of the population are Buddhist, 12% Hindu. 12% Christian and 6% Muslim and this is reflected in what you see as you drive around this country of varying landscapes. Sri Lanka has been described as a ‘flat country with hills’ and I understand why but there is still so much variety in both the hills and the valleys if you travel just for a few hours by car.

A key attraction for us in Sri Lanka was the opportunity to see Elephants in their natural habitat so we planned to visit two wildlife parks while we were there and the first was at Kaudulla. The Jeep picked us up from Cinammon Lodge at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and after about 45 minutes’ drive we entered the park. It was another half an hour or more before we arrived at the water hole which we reached by crossing a riverbed. We had seen several birds plus a number of water buffalo, monkeys, a chameleon and a crocodile before we had sight of our first elephant but once across the riverbed we soon reached the main herd grazing in the open land near the water hole. There were probably twenty or thirty in the group and then several more appeared from out of the jungle, close to our jeep. A fight broke out between two of the elephants in the first group with one or two more supporting the aggressor in seeing-off the offending elephant, leaving it isolated from the herd. The elephants nearest our jeep were simply munching their way through the grass towards the others at the water hole but without really ever getting there. One or two jeeps got a little too close to one of the infant elephants and this brought a reaction with the adult elephants closing ranks around the infant and one or two of the remaining adults making their presence and anger known audibly as they walked toward the vehicles. The drivers reversed ……… quickly!
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SriLanka20170682-2


It had been a great experience getting up close (but not too close) to these huge animals but we didn’t outstay our welcome and turned to make our way out of the park. But first we had to cross that riverbed. We were one of the first to leave to exit the park …… but not the first. And by the time we reached the point at which to cross the riverbed there were already two other jeeps well and truly STUCK! Continually trying to reverse and move forward made their plight obviously worse and before long more than half the wheels on their jeeps were invisible and buried in the soft mud. Our driver was confident however. After all, we had a 4-wheel drive jeep and those already stuck didn’t so we would just fly across and be back to the hotel before we knew it. Wrong! Despite the determination ours suffered the same fate and before long there were 5 or 6, maybe 7 jeeps dormant at different points, all seeking to conjure up a way of escaping before sunset. Fortune was eventually forthcoming when after a few failed attempts by others, another jeep arrived with a motorised cable winch onboard and gradually the vehicles were all recovered with the exception of the very first victim which stayed buried until the following morning.
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SriLanka20170734


The food and service at Cinammon Lodge was excellent and breakfast the following day set us up for the challenge of Sigiriya, the Lion Rock - once made famous by Duran Duran (remember them?). It’s 1,200 steps to the top although there is a halfway point where you can have a second thought if you wish. Having said that, when you get halfway the remaining climb doesn’t look so bad and the curiosity of what the views are like at the top can prove too much – and it did. It was worth it. You can see for miles and miles, a flat country with hills!
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SriLanka20170153


Adjacent to Cinammon Lodge is the entrance to trails that lead to villages and a large lake and what is being sold as a ‘village safari’ so we didn’t have far to travel from our hotel when Charma took us to spend around three hours sampling village and jungle life. We began with a tuk-tuk ride that went off-road and delivered us to a Bullock and Cart ride that carried us uncomfortably further into the jungle to a river. There we got into a canoe that merely took us to the other side of the river. From here we walked to the village and sampled freshly made Coconut Roti before moving on to another boat trip, this time onto a large lake full of water lilies and from where you could see Sigiriya in the distance. From the boat we walked further to another village and had lunch of Lentil Curry, Banana Flower Curry and Water before ending the visit back where we began, just around the corner from Cinammon Lodge.

It had been a busy few days so far in Habarana and we still had the Dambulla Cave and Golden Temple to see and this turned out to be another highlight of our holiday in Sri Lanka. Without knowing much about Dambulla before we left the UK we had been assured that it was well worth the steps that you have to climb to see it. The Golden Temple is at the bottom and you can see this from the roadside but the steps to the cave are accessed via a car park. We had seen some rain during the morning and it was threatening more as we started to climb. The weather was consistently warm but with the change in terrain there was often a hint of possible showers during the day and of course when it does decide to rain in these parts of the world, it really rains! Maybe not for long but it certainly lets you know it.
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SriLanka20170471


Grey Monkeys lined the wall of the steps as we made our way up to the cave. At the top it was fairly busy with Sri Lankan people queuing to make offerings to the priest. Others lit the Coconut Oil candles while some made their way to each of the accessible cave areas. It was still raining which made the removal of shoes at the entrance to the area suddenly more uncomfortable than usual. Regardless, we made our way to the series of caves. Each one was created in a different age but all depicted Buddha in a number of poses. The first cave was by far the oldest and the best. It was also the one that Sri Lankan people focussed primarily on to worship and pray.

Dambulla was clearly an important religious site for Sri Lankan Buddhists and our visit signalled the end of our stay in Habarana apart from an evening meal, a good night sleep and a breakfast. The following morning we travelled to Kandy where the weather is slightly cooler.

Kandy is a nice city in a picturesque valley which has at its focal point a large lake around which everything revolves. Our hotel was the Earls Regency, just outside Kandy but still within view of the lake. The Sri Lankan Cricket Team were staying at the same hotel and training there ahead of two One Day Internationals against India. Our prime objective when visiting Kandy was to see a bit of the city and the lake but also to visit the Temple of the Tooth. However, before that we attended a cultural show in the early evening, close to the temple.

As with similar shows all around the world the core of the event is singing and dancing and local musical instruments. Here in Kandy we also had ‘fire walking’ added to the programme. We had front row seats and on a day that had been warmed enough already by the sun the addition of petrol to the burning embers on the path of fire almost took your breath away. From the theatre we took the short walk to the Temple of the Tooth. It looked especially dramatic at night, lit up by both spotlights and also rows of Coconut Oil candles.

Shoes off again we ventured inside to where the ceremony was just beginning. People kept arriving and soon we were in the midst of quite a crowd albeit well placed near the front. Much drumming ensued and the participants including orange-clad Buddhist monks made their approach up a few steps to the large solid silver doors that confined the ornate box containing Buddha’s tooth. There is quite a story surrounding the tooth and a nationally famous elephant called Rajah for those that want to research it.
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SriLanka20170965


Once the various participants are inside and the doors are closed the focus switches to upstairs where all attendees file past a viewing point from where to view the tooth, making offerings as they so wish to the officials lined nearby to receive them. Filing past involved quite a bit of jostling for position and basically standing ones ground as everybody fought for a better view in the brief moment that you get as you are carried along on a constantly moving human tide.

Eventually we were out the other end to retrieve our shoes and take a slow walk through the exterior of the temple and back to the car. Our evenings in Sri Lanka were all ‘free time’ and the hotels were all very comfortable and relaxing environments to spend time in with a drink before resting for the following day. The Earls Regency Hotel was one of my favourites during the trip.

The next morning, after breakfast, we had a late start and then went back to the city to visit the Peredeniya Botanical Gardens. Not necessarily at the top of my own ‘must see’ lists I must say that these gardens were as good as I have ever seen anywhere. It will also be remembered for one of the most unexpected moments during the holiday. The weather was a bit unpredictable and it started to rain while we were in the Orchid House. After standing and trying to decide on the driest route through the gardens we agreed on a pathway and started walking. A few minutes later an English voice called out “Will you stop running away from us!”. We turned around and it was a couple (John and Megan) who we had spent time with on a holiday in China 12 months previously. It really can be a small world.
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SriLanka20171041


After spending an hour catching up with past acquaintances we met up again with Charma who declared that the rest of the day was ours and we could enjoy the pool at the hotel or basically do whatever we wanted. So, back at the hotel the Sri Lankan Cricket Team were in mid-training session in the pool so a book and a beer became the order of the day for a couple of hours while the Parakeets flew shuttle runs between the palm trees around the grounds of the hotel.

Nuwara Eliya and the Tea Plantations were our next destination. The town is the highest on the island and again, probably more predictably this time, the landscape and climate changed as we drove the two or three hours from Kandy. Gradually you climb higher and higher until you can literally be in the clouds. The area is dominated by tea with numerous plantations including substantial ones owned by the likes of Rothschild although the majority are now Sri Lankan owned. On the way we passed through various Hill Villages, saw many waterfalls including Ramboda Falls and stopped at one of the Tea Factories. It’s an interesting process and reminded us of the low quality ‘dust’ that we rely on in tea bags at home. Back outside and on the hills the female tea pluckers are busy at work accumulating the 10kgs of leaves that they need in their sack each day to satisfy their employers. Often from the North of the country the women have accommodation as part of their remuneration which obviously lasts for as long as they stay in work.
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Our hotel in Nuwara Eliya was the Heritance Tea Factory; literally a converted Tea Factory which still had some of the original features and working machinery. Set high in the hills, the views from the hotel are impressive and acted as the backdrop to a spectacular electric storm on our second night there. It still operates a small tea processing factory in a separate building and produces the tea served in the hotel from the leaves plucked from its own fields. Occasionally during the day we would hear a tune moving through the area. It turned out to be a larger version of a tuc-tuc selling breads and rolls from the local bakery.

Being slightly isolated at the Tea Factory, you really have to drive into the town for any activity and this is what we did. Charma drove us and we spent an hour or so just looking around the shops and the market. In addition to tea a huge quantity of vegetables is grown in this area and that was evident. Some of the buildings have more than a hint of British Colonialism about them, especially the Post Office and two large hotels at the back of the town. And judging by the amount of construction work underway Nuwara Eliya gives the impression of being a currently prosperous and upwardly mobile part of Sri Lanka.

We also spent an hour at Gregory Lake, a popular spot with locals who queue up for rides on a jetski. There was also a fair in place when we were there so it was generally quite busy despite the low cloud that suddenly engulfed the area and marked the end of our walk and time there. So, back to the hotel we went.

Following the storm the previous night the sky was much clearer and brighter when we woke up next morning - a relief as we had a long drive to Yala with an important stop along the way. We aimed to be at the Elephant Transit Centre at Udawalawe by midday to see the elephants being fed. This meant that Charma had to put his foot down a little while also allowing for the occasional photo stop. Through changing terrain and scenery we descended from the mountains toward what are the dry plains of the south. In some areas the hills, mountains and forests were reminiscent of Germany before the landscape changed again to a dry, sandy colour that made you think more of parts of Africa.

The transit centre was supported by the Born Free Foundation which kind of validated it in our minds. We arrived with about ten minutes to spare; well done Charma!! A purpose made platform was already well-filled with spectators (almost all Sri Lankan people) but we found a position from where we could see the elephants and take our photos. The elephants were allowed in to the feeding area in threes or fours. The first to be fed was an adult elephant that had featured on a BBC documentary just months before our visit. He had injured his foot and eventually had to have it amputated but had been given an artificial one that enabled him to walk around. Because of his condition he would never, unlike the others at the transit home, be eventually released back to the wild and he would spend the majority of his time in relative isolation away from the group simply for his own protection.
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SriLanka20171447-2


More and more were slowly moved through the feeding area. One over-enthusiastic baby elephant threw himself over the feeding gate in his frenzy to get at the milk being issued through a hose into their mouths. Lying in a heap on the wrong side of the feeding shed the greedy little ‘elly’ picked himself up and was ushered towards the water hole where those that had been suitably topped-up went next to wallow in the water and mud. It was a highly entertaining hour and by the end there must have been around 40 elephants in the area.

Moving on, we still had a little way to go before arriving at Cinammon Wild, our next hotel inside the Yala Wildlife Park. The rooms are small chalets scattered around an area in the park a little way from the main reception, dining and pool areas. You really are in the animals’ backyard at Cinammon Wild and one of the first things you see is the warning about crocodiles living in the vicinity. When checking-in you are also told that after dark you must not walk between the main hotel building and your room without an escort from the hotel. All of this focuses the mind on the dangers from not just the crocodiles but also the wild boar, the elephants, the monkeys and the water buffalo.
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SriLanka20171535


We were at Yala for two nights and had booked a half-day safari during our stay. The pool area looked out onto a large water hole which contained a few dead-looking trees and some large boulders (a feature of Sri Lanka it seemed). The water levels weren’t especially high and this created a currently arid water-bed around what was the water hole, allowing the brave or foolhardy that chose to ignore the crocodile warning the opportunity to get a bit closer to whatever was residing in and around the water. We saw Grey Monkeys, Chipmunks, Water Buffalo, Wild Boar, Crocodiles, Pelicans, and more, all without leaving the hotel. On one occasion the monkeys temporarily took over the pool area, scavenging whatever they could from the visitors.

We survived the night without incident or intrusion from the wildlife and had the morning free again to explore the nearby water hole. Four crocodiles basking on an island in the water hole, several water buffalo nearby and numerous birds either flying around or lazing on the water. All of this plus a chapter or two of a book by the pool took us through to lunch, then, it was time for the safari.

We at least didn’t have to travel far. Our Jeep picked us up from the hotel and we drove for 40 minutes or so and turned onto a long straight road, across a bridge over water, past an elephant posing for visitors and into the rough, uneven roads that mark the start of the wildlife park. Again, we chose the later safari rather than the sunrise option. This was on the advice that the majority of the animals stay well-hidden until the day warms up. Certainly we couldn’t complain about the numbers we had so far seen.
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We had around three hours in the park and left as the sun was setting and the shadows were long. More crocodiles, mongoose, monkeys, buffalo, deer, lots of elephants and many different birds including both Blue and Green Bee Eaters and the Asian Paradise Fly Catcher. Our driver received a message about a leopard at a water hole and sped along the dusty track to get there but alas we were five minutes too late. We stayed for around 20 minutes at the hole to see if the big cat would return but of course he didn’t. However, it had been a really good day.
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We had one more area to visit on our trip around Sri Lanka; namely Galle. Different again, Galle is on the coast and a key area for fishing. It was hot, around 37 degrees with 70% humidity. Our hotel, The Fortress, was possibly my favourite during our trip to Sri Lanka. Located in Koggala, just outside Galle, we arrived early afternoon and checked in to one of just 53 rooms in what is a huge building in a lovely location. In some ways, the trip had gone full circle with the Indian Ocean once again, as it did in Negombo, crashing against the rocks and sand to the rear of the hotel. We had some free time and made the most of the facilities with the pool and sunbeds complemented by being able to watch the turtles swimming and feeding close to shore on the seaweed between the rocks. The weather was changeable but it made for nice sunsets against which the silhouette of a single stilt fisherman stood out in the near distance.
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SriLanka20171796


After breakfast the following day Charma drove us to Galle where we did some sightseeing around Galle Fort and the adjacent lanes. We visited the Dutch Church, walked the ramparts and stopped on a couple of occasions for a drink over the space of a couple of hours. Back at The Fortress Hotel we enjoyed yet another great meal and sat watching the Indian Ocean again while the largest Bat (a Fruit Bat) either of us had ever seen flew over our heads. It marked the beginning of the end to our Sri Lankan holiday.
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Charma had been great for us during our stay and while in the area stopped at another temple, a Sri Lankan boatyard, Weligama Bay to see the stilt fisherman and an area that had suffered during the 2004 tsunami where we saw a memorial to those that had died as a result. He had also had a tough time personally during our 12 days together with his 3-year old son first breaking his arm falling from his bike and requiring an operation and then being diagnosed with Dengue Fever. He was worried for several days and took a couple of bus rides back to Colombo during the evenings from wherever we were to be with his family but he was always back promptly the following morning to help us enjoy our day. He also had to quickly break to avoid a pedestrian suddenly walking in front of the car as we headed south towards the end of our stay. Two policeman on motorbikes happened to be nearby and had they not seen that he was totally not to blame for the incident he could have suffered an automatic 14 days in prison, regardless of nobody being hurt in any way. He was quite shaken up and equally relieved at the outcome. Charma was a big part of what had been a really top holiday on the island of Sri Lanka.
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Charma’s final task was to drive us the following morning along the new and very impressive Southern Expressway to Colombo Airport from where we were due to catch a flight to Male and The Maldives for a few days. The Expressway left a good impression of the country as had the previous 11 or 12 days. And it definitely isn’t India.

Posted by david.byne 12:23 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches churches buildings trees animals birds sky boats architecture city Comments (0)

Extraordinary India and Wonderful Nepal (1)

Part 1 - India

sunny -38 °C

It’s just over 4,000 miles to Delhi from London; a mere eight and a half hours before you are plunged into a country of extremes which will eventually leave you exhausted and fascinated in equal measure. Whether it is the weather, the number of people, the traffic, the noise, the dust, the colours, India has it in truckloads. They have over 800 different languages shared around the 22 provinces and 22 religions with Hindu being the dominant force. Politically, India was just starting its General Election process as we arrived with the BJP attempting to wrestle power away from Congress.
The airport in New Delhi is recent, modern and thankfully efficient. We obtained our Visas prior to travelling although India will soon switch to a ‘visa on arrival’ system which may or may not be an advantage. Anyway, landed safely, reunited with baggage and met by our rep, we were soon on our way to the first hotel on our tour of Northern India and Nepal.
Delhi, like Istanbul and Cairo, is simply one of those cities that you shouldn’t even consider hiring a car. Our driver battled through the lunchtime traffic negotiating the five or six lanes of vehicles that evolved from the three that were marked on the road and the never-ending mash-up of cars, lorries, vans, tuk-tuk’s, bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles and cattle created a chaos that was audibly reinforced by the constant use of the horn as the drivers battled with one another.
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A_Delhi_001 (120)


It was warm , very warm, but protected by the air conditioning in the Hotel Suryaa for most of the first day we didn’t really notice just how warm India was until we met up with Vinod (guide) the following morning and stepped into 37 degrees. Vinod, along with Rajesh (driver) would keep us company for the next five days as we toured Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
Our visit to Delhi took us to the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (one of Asia’s largest mosques), Raj Ghat (a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and the place where he was cremated in 1948), Qutub Minar, Humayan’s Tomb, India Gate, the Parliament building, Rastrapathi Bhawan (the President’s residence), the old Viceroy’s Palace (the last viceroy being Lord Louis Mountbatten) and the very new Akshardham Temples. Looking up, the sky was full of large black birds that we eventually learned were Black Kites and they were everywhere to be found during our tour of India and Nepal. We travelled between the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort on a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of old Delhi dodging tuk-tuks, carts and cattle as we went. The narrow streets and large tangled knots of exposed electrical cables draped high across the roads were reminiscent of old Hanoi in Vietnam. Bicycle rickshaw driving is obviously a tough way to earn a living but our driver saw fit to regularly remind us as he pedalled us to the fort (not hinting for a tip then!!). Delhi and its noise, colour, heat, traffic and architecture had introduced us to India and given us a taste of what was to follow.
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A_Delhi_001 (18)


From Delhi we moved on to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, nicknamed The Pink City. It was a six hour drive but with so much to see that was new to us the time passed easily. You really do see a lot of life from the passenger seat of a car in some countries. No motorways as such so the main and minor roads had a lot to offer and gave us an insight into everyday life for rural India. On route to Jaipur we saw our first ‘working’ camel trudging along the road pulling its load, a sight that I probably didn’t expect to see. We also had our first sighting of a wild monkey taking shade under a tree followed soon after by an elephant, as we approached the outskirts of Jaipur, heavily lumbering its way up a hill in the mid afternoon heat. Camels, Monkeys and Elephants are commonplace in Jaipur as we soon discovered. The detailed facade of Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 as a royal grandstand for the palace women, stands out as you drive through the centre of town and from there it was a short journey to the Marriott Hotel.
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B_DelhiJaipur_001 (12)


The following morning we were to see the Amber Fort Palace but first we were going for an elephant ride which was great. Elephant and owner had been together for 26 years and clearly had an understanding which was more than I could say for me and the stalking photographer who busied himself as we left on our short ride and met us with a set of ten photographs on our return. Why I would want ten photographs of us on an elephant I will never know – especially at 2,500 Rupees (£25) for the set. I offered him 100 Rupees for one and to cut a very long story short left with all ten for 200 Rupees after a protracted discussion.
The Amber Fort Palace in Jaipur is a main attraction in the city and was a real highlight. A snake charmer sits outside and usually pulls in a crowd before you climb the hill and enter the main gate. Musicians lurk around another corner and street vendors with musical instruments and beads home in on you as you walk. Everywhere you go In India there seems to be somebody appearing from nowhere to sell something but a polite ‘No thank you’ generally worked. Failing that we had to resort to Vinod’s advice and that was to simply ignore them. There is a lot to see and appreciate at the Amber Fort but beware, there’s not much shade!
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C_Jaipur_001 (39)


City Palace was our next stop as the sun really started to warm things up. It’s a huge complex covering approximately one seventh of the walled city of Jaipur and combines Mughal (Mongol) and Indian architecture. Men in costume playing traditional instruments and women in sari’s hang around the most photogenic backdrops; some deliberately to pose for a photo for a small tip while the highly detailed and coloured architecture also keeps the camera busy and without the need for money to change hands! One of the palace buildings has an amazing room decorated in silver and glass while the general architecture, the doorways and interiors of the other rooms were equally impressive including one doorway decorated with a stunning peacock design that drew a lot of attention from visitors. We had lunch inside the grounds of the City Palace and found enough shade to be able to sit outside and eat while a musician provided some background music before we headed off to see Jantar Mantar.
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C_Jaipur_001 (85)


Jantar Mantar is Jaipur’s observatory park containing oversized astronomical instruments – one of five such observatories around India and said to be the largest and best preserved. It is still in use and while originally less appealing on our itinerary it was actually worth the visit. In addition to having huge instruments designed and built for telling the time to a high degree of accuracy there are astrological constructions for each of the star signs. However, the area is totally exposed to the sun and while you could have spent hours wandering around the park and understanding everything that was there the appeal of the air conditioned car and a couple of lazy hours at the hotel convinced us otherwise.
From the first few days it became apparent that Jan was something of an attraction to the local people. People would randomly at will stand behind her while a friend took their picture or one would simple walk up, take the shot and walk away again. Some even asked to have their photo taken with her. This happened throughout our time in India.
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C_Jaipur_001 (106)


We had eaten at one of the various restaurants available in the hotels so far on the trip but for our last night in Jaipur we had the option of eating out at a restaurant in a village resort called Chowki Dhani. It seemed a good idea at the time as we washed our hands and took our places, seated on the floor around small individual tables. Plates made from leaves and clay cups were handed out before the food and drink was brought around. It was impossible to try everything as it just kept on coming and some of the drink provided was a bit challenging. Nonetheless, we had as much as we wanted and headed back to the hotel to collapse after a long day.
From Jaipur, we hit the road again, this time heading for Agra and the Taj Mahal. The landscape during the journey was punctuated by the tall brick chimneys attached to brick factories and also three overturned vehicles in the middle of the road. If they are guilty of nothing else then Indians are certainly at fault for overloading their commercial vehicles to an extreme. Having navigated around the ‘dead’ trucks we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a great mosque built in the 17th century and located about an hour outside of Agra. Now empty, it was another huge sandstone fortress.
We reached the Wyndham Grand hotel in Agra late afternoon. As we drove into the centre of town and bumped tentatively along the road that desperately needed some kind of even surface Rajesh announced sarcastically “Welcome to Agra!” The immediate impression was that living in Agra would be especially tough and maybe the town relied exclusively on the benefit derived from having the Taj Mahal close by. As we turned off the main road into the hotel drive it was like entering a different world.
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D_Agra_001 (4)


We had an early start the following morning with the aim of getting in to the Taj Mahal for sunrise but before that we were going out in the evening for a show. It was just over an hour long and in a colourful Bollywood style production it told the story of Shah Jahan and the events that led up to the building of the great memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Vinod picked us up at 5 a.m. for the short but slow drive to the Taj followed by a fairly swift horse and carriage ride that got us to the main gate in time to be relatively near the front of the queue waiting for the area to open. There is a security presence everywhere in India and here was no exception with the separate lines for men and women being kept in check as the queue gradually lengthened ahead of the 6 a.m. opening time. On the dot we filed through for the regulatory bag check and frisking before being freed to wander up the wide path to the large arched gate through which you see the Taj Mahal at the far end of the complex. Between the gate and the Taj the area is landscaped as a large garden with a spine of water leading up to the main building flanked either side by identical smaller buildings. Tourists gather around the ‘Princess Diana’ seat rendering it virtually impossible to photograph from there even if you wanted to. The Taj was bigger than I expected and when we reached the steps we were given plastic coverings for our shoes prior to entering. The early morning temperatures were already rising steadily, and even at 6:30 in the morning it was good to escape into the shade of what is a marble masterpiece. Inside, the Taj is fairly ordinary compared to the amazing detail on the outside. With everything seen that there is to see and all photos taken, it was time to stroll back taking a slightly different route through the garden to where Vinod was waiting for us ‘in the shade!’.
D_Agra_001 (26)

D_Agra_001 (26)


Back to the hotel for breakfast before venturing out again. I was starting to struggle on our way out from the Taj Mahal and I was soon thinking that eating out in the way that we did at Chowki Dhani was possibly not a great idea. Regardless, we went on to see the Baby Taj which was where I finally conceded defeat. Agra Fort was next on the itinerary but not feeling so great plus the intense midday heat finally got the better of me and so I left Jan and Vinod to see the Agra Fort while I stayed in the relative cool of the car. Rajesh did his best by moving the car in the congested car park to a spot under a tree as soon as it became available. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a sitting target for any hawkers trying to sell whatever it was they were trying to sell but apart from muttering a feeble “No thanks” I had no idea what they were doing or offering at the time.
Feeling as I did, the prospect of an overnight train to Amritsar was more daunting than it would have been otherwise but later that afternoon we had to be back in the car and leaving the hotel for Agra Railway Station and at the same time saying goodbye to both Vinod and Rajesh who had looked after us so well. Vinod walked us on to the extremely busy Platform 1 and stayed until he knew we would be ok. He was a nice guy and really good company.
The train journey was 16 hours and would get us to Amritsar at around 8 am. Amritsar was the end of the line so at least there were no worries about missing the station. The train itself was in the middle of a 3 day journey. We joined at the end of day 2 and found our compartment before settling down. Three hours into the journey we were bluntly interrupted by one of the train attendants who told us we were on the wrong side of the compartment. We were in a 4-berth compartment, 2 on each side, and had taken the two bunks that we were told only to then be told to move. We started to move and after watching us do most of the work he informed us that he meant we were in the wrong compartment!! A fairly predictable communication breakdown!! Eventually we settled down again in the compartment next door and, feeling as I did, simply set the bed up and crashed for the night.
E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)

E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)


Any hopes we had of having the compartment to ourselves were dashed around 8 p.m. when a family boarded and took their places on the two beds opposite. Not ideal but the disturbed rest helped a bit and one or two stops before Amritsar the family left the train which gave us the time and space to sort ourselves out. At Amritsar we were met by another rep who took us to the Hyatt Hotel where we had breakfast and met Anil who would show us the sights of the city.
F_Amritsar_001 (9)

F_Amritsar_001 (9)


The Golden Temple at Amritsar was something I was really looking forward to seeing. Amritsar is in the Punjab and is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Around 100,000 people wash their feet and cover their heads before entering to visit the Golden Temple every day. Originally constructed of white marble the temple now has much of its outer walls covered in a thick layer of gold; something which is added to as and when funds/donations allow. The temple is surrounded almost entirely by water and sits inside a complex that has entrances on all four sides. Followers of all faiths are allowed inside although the queue to see the holy book can be hours long which for us was prohibitive so we settled for walking around the outside of the temple before venturing inside some of the surrounding buildings. Anil also took us to see, as he described it, the largest kitchen in the world. Still within the Golden Temple complex, the kitchen serves 80,000 free meals each day and is manned by volunteers who prepare, cook, serve and wash up from 8 a.m. each morning until late at night.
F_Amritsar_001 (44)

F_Amritsar_001 (44)


Still barefooted, we walked through the different kitchen areas to watch the ingredients being prepared, mixed and then cooked. Dough was being rolled to make bread and the silver metal plates and cutlery were spotlessly clean and piled high ready for use. Anil explained that we would be welcome to join in and have food but we declined and made our way back into the temple complex after washing our feet again and rinsing the cauliflower from between our toes!!
After a couple of hours looking around the Golden Temple it was time to set off for Wagah, the border with Pakistan. Daily at 6 pm there is a ceremonial opening and closing of the gates between India and Pakistan which is watched by thousands of people on both sides. We arrived at around 5:30 pm and had seats in the ‘foreigners only’ section of the stand. A kind of pre-match entertainment kept our attention with M.C.’s either side of the gate whipping up the crowd in a competitive manner followed by music, dancing and some patriotic flag waving up to the border gate and back by privileged volunteers. Then, on the dot at 6 pm the main feature began with ceremonial foot stamping, fast marching and fist pumping aimed at the opposition.
G_Wagah_001 (17)

G_Wagah_001 (17)


A group of eight soldiers took their turn to perform the ritual, each ending at the gates facing across the border. The gates are opened and this is then followed by the national flags being crossed as if to signify unity between the two nations followed by a lowering and then more high kicks and stomping of feet before the gates are ultimately slammed shut as if to conclude a failure to agree by both parties. The crowd disperses, buying ice creams and snacks from street vendors as they make their way home and 24 hours later it all happens again. A brilliant end to an amazing day.
Amritsar had a slightly different feel about it. It was still very typically India and looked generally like everywhere else that we had visited but the Punjab is a comparatively affluent area with many wealthy farming families and maybe this had something to do with what we saw as a difference in attitudes of some of the people.
The following morning we had free time and lazed around the hotel pool. After lunch we visited a small summer palace of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh which is now a museum and garden and then drove to the site of the Amritsar Massacre (Jalian Walah Bagh in the local language). The bullet holes from the events on 13th April 1919 (basically 85 years to the day when we visited) are still visible in the brickwork that surrounds the now neatly landscaped garden. An eternal flame burns in memory and at the bottom of the garden stands a large memorial sculpture. Anil had been keen to take photos of us at many of the locations we had been together (to show his mother) and was genuinely very attentive and enthusiastic about what he had shown us during our two days in Amritsar and when the time came to leave for the evening train to Delhi he kindly helped with our bags through to the station platform.
H_Amritsar_001 (43)

H_Amritsar_001 (43)


The train to Delhi would take 6 hours, arriving at 11 o’clock at night. Hopefully, our rep would be there to meet us. He was, although hanging around Delhi Railway Station late at night fending off eager porters keen to earn a dollar could have become problematic had he been much more than five minutes late. Understandably in Delhi, the traffic had been the problem.
Half an hour later we were back in the Suryaa Hotel (one of our favourites) for a few hours before setting off to the airport after breakfast for our flight to Varanasi. We were met and transferred to the Gateway Ganges Hotel which was a fabulous hotel in huge grounds with a lovely pool. Overhead, the Black Kites ruled the skies once again! We settled in before Shaquil arrived with the driver to take us to Sarnath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon in 500 BC. Every year in January the Dalai Lama, now exiled in the hills of Northern India, visits Sarnath. Unsurprisingly, prayer wheels, prayer flags and bells take centre stage, providing the colour for more photos and in a way making it feel a little less like the India that we had so far become accustomed to.
J_Varanasi_001 (31)

J_Varanasi_001 (31)


Varanasi is a very old city with a strong university sub-culture. Taking its name from a combination of the two rivers, the Varuna and the Assi that still flow in the north of the city, Varanasi is today most famous for its location on the banks of the Ganges. And it was the Ganges that we had really come to see. Probably one of the most polluted rivers in the world it still manages to entice people into its murky but holy waters. Our evening would be taken up on Daswamedh Ghat, one of several ghats (basically a series of steps down to the river) along the Ganges at Varanasi to watch the Aarti Ceremony at sunset. This is a daily ceremony where up to nine holy men offer prayers to the River Ganges by way of thanks for the day just passed. We paid a donation to take two seats on an upper terrace so that we could get a good view as the ceremony unfolded. People attend in large numbers each evening and take their place on the ghats or in boats to listen and watch as the ceremony is performed on the nine platforms. A mix of music, fire, chanting and incense burning takes place during the hour long ceremony before the crowd funnels itself back down the main Varanasi high street, again dodging the street vendors and tuk-tuks.
J_Varanasi_001 (124)

J_Varanasi_001 (124)


Twelve hours later and we were back at the same ghat but this time to board a boat and to be on the Ganges for sunrise. We were rowed several hundred yards each way from the ghat where the AARTI Ceremony took place the night before. Again, there were lots of people already descending on the area with many locals dipping and washing in the holy water. Along the river there were other ghats each with their own theme including a laundry ghat from where the dhobi wallah’s and their ‘runners’ operate businesses providing a laundry service for locals. The dhobi wallah’s persistently thrash the clothes against a flat slab of rock before rinsing them clean and hurling them on the banks to dry. They then get returned to their owners. A bit further downstream and a very advanced looking yoga class is underway on the steps of another ghat. It was so still, calm and peaceful on the river.
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J_Varanasi_001 (159)


A few hundred yards in the opposite direction and you reach the cremation ghat. The smell of burning sandalwood fills the air as you approach the ghat and see the smoke from several small pyres. There is a constant supply of wood being brought to the scene on bikes and boats to be stacked in readiness to meet the bodies carried in under a shroud on a stretcher from the centre of town. As a backdrop to the various ghats the Ganges offers a number of temples and palaces that together form a unique waterfront at Varanasi.
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J_Varanasi_001 (171)


We got off our boat here and tipped the boatman before following Shaquil up the steps, past the stocks of sandalwood and through the narrow alleys behind the cremation ghat. Our path was soon blocked by a cow but nervously squeezing past its rear end we continued on our way through the old and tatty but colourful alleyways. Two dogs suddenly went to war which broke the silence and this quickly attracted others from all directions to join the fight. With the dogfight well underway but thankfully behind us we eventually reached the main street again and returned to the hotel for breakfast. Shaquil arranged to collect us later that morning to see more of Varanasi including the Bharat Mata (Mother India) Temple, the Durga Temple (known locally as Monkey Temple for obvious reasons) and the University, an important part of the city, currently with 65,000 students.
Varanasi, like almost everything else we had seen in India, was amazing and this was to be our final sightseeing in the country before we took the flight to Nepal the following day.
B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

Posted by david.byne 12:58 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises buildings people animals birds boats trains religion Comments (0)

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