Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Vietnam: Ninh Binh

After Jeremy took his leave and we mourned the departure of our third farkle player, we hopped on a bus to Ninh Binh (Ning Bing). Now, as was obvious in Hanoi during a few of our excursions, I am a much more relaxed planner than Jared is (which may surprise some who know how much I love to plan). This in combination with the fact that we had become accustomed to traveling with access to data and therefore instant real-time map updates, led to a humorous experience upon our arrival in Ninh Binh. I had found a hotel for us but did not make a reservation nor did I think to pre-load a map of the location. All I knew was that it was supposed to be 400 m from the bus station near the center of the city. That’s an easy walk! So we get off the bus and Jared is all “So. Where to now?” and I’m all like “Uhhh, how about this way…?” We cross a few streets and I navigated us in the direction that I felt the hotel would be, the growing frustration ever apparent on Jared’s face. As we are about to cross yet another street during our directionless journey, a man on a motorbike stops and asks us if we are looking for something. I said, "yes!" and showed him the name of the hotel. As a big toothless smile spread across his face he exclaimed, “That’s my hotel!” and showed us his business card as proof. We then got a free ride on the motor bike back to the hotel and all Jared could do was laugh about it and comment on my luck. We had originally planned to go to a nearby ancient village that evening but decided that neither time nor weather were conducive to the journey. Instead, we planned the next few days and went to the train station to purchase our tickets for onward travel.

The next day we booked a car to take us to Cuc Phuong National Park. This park has a primate center and a turtle conservation center on the grounds. Both were small but it was interesting to see different primate and turtle species in the context of conservation and rehabilitation. We went first to see the cave of a prehistoric man. It was actually quite spacious and we decided that the Prehistoric Hedges clan would have been able to live quite nicely inside the ancient walls. Next, we journeyed for 3 hours through the rainforest to see a thousand year old tree. Since we were in the rainforest, it was only appropriate that it rained on us the entire 3 hours. Good thing we were feeling especially positive that day because we were still able to enjoy ourselves despite the rain.
Look at all that lush green
Here's lookin' at you, tree.

 Part of the appeal of Ninh Binh to tourists is an area known as Tam Coc. Here, it is possible to ride a boat powered by lady rowers through rice paddies to see the karsts (similar to those in Halong Bay) rising from the green. Our second day, Jared and I opted to rent a motorbike and ride first to the ruins of a 10th century village and then to Tam Coc. We did not take a boat ride but instead walked around the little village and stopped along our drive to take pictures and admire the view. We also found an old pagoda that was near a hillside and had a shrine in a cave. On our way to this pagoda, we got a flat tire. We were not exactly sure how to proceed in such a situation so we called our hostel owner and asked him. He instructed us to just take it to a shop and get it fixed. Oh, sure, no problem. Not only do we not speak the language but neither of us has been paying attention to where such a shop might be. I think the luck of Ninh Binh was still with us because we found a fella with a fix-a-flat shop not 200 meters from where we busted the tire. Something that could have potentially ruined our day was easily solved and we were on our way once again! It was one of our favorite days so far and we enjoyed the freedom that the motorbike offered as well as the unique and beautiful vistas of the area. There is also a funny anecdote that came from this adventure. As we were leaving the village ruins, we were walking, minding our own business and a group of Vietnamese teenage tourists came upon us, walking in the opposite direction. At first there were a few giggles and some fingers pointed in our direction. I looked over my shoulder to see if something was going on behind us; there wasn’t. The few giggles quickly progressed into full fledged teen fan shrilling and we were surrounded by the group with multiple requests for pictures and shouts of “You so beautiful. You so handsome.” We obliged, of course, how could we deny the fans? It was the most surprising and overwhelming reaction to our other-ness yet. I have to admit, it made me feel like a movie star for the 5 minutes that it lasted. Soon I’ll be dealing with paparazzi and autograph requests, it’s a tough life- to be white in Asia- but someone’s gotta do it.

Don't we look like professionals?

This is on the bridge where we rose to instant fame

10th century ruins

Would you like to go for a swim?

The rice fields are so luscious; they beckon to you to take off your shoes and walk through the fields but then you realize that you would just sink into the mud...

Beautiful flat rock ridge we encountered on our ride.

It's hard to tell in the photo but these are the rowers rowing away with their feet instead of their hands!

This waste basket was wishing happiness to everybody and I echo the sentiment!
From Ninh Binh we headed to Hue on a night train. Next up is our exploration of the DMZ.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

India: Agra

We left for Agra at 3:30 AM so we could see the Taj Mahal as the sun rose. It was well worth the effort as we got to see it in a beautiful light and with very few people. The other sites in the city were beautiful as well. This post is pretty much just all pictures...

So elegant

Us in front of the Taj Mahal

And me

And Jared, being super tourist :)
Agra Fort

Agra Fort

Detail from the ceiling
 Itimad-ud-Daulah or the "Baby Taj"
Chini-ka-Rauza tomb
So, technically after Agra we went back to Delhi and then to Jaisalmer and then back to Delhi but, the pictures and the overall beauty of Agra earned it the final spot in the India chronicles. Next up, it's all about Vietnam!!

Monday, April 13, 2015

India: Jaisalmer

My song for Jaisalmer is a classic:
Pic from here
Although we weren’t in Arabia, we were close, just 20 km of desert between us and Pakistan (OK, so Jared just told me that Pakistan is, in fact, not considered Arabia. Well, the song still applies). Jaisalmer is known as the Golden City because of the yellow colored sandstone that comprises most of the buildings. It is also the home of India’s only ‘living fort’ which means that people still live and work inside the fort. There are also hotels inside the fort but we chose to stay outside the fort walls so we could enjoy the view. We spent two days (three, if you count the day before we left on the night train) in the city and two days and one night in the desert. It was a relaxing city and a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of Delhi. We arrived late in the evening so our first day we spent the morning walking around the shops and markets and found some ‘camel riding clothes’ so I could have some legit pictures. In case you are wondering what camel riding clothes are, here are some pictures:

Jared had a turban!
And I am basically wearing pajamas!

We left that afternoon with our guide for our camel safari and night in the desert. Before arriving at our campsite, we visited abandoned towns that were bustling with opium vendors during the days of the Silk Road. Some of these old buildings were being restored and others were still in their ruined state. One particular view I enjoyed was the crumbling buildings of an old village next to a new village with energy generating wind turbines nearby. When we arrived to the sand dunes, our camels and guides were patiently waiting for us. A pat on the neck (from us) and a snort (from the camels) acted as our introduction and we climbed onto our new friends. My camel was named Laloo (which rhymes with the Hindi word for potato- aloo- so I thought that was quite appropriate) and Jared’s was named Rocket. Yea, Rocket. The men helped Jared don his turban, and we headed off into the Arabian night. Riding a camel is like riding a horse but with a more exaggerated transition from sitting to standing. We rode across the dunes, scarf and turban alike flapping in the wind and arrived at our ‘hotel’ for the night (as the guide said, “It isn’t a five star hotel, it is a thousand star hotel”). This thousand star hotel boasted toilets-au-naturale and cots open to the elements. We perched on top of a dune and watched the sun set as our guides cooked dinner over an open flame. After dinner, we sat around the fire and chatted with our guide about his many desert adventures, thoughts on politics and the wonders of India. At one point in the evening, the youngest of our guides had to go chase the two camels as they had wandered off to find the lady camels. This same, slightly indentured guide tucked us under our many, many blankets (about 1 foot thick of blankets) on our cots before curling up by the fire with the camel blankets as a bed. I laid awake as long as I could to try and take in the view for as long as I could manage. The next morning we had some chai, bread and eggs before saddling up again for the ride back to the jeep and back to the actual hotel.

Some goats wandering around the ruins of the ancient cities.

Say hello to Aloo!

Aren't they dressed so beautifully?

What good is a camel safari without a picture of the shadows in the sand?
The rest of that day and the following day we walked around the fort, got massages and toured the old, unique mansions (havelis), of Jaisalmer. The city really does live up to the title of Golden City as the golden sandstone dominates the scenery. Our time here was relaxing and, I think necessary, for both of our perspectives to return to a somewhat normal state after our angry day in Delhi.
View of the fort from the hotel balcony 

Doesn't it look golden?

The fa├žade  of the haveli

Looking out from the inside of the haveli 

Whoa, Bessie, you're about to pop there.

Even though we spent a couple more days in Delhi before flying to Vietnam, it feels as though we left India on the high note of Jaisalmer.


Thursday, April 2, 2015

India: Delhi

By the time we arrived in Delhi we were master negotiators with tuk-tuk drivers. They swarm you as soon as you walk down the stairs from the train platform. We’ve started stating our location, confirming driver knowledge of location and then saying how much we will pay. That is the bottom line, we don’t waver. If they don’t agree we just keep walking. So, I guess we aren’t master negotiators so much as masters of paying what we want. Anyway, after checking into the hotel we took the metro to Old Delhi and went to check out the Red Fort. This was fort #3 for us, the smallest and the busiest. Several areas were closed to the public either for reconstruction efforts or preservation efforts. We did see where the elusive Peacock Throne once sat. When I become a treasure hunter this will be first on my list to find. Leaving the fort, we headed to the Jama Masjid, unfortunately so did the rain clouds. The mosque was also closed for prayer by the time we got there so we ended up at Karim’s restaurant. This is a restaurant that is well-known in Delhi and was started by a former chef-to-the-emperor. An accidental but famous discovery! Of course, it was delicious. After eating, we ended up on a bike rickshaw in the rain for the return journey to our hotel.

The Red Fort

Rickshaw in the rain
Delhi day two was decidedly disappointing. Prepare for a dismal description of the day. Sorry, just had to get in some more alliteration. The day started with room service and lattes to go- not so bad! We then walked to the train station to buy our tickets for onward travel. We decided to go to Jaisalmer (which is back west towards where we had just came from) since we figured trying to see all of East India in a week was a bit ambitious and we had to be back in Delhi to fly to Vietnam. Anyway, we were almost to the train station and someone stopped us, engaging us in conversation and we always try to at least start out polite so we reciprocated in the interaction. However, within a few minutes the gentlemen tried to tell us that we could not buy train tickets for trains leaving within 48 hours at the train station. He insisted that we had to go to a travel company in order to buy those. In an effort to discourage him, I told him we were buying for a departure a week away. This didn’t work and he still tried to hail us into a tuk-tuk (don’t pay more than 30 rupees, he oh so kindly advises). We just kept walking and finally made it to the ticket counter where they, of course, sell tickets for trains leaving any time you want. Yet, the train we wanted was full. Harumph. We ended up buying wait list tickets (which made me real nervous) for an all day train instead of an all night train. It ended up working out but in the moment it was stressful and frustrating. Following that, we took the metro (shoved ourselves in as the doors closed) to go to see the Baha'i Lotus Temple. Upon arrival at the temple, we decided to turn around and get back on the metro since we were not prepared to stand in the half-mile line. This metro ride took us to the government buildings in Delhi where we thought we would be able to walk across the grounds to access the Mughal Gardens (Jared compares them to the Rose Garden at the White House) which are only open for one month of the year (perfect timing!). The route to walk to the gardens was blocked so we negotiated with a tuk-tuk driver to drive us to the gardens and wait for us there and then take us to a market called Dilli Haat. This is a well-known tourist market and the spelling is important to remember later in the story. At the gardens we encountered another 20 minute line and just a ton of people. Jared also had to tag and check the backpack. Part of the rules of entry to the gardens stated that no pictures were allowed. Well, the herd of people decided that this rule did not apply to them. The picture taking was absurd, causing congestion on the tiny path, and frustration to this rule-loving westerner. Part way through the garden Jared realized he had lost the claim tag for the bag. Cut to us basically running through the hoards of people back to the bag claim area where the attendants let Jared in to ID and take the bag without a fight. Frazzled, we returned to our driver and proceeded to our last, pre-negotiated destination. At least we thought that’s where we were going. The driver took us to a store called DELHI Haat, notice the difference in spelling but no difference in pronunciation. We argued with him and told him he lied and he tried to act like it was the same. It wasn’t. We paid him (the agreed amount, even though we shouldn’t have) and told him that he is the reason people don’t like India and stormed off to the metro. He'd gotten the better of us, despite our master negotiator status. The metro, our only trusty steed, took us to the real market where we angrily shopped and I angrily bought a skirt which I now regret. At this point we were tired and wanted nothing more than to be back at the hotel but neither of us even suggested taking a tuk-tuk instead of the slower metro. Finally, we arrived back to the hotel and went to bed early because the next day we were leaving at 3:30 am to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.

Delhi at night. I actually don't have any pictures from Day 2 but, there needed to be a picture here since I just wrote a giant paragraph.

I will write about the Taj Mahal in a separate post as this is already quite long and we spent an additional almost 2 full days in Delhi after returning from Jaisalmer. After returning, we were finally ready for the line at the Baha'i temple, saw the Jama Masjid, went to the Qutb Minar complex, and visited the predecessor to the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s Tomb. I will give some details on these sites below with some pictures but I would like to relate an interaction we had with some locals real quick. Our last night there we went to a more westernized shopping area and were walking around and looking for a couple items. While walking we were stopped by a younger guy and girl. We assumed another picture request but the guy addressed Jared and informed him that he and his friend were in school and were working on a project about how safe Western women feel in Delhi and would it be OK if they talked to me. Jared was a little confused, as was I, as to why he was asking Jared and not me. Jared looked at me and said, “Yeah, I mean, I guess, is it OK with you?” I said yes and talked with the girl for awhile about being a Western woman in India. It was a brief conversation which she videoed on her phone. While I might make an appearance on Indian YouTube, I wish that we could have sat down with some coffee and discussed the issues in greater depth.

The Lotus Temple of the Baha'i faith is one of 8 in the world. It was free to enter and we could not take pictures inside the sanctuary but it was original and unique from the other places of worship we have visited. I won't go into detail about the Baha'i faith but you can read about it on trusty old Wikipedia, if you'd like.
The view from outside the gates
Walking up from the front

Baha'i selfie!

The Jama Masjid, while quite large, offered little as far as qualities different from those that we have seen at other mosques in the area. They also charged a camera fee even if you just had a bag with you. The ticket people did not seem very enthused about Westerners, especially when we refused to pay two camera fees (we put my purse into his backpack so we technically only had one bag).

Oh, yeah, and I wore this robe thing so I wasn't indecent in all my indecency.

The main prayer area, I thought the chandelier was beautiful.
The Qutb Minar was neat from a historical perspective and we got to listen to this funny skit-type audio guide, similar to the one we had at Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. The minaret was built in 1193 and the rest of the mosque was constructed nearby on a site which was previously a Hindu temple (Jared and I differ in our remembrances of this bit of the history- he believes that the pillars were already made but not part of an existing structure). Since that time, repairs have been done on the minaret but the original structure remains standing. The rest of the mosque did not fair so well and is now in ruins. However, on some of the remaining pillars you can see remnants of Hindu iconography. 
The minaret is 73 meters tall

The pillars in the mosque show both Hindu and Islamic architectural characteristics

The minaret with some of the ruins

After seeing the Taj Mahal, Humayun’s tomb made sense architecturally and it's easy to see the similiarities between the two.

Delhi could be overwhelming to the senses and was frustrating at times. However, it also offered more in terms of public transportation than other cities in India and had delicious food and a few more Western shopping options.
From Delhi we went both to Agra and Jaisalmer. Those two will be next!