Rowan Castle - Travel & Photography
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Taj Mahal at dawn, India.

India 2001 - Diary (Page 2)

at the Hotel Himsagar. Angela told me that she was glad that she had done the trek, but found it difficult to enjoy it at the time. I thought that she had done extremely well, especially as she had only really been doing it for me. However, the next section of the journey would be very much organised for her as we went south to see the palaces, forts and monuments of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Also, to make Angela feel more comfortable, we agreed to stay at 'mid-range' hotels from now on rather than the budget places that we had relied on so far. I had always said to her that I thought our dash from Delhi up to the Himalayas and the trek would be very tough for her, but I was sure that she was about to find the trip much more relaxing and enjoyable.
Day 9 - Wednesday 17th October. We were down at the Almora bus stand early in the morning, staring at the usual snarl up that clogged the whole of The Mall. It paid to get there slightly before the 07:30 departure of the Delhi bus because we got good seats at the front that had the most leg room and space for our packs. It took us three long hours just to get down to Kathgodam, but the views and scenery were good compensation. From Kathgodam it was a nine hour haul in the heat that took us through Haldwani, Moradabad, Bilaspur, Ghaziabad and then Delhi. I have to say that as Indian bus journeys go it wasn't too bad. There were the usual scares and near misses due to suicidal driving tactics from our driver and others on the road, but we stopped several times at large and noisy bus yards where we could buy crisps and Pepsi. The road itself was sometimes interesting, for example when we saw monkeys sitting on the verge or when we passed through a huge roadside cattle market. I had hoped that we would reach Delhi before nightfall, but it was already dark by the time our bus crawled into the Anand Vihar bus terminus. From there we caught a Rickshaw to what we thought was Arakashan Road. Alas, we had been tricked again and were not at the hotel we wanted or even in the street we had asked for! As it happened though, the hotel that we ended up at was better than the one we had been heading for and cost the same. Our room was huge and we also had a television. Arriving in Delhi and dealing with the touts and attempts to rip you off after a twelve hour bus journey is totally exhausting, so we ordered our evening meal from room service and then went to bed.
Day 10 - Thursday 18th October. Angela and I had agreed to take a gamble and see if we could get on an early train and head straight for Agra. After much blundering around in the darkness of the streets outside for a rickshaw, we eventually made our way to New Delhi Railway Station. We went to the Shatabdi Express counter for 05:45, filled out a form, paid the money and were boarded and in our first class seats by 06:15! It couldn't have been easier. It took us just two hours to get Agra and the journey was very comfortable. We were met at Agra Cantonment Railway Station by Sameer, who had an overflowing book of recommendations and references from other satisfied travellers and who turned out to be very honest and reliable. I asked him to take us to the Hotel Sheela (where I stayed in 1996) in the Taj Ganj area of town and he agreed to pick us up an hour and a half later to see some sights. We arrived at the Hotel Sheela, and I found that the garden was as beautiful as when I stayed there five years earlier and it was still run by the same friendly manager. The only slight disappointment was that the hotel had since acquired two enormous German shepherd guard dogs. Our room was very reasonably priced, clean and had its own shower, but other than that it was fairly basic. We sorted out our things and freshened up and then it was time to meet Sameer outside the front gate. We were very low on money by now (especially after the incident in Loharket) so the first trip in the rickshaw was to change some traveller's cheques. On the way back into the old town, Sameer offered to let me drive the rickshaw for a bit (under his close supervision). Although I didn't really master the gears, I drove us steadily down one of the main roads, dodging a straying bullock cart as we went. With Sameer back behind the wheel our first tourist trip was to see the Itimad- ud-daulah, which is the tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, the chief minister of the Moghul emperor Jehangir. This tomb is known colloquially as the 'baby Taj' because many of the elements of design that are incorporated into the famous Taj Mahal were tried first with this building. It was the first Mughal structure to be totally built from marble and also the first to use pietra dura (inlaying of marble with semi-precious stones) as an extensive decoration. Angela and I spent an enjoyable hour or so walking round the beautiful garden, watching the parakeets flying from tree to tree. Inside the tomb we admired the carved lattice screens and the intricate pietra dura work on the marble sarcophagus. Itimad-ud-daulah, Agra. Returning to the rickshaw, Sameer took us out over the Yamuna River to see the Taj Mahal from across the water. On the way I saw a hoopoe (a bright orange bird with black and white wings) I tried to point it out to Angela but we were moving too fast for her to see it. When we reached the banks of the river, Angela and Sameer waited at the road while I trekked the surprisingly long distance down to the water to take some photographs. Sameer warned me that there could be dodgy characters hanging around by the waters edge, but I didn't see anyone apart from a few children. I had never seen the Taj Mahal from this vantage point, but it did remind me of 1996 when Raphael and I walked along the bank underneath the tomb to see it under a full moon. The Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna River. It was then time for Sameer to get the opportunity to earn some money from commission, but I found that at least he was refreshingly honest and up front about it. He said that he only liked to take tourists to shops where reputable traders sold high quality objects and his book of references seemed to confirm this. First we visited a showroom full of stunning hand knotted Indian carpets. We didn't buy anything in the end, but I noted that there was no undue pressure and we did get to see a little demonstration of how the carpets are woven. The second shop he took us to was truly remarkable. It sold marble table tops that were inlaid with very fine pietra dura work. First we were given a demonstration of how the goods are typically made by the craftsmen in the firm's Agra factory. The initial stage involves fine chiselling and picking away at the marble to establish the intricate design and the carefully sculpted holes into which the semi-precious stones will be placed. Next, individual pieces of lapis lazuli, turquoise, mother of pearl, onyx and tiger eye are shaped and sanded on a hand-turned grinding wheel to fit exactly into the holes created for them. Having seen the amazing workmanship being practiced, we were led into the shop itself and introduced to the manager. He spoke fluent English and explained that he was the head of the pietra dura guild that is in the process of restoring the Taj Mahal, and that every Friday his shop is closed while he concentrates on the restoration work! He showed us a series of incredibly well crafted hexagonal marble table tops and I decided to buy one for my parents. I opted for one that had a very Islamic design of intertwined blue roses (made of lapis lazuli and turquoise) bordered by parallel lines of tiger eye. It looked very much like a tile that might be found in a mosque or in the Taj itself. The shop could arrange to ship the table back to England for me, and luckily they accepted Visa credit cards. There's no way I would have risked the purchase if they hadn't - I had heard too many tales of items being paid for but never arriving in England. By paying by credit card I knew that if nothing arrived, the credit card company would have to chase it up for me or foot the bill. Meanwhile, Angela bought her mother a set of marble coasters that stacked up and fitted into a carved marble wine bottle holder. We were also shown a stunning pair of marble plates that the shop manager described as 'masterpieces'. These were kept in velvet cases to keep them pristine, and I have to say that the quality and intricacy of the inlay work on them had to be seen to be believed - and so did the price! Pietra dura craftsman at work, Agra. Our final trip of the day was to the huge Agra fort, built by the Moghuls. As we wandered through the rooms and halls the sun was setting and the rays of light were shining through the red stone archways. To appreciate the fort, you really had to imagine it with all of the water features in the courtyards full of water, with the courtiers standing around in their fabulous robes. We had good views from the battlements of the fort out over the Yamuna River to the Taj Mahal, and from there we could also see parakeets perched in the trees nearby. The Red Fort, Agra. In the evening, I took Angela to the 'Only' restaurant (where I had eaten during my visit in '96) and we had a delicious curry each with cold lager. After we ate, we were given a small dish of anise seed and some sugar to chew on and we found that this was an instant cure for indigestion. The good thing about the restaurant is that while you eat, they feed the rickshaw driver (or cycle rickshaw driver in our case) for free. This means that all of the rickshaw wallahs are eager to take you there and also they tend to charge a bit less for the ride. After such a good day I was really pleased and relieved to see that Angela was enjoying things a lot more and seemed to have relaxed a great deal. I can't recall what day it happened, but one of the highlights of our stay in Agra for her was when we emerged from the Hotel Sheela and saw three working elephants with their drivers. They were resting up and were standing on the other side of the road. Nobody minded when we went over and stroked one of the elephants, which just stayed still and fixed us with its big eye!
Itimad-ud-daulah, Agra. The Taj Mahal from across the Yamuna River. Pietra dura craftsman at Agra, India. The Red Fort at Agra, India.
Day 11 - Friday 19th October. After the frenetic pace of the trip so far, we decided to have a lazy day. Unfortunately though, I couldn't get away from the necessity of a trip across town, dodging the traffic in a cycle rickshaw, to the Railway Reservation Office. I was trying to get tickets for Angela and I on a train to Sawai Madhopur. This station is approximately half way between Agra and Jaipur and is the jumping off point for Ranthambore National Park. I was slightly taken aback when I was told that the best they could do was to put us on the waiting list. I had forgotten that the first time I had been to India it was July, the monsoon low season, so there had been no shortage of places in trains and hotels. After an unsuccessful attempt to withdraw some reserve spending money on my visa card, I went back to the hotel and joined Angela for a relaxing sit down in the garden. We spent the time chatting to other travellers and writing postcards or diaries. We couldn't visit the Taj Mahal today because it is closed on Fridays, so we were content to take a break from the noise and hassle of the city. While we were in the garden, the hotel manager pointed out one of the stripy ground squirrels and said that he had been watching it closely. It had been living with its mate in a grass nest at the top of a pole in the middle of the garden. This was a very exposed position, so it had decided to build a nest in a nearby tree. The manager had seen it carrying its new born babies one by one across the lawn to the new home. Sure enough, as we watched it emerged from the old nest clutching a blind, pink, baby squirrel in its mouth and scurried right across the garden. I had never seen anything quite like it before. There were also some small brown lizards in the garden, and there was a great commotion at one point when a big grey Langur monkey jumped onto the roof of the hotel. This upset both of the Alsatian guard dogs which barked furiously until the monkey bounded away into the trees!
Day 12 - Saturday 20th October. We wanted to see the Taj at sunrise, so we got up very early to be at the gates for 06:00. Amazingly there was already quite a crowd of tourists waiting at the ticket booth when we arrived. On the way in I had an unpleasant run in with one of the security guards, who would not let me take my tiny mini-tripod inside the grounds. I refused to hand it over, relenting only when a nearby plain- clothes policeman threatened to arrest me! Once inside the grounds we found that we had arrived at just the right time. The sun was rising and casting a soft golden light on the white marble of the Taj. Undoubtedly India's most famous monument, the Taj Mahal was constructed by the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan and completed in 1653. It was built as a mausoleum for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth in 1631. The architect of the Taj is believed to have been a man called Isa Khan from the Iranian city of Shiraz. However, several expert artisans who had a hand in the construction came from European cities such as Bordeaux and Venice. The Taj Mahal at sunrise, Agra. We walked up the path that flanks the central watercourse and up onto the plaza that the building itself rises from. Angela took off her shoes and went inside to see the sarcophagi of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jehan (ironically, the emperors sarcophagus is the only thing that is not symmetrical in the whole monument), while I took some photographs of the sunlight striking the black onyx pietra dura work on the outside. After we had visited the monument, we took a stroll around the Mughal garden where there were many stripy ground squirrels and parakeets to be seen. Taj Mahal complex, Agra. Angela at the Taj Mahal, Agra. Back at the hotel we had lunch in the garden. While we were eating I noticed a group of Grey Hornbills in a tree above the hotel. I had never seen Hornbills (similar to Toucans) in the wild before. The manager of the hotel was once again a source of interesting information on the wildlife we were seeing, and told us that he had never seen Grey Hornbills in the garden until two and a half years ago. I could easily have stayed in the garden all day, but once again there was work to do and things to organise. Firstly, I went with Angela so she could change some travellers cheques and then she stayed at the hotel while I took a cycle rickshaw to the HDFC bank in Sanjay Place. This seemed to be the only bank in Agra that would allow cash Visa withdrawals! The journey on the rickshaw was long and passed into the noisy and polluted modern part of the city. We passed through Kinari Bazaar where I noticed a large gunsmith's shop. On the way back from the bank our rickshaw was hit by a motorised rickshaw. The driver got out and started to hassle my driver even though it wasn't his fault. Very soon a small crowd gathered and restrained the aggressive man, almost certainly preventing a fight. As if that wasn't enough hassle, the final task was a trip back to the Railway Reservation Office to find out the outcome of my request for two second class tickets to Sawai Madhopur. I was really dreading bad news as I queued in the hot ticket office. If there weren't any seats then the whole travel plan that I had carefully worked out would fall apart. I was therefore extremely relieved when our tickets were confirmed and I went on my way. Angela and I celebrated the confirmation of the tickets and our imminent departure with a final meal at the 'Only' restaurant. We had gone out for a meal quite early so that we could get back to the hotel and get a good nights sleep, ready for a very early start the next day.
The Taj Mahal at sunrise, Agra. Taj Mahal complex, Agra, India. Angela at the Taj Mahal, Agra, India.
Day 13 - Sunday 21st October. We awoke at 03:00, and left the hotel at 04:00. Our bill had been settled the night before, but we still needed to get the night watchman to open the locked gate for us. Unfortunately, while I was trying to get his attention I managed to disturb one of the alsatian guard dogs which barked furiously and jumped up on me, with its paws on my shoulders. Thankfully the hotel man woke up and called it off before it bit me. Angela and I crept out into the street with our heavy packs and walked down the road to the edge of the rickshaw exclusion zone (they are not allowed within a certain radius of the Taj because of the effect of air pollution on the marble). To our dismay, we found that there were no auto-rickshaws around, just one lonely cycle rickshaw, with the owner asleep on the passenger seat. He woke as we approached and agreed to take us to the station. We felt terribly guilty because the weight of the two of us plus our heavy packs was really too much. However, we soon came to a long downhill section, and free-wheeling down it in the dark, holding our torches out so that the driver could see, was definitely one of the most memorable parts of the journey. When we got to the station, we gave the driver a very good tip to make up for his extremely hard work. We would have missed the train without him. Our train was the Avadh Express from Gorakhpur, which eventually left Agra five minutes late at 05:20. When Angela and I got on board, chaos reigned. There was no sign to indicate which coach was which and there didn't seem to be any free seats at all. I tried asking for help, but unusually nobody made any attempt to help us. What followed was an absolute nightmare. I tried to persuade Angela that we should just sit wherever we could find a space but she carried on down the train at a terrific pace. I could only follow by holding my fifty pound pack out in front of me (I had her pack on my back), and I can't describe how exhausting that was in the humid, crowded and cramped second class carriages. We went the entire length of the train, including ducking under a set of roller doors and passing through the galley, before we turned round and did the whole thing again. It must have taken us at least half an hour and by now the train was on the move, which made it even more difficult to keep my footing and avoid crashing into people. We found that the train was very crowded and absolutely filthy. The ends of the carriages by the toilets were awash with urine and the smell was terrible. By then Angela was so far ahead of me that I just couldn't keep up anymore, I was completely shattered and my arms were trembling from the exertion of holding the pack. I shouted to Angela to stop, but she couldn't hear me. Just then I noticed a bed type seat with room for two people up ahead, and I just sat down, unable to go any further. I had no idea where Angela had gone, but I thought that she must eventually stop and retrace her steps. By now I was furious that there was no indication as to which carriage was which. I decided that if I was in somebody's seat, it was their hard luck. I waited for what seemed like an extraordinarily long time, anxious to know where Angela was, before she finally re-appeared. She had not managed to find our seats, and to make matters worse, she had been groped by a young Indian man. She had hit him very hard, and he had had the nerve to just laugh at her! So she had struck him again and retraced her steps. I was absolutely livid and wanted Angela to come up the train with me and point him out, so that I could give him a really good beating, but she told me to leave it. After that we were just relieved to have found some seats, and sat exhausted propping up our packs, while the train rattled on through the night. After a while, the top bunk opposite was vacated and Angela climbed up and went to sleep. I found that I was left sitting with a group of school children who were on a school trip from Gorakhpur. They had bags of energy and immediately launched into a whole series of questions they had for me. Normally, the thought of spending a long journey like that would have put me on edge, but after everything we had just experienced I was actually very glad they were there. They spoke some English and were very friendly and I knew that if there were any trouble about the seating arrangements that they would be able to help us out. So I didn't really mind the questioning and posing for photographs at all, even though I was exhausted. Finally the train arrived at Sawai Madhopur at 10 a.m. By now the sun was beating down and we stepped off onto a hot platform. After our difficult journey, I was dreading any more hassle, and was pleasantly surprised when we got an auto-rickshaw without any fuss that took us straight to our hotel, the Ankur Resort. Our hotel (and practically all of the other tourist hotels and lodges) lay just outside Sawai Madhopur on the long approach road that led to the legendary Ranthambore National Park. I had pre-booked our stay by e-mail from the U.K. but we were arriving a day early, and I was worried that we wouldn't be able to get a room. However, when we spoke to Dinesh the manager, he told us that he had arranged our accommodation and tiger safaris as requested and that he had a room for us despite our early arrival. In fact, he said that he could also arrange a tiger safari for that afternoon, and so we decided to go ahead and start our tiger spotting as soon as possible. Our room was comfortable, and located in a newly built block. We settled in and then made our way over to the restaurant for brunch. The menu was fantastic fun, because the translations of western food had not been reproduced entirely accurately. 'Cold beverages' had become 'cold braveries', poached egg was 'paused egg' and 'scumbled egg' and 'cornflax with milk' were also available. In the end, we both had a very nice bowl of cornflakes with cold milk, as well as a masala omelet. Exhausted from our long journey, we slept in our room until we had to go to the Reception at 14:30 to wait for the start of our safari. The safaris always followed the same pattern. We had booked trips in a canter, which is basically a very large open topped truck / jeep that seats twenty people. Small jeeps can also be booked for safaris up to one month in advance, but even though I tried to book with plenty of time, there were none available. I could see why getting a small jeep was so difficult after we had done a couple of safaris - they were nearly all taken by the larger hotels for their guests and at least one was being used by a BBC cameraman. The canters set off first thing in the morning or afternoon from Sawai Madhopur, and stop at each of the hotels on the way to the tiger reserve, where they pick up the passengers. Unfortunately this means that any delay in the arrival of the canter, or delays at the hotels, eats directly into the time that can be spent looking for tigers in the park. When our canter arrived, it was empty and so we had the choice of the seats. It was difficult to know where the best view would be, but we chose to sit just behind the driver. After we had stopped at the allotted hotels our canter was completely full, plus we had picked up our guide for the afternoon. As we drove down the road we had good views out across the flat countryside which was semi-desert and much more arid than anything we had seen on the journey so far. We passed several camels pulling wooden carts and passed conservation signs with slogans such as 'Tiger + Flashlight = Torture. Think about it' and 'Forest + Fire = Disaster. Think about it'. The next stop was at the small park office, where our guide had to get out and hand over our entry fees. At this point there was a lot of pressure to buy things from the roadside touts, who were offering everything from T-shirts and hats to bird books. From the park office, the road led up a beautiful rocky defile with a stream and palm trees, to the entrance to the outer walls of the fort. The entrance looked like a scene from a fairy tale - crenellated walls bridged the gorge, with a large entrance archway on the right hand side. Flowing through the entrance wall was the stream, which dropped into a large pool. We passed through the gateway and drove uphill through dense forest to the main park entrance; a huge pink stone archway next to a large Banyan tree. The massive Ranthambore Fort loomed above, accessed by a nearby flight of stone steps. Once inside the park itself, we were driven first to the main lake. On the way we saw several kinds of deer as well as a troop of langur monkeys. At the lake, we could make out deer grazing amongst the water lilies, despite the fact that there are crocodiles under the surface. This lake is most famous for appearing on several BBC wildlife documentaries about the tigers of Ranthambhore, because several years ago a large male tiger used to charge into the lake after deer, and was even observed snatching a deer carcass from the jaws of a crocodile! A Langur monkey at Ranthambhore National Park. Pressing on along quiet valleys and over streams, we saw lots more deer, kingfishers and Indian Tree Pie birds. In one wide stony river bed area, we saw an enormous Crested Serpent Eagle up in a tree; no doubt on the lookout for snakes to eat. The excitement of knowing that a tiger might suddenly appear was incredible, and I had my camera continually at the ready. By the time we had been up into the higher areas of the park (which were more open grassland, dotted with trees) and were heading back down to the lake we had accepted that we weren't going to see a tiger on this safari, but it was only our first outing. On the way back to the park gate we stopped at a small lake where we could get out to stretch our legs or go to the toilet. It was strange to be walking around knowing that somewhere out there were about thirty tigers! A deer at Ranthambhore National Park. Once out of the park, our canter was driven quickly back down the road. By now the sun was setting and it was a refreshingly cool drive. Once we arrived back at the hotel, I set about cleaning all of the dust from my camera and the zoom lens that had been thrown up by the wheels of the canter on the dusty park tracks. For dinner we ate in the hotel restaurant and had a very nice chicken curry, washed down with strong (8%) Kingfisher lager. We both agreed that we were going to enjoy our stay at Ranthambore! Also, it was amazing how we were both of the opinion that the park was so scenic and full of interesting animals that seeing a tiger would just be an added bonus. It had been an exceptionally long and hard day and we were glad to turn in and get some rest in a proper bed.
A Langur monkey at Ranthambhore National Park. A deer at Ranthambhore National Park, India.
Day 14 - Monday 22nd October. It was another early start, this time because our safari was to leave at 06:30. The canter was full when it arrived so this time we had no choice in where we sat. As we drove down the long road to the park, the sun was not yet up and it was absolutely freezing in the open topped canter. This time, as we waited at the park entrance below the fort, I saw some rose headed parakeets for the first time. We drove into the park and past the lakes, carrying on through the forests and up into the higher areas of scrub. In the dust on the trails we saw several large tiger paw prints, apparently the tigers like to walk on the jeep tracks because it saves energy. We drove up and down the tracks, but saw only samba deer and the occasional langur monkey. Heading back towards the fort on a long, straight and dusty track we suddenly came upon another canter that was stopped in the road. They were motioning our driver forward, indicating that there was a tiger in the area. When we drew level with the canter, we saw two tigers emerge from the tall grass! Our guide informed us that they were a male and female. The atmosphere in the jeep was electric, and everyone was scrambling around trying to get a better view. There were no fences, no cages and our guide did not even have a tranquiliser rifle. It was just us and two huge predators. The tigers walked alongside the track towards us, and the driver backed up the canter. Then the female sat down in the road while the male started to roar at us and padded slowly towards the canter. I will never forget the sound of that roar! It set the hairs on the back of my neck on end. Eventually both animals settled in the grass to our right and we stayed watching them for what seemed like a few minutes. After that it was time for us to head for the park exit before the gates closed. We had been lucky enough to see two tigers in the wild on only our second safari and it was unforgettable. A tiger at Ranthambhore National Park. Back at the hotel, we had brunch and immediately afterwards Angela began to feel very unwell. She had a high fever, temperature and aching joints. I tried to make her as comfortable as possible in the hotel room, and got her some bottled water from the restaurant. I was worried because it had come on very suddenly, but I had had similar bouts of fever in India and usually felt better the next day. We decided to see how she felt next morning and call a doctor if necessary. In the afternoon, I had a trip up to Ranthambore Fort that had been arranged by the hotel. The decline in tourists post September 11th meant that I was the only one going, and had a jeep to myself. We drove quickly out of Sawai Madhopur and down the road to the park. At the outer wall we saw a small crocodile basking next to the pool. We stopped at the main gateway into the reserve, and the driver told me to be back just before sunset. I climbed up the long flight of stone steps, edging my way cautiously past a big troop of Langur monkeys that were playing on the battlements. When I reached the top of the fort walls, I had incredible views of most of the park, bathed in the afternoon sunlight. I could see several of the lakes and palaces, and the air was so still that the sound of the canters on safari drifted up to me. I took a walk round the grounds, and explored the ruined pavillions and outbuildings. There were many birds in the trees to photograph; parakeets, bull bulls and Indian tree pies. In one of the deserted ruins I startled a roosting bat, which shot past my face and flitted off to find another perch. I had almost seen the entire fort when I noticed the sun dipping towards the horizon, and headed back down to the jeep. When I got back to the hotel, Angela had rested and felt a bit better, so we tried to go to dinner, but this made her feel unwell again. In the end I had dinner in the restaurant and brought her back some toast. I hoped that she would feel better by the next day, or I would need to find a doctor.
A tiger at Ranthambhore National Park, India.
Day 15 - Tuesday 23rd October. It was to be an afternoon safari today, so we were able to have a lie in and a late breakfast at the hotel. Then we took a wander up the road to a local handicraft shop, where we bought some T-shirts and looked at the bird and tiger books for sale. Angela then went to the nearby Sawai Madhopur Lodge hotel (a member of the prestigious Taj group of hotels) where non-guests could use the pool for Rs300. We were at our hotel's reception for 14:30 for the start of our third safari. While we were waiting for the canter to arrive, I saw a stunning green and black butterfly in the hotel garden. The canter arrived late, and we didn't get into the park until 15:30. On board with us were a friendly Indian family who were on their sixth and final safari and had yet to see a tiger. They were understandably desperate to see one before they had to leave. When we reached the road to the park entrance, we saw a large crocodile sunning itself by the lake, with its mouth wide open. Once inside the park, we followed the standard circuit past the lakes, through the woods and up into the 'highland' area. On the way we saw many interesting birds including a Stork Billed Kingfisher (very rare), Hoopoes, an Oriental Honey Buzzard and the Crested Serpent Eagle. As the sun set we arrived at a small Isthmus between two lakes, where the driver stopped the canter and switched off the engine. We waited quietly in the eerie silence. This was obviously a place where the guide had seen a tiger (or tigers) come down to the water to drink fairly regularly, but as the minutes ticked by it seemed very optimistic to hope that one would appear. The light faded so much that I would no longer be able to take any photographs, so I put my camera away. A few minutes later, and incredibly, we saw the unmistakable shape of a tiger emerge from the trees and slink silently down to the water. It was enormous, and as its coat picked up the last rays of the sun, I understood for the first time the lines of the famous poem 'tiger tiger burning bright'. It was like a flickering flame as it moved between the trees. Our guide told us that it was a male, and between five and six years old. As we watched, it reached the water and began to paw the surface, testing the depth before it waded in. Just then, we noticed a male peacock that was also in the water nearby. It hadn't seen the tiger at all! The tiger made a move in the peacock's direction, pausing with one paw held out of the water in a classic cat pose. The peacock suddenly realised the danger and bolted, with a tremendous splashing and flapping of feathers. I remember thinking that what I was seeing was almost unreal, it was the sort of natural history moment that would be the highlight of a BBC documentary. To see it unfold a few feet in front of you was really magical. By this point, the Indian family couldn't believe their luck at seeing such a splendid tiger on their last safari and were practically leaping out of their seats with excitement. We watched the tiger for a good few minutes, before it was time to edge away and then race back to the gates before the park shut for the night. We capped off a remarkable day with another good meal (and beer!) at the hotel. Both of us were looking forward to our final safari the next morning.
Day 16 - Wednesday 24th October. Currently unfinished (notes only). We were up too early this morning, as Dinesh had mistakenly told us to be at reception for 06:00, but the safari was actually due to leave half an hour later. I got a good seat in the canter, but there was very little leg room. Fortunately, it wasn't as cold as our previous morning safari had been and there were no delays reaching the park. Today saw painted stork, serpent bird (like a cormorant but with a long thin neck like a snake) beautiful pied kingfishers and Smyrna Kingfishers. Also saw a small owl that popped its head out of a hole in a hollow tree. Saw Nilgai (biggest antelope in Asia). Long drive up into highlands (saw Crested Serpent Eagle again) but no tigers. Were coming out of the park on the long straight forested stretch (where we saw our first tigers) and our guide said the Cheetal deer and Langurs were both making alarm calls which meant there was definitely a tiger around. Just up ahead a jeep had stopped and there was the tiger walking away down the road. It paused occasionally to look back at us so hopefully I got some photos. Then it moved off into the bush and vanished. The guide said it was a three year old female tiger. It was then time for us to go, and as we left the park we saw a big crocodile sunning itself on the bank. Back to the hotel for Brunch. Tidied ourselves up and spent from 12:00 to 14:30 by the poolside at the Sawai Madhopur Lodge. Very relaxing just lying on a sun lounger in the shade, looking up at the palm trees and watching the birds and butterflies. Walked up the road to the general store in the afternoon. Tried paan for the first time – pretty horrible. Came back to hotel for pot of tea in restaurant. Day 17 – Thursday 25th October. Currently unfinished (notes only). Left at 07:30 for village safari. Went down road past turn off for Ranthambhore NP and on to the small village of Sherpur (lit. ‘tiger town’). Saw little hut where the round pots are made. Hut made from Buffalo and cow manure mixed with straw. Also saw people drawing water from a well. Dinesh says there are three wells as different castes use different wells. Drove on down very bumpy and dusty track to the even smaller village of Janakpur. Saw lady in mud hut making chappatis over a fire. Fire was fuelled with dried cow dung pellets, that we had seen being dried in Sherpur. Also saw baby goats – only just born. Met member of the village court / council. They make decisions and pass judgement in disputes and the whole village is bound to accept their decisions. Saw man threshing mustard seed. Then had roasted peanuts and nice cup of tea. Dinesh explained that the villagers are just starting to paint their houses for Diwali which is about 20 days away. Says villagers sometimes lose livestock to Tigers but they are not man-eaters. On way back to hotel stopped at painted house of His Highness of Uryana (relative of Maharaja of Uryana). Back at the hotel packed up and checked out. Caught the 14:40 train from Sawai Madhopur to Jaipur. Very hot journey across arid terrain. Bought curry filled breads (x2) to eat on train and drank some warm water that Angela had. Stood at open doors for a bit, look out across interesting landscape of steep little hills with forts on the top. Our arrival in Jaipur took us by surprise and had a bit of a scramble getting off the train. Our arrival was at about 17:30. Found rickshaw stands. Sami was our driver who took us to the Umaid Bhawan Guesthouse . Found out it is still run by Wing Cdr Rathore and his wife and now boasts a nice swimming pool. Asked Sami to pick us up again later on and take us to Niros restaurant where had very tomatoey Chicken Tikka Massala. Confrontation with puppet salesman. Back to hotel, and our nice room. Watched news on CNN and had a bath. Day 18 – Friday 26th October. Currently unfinished (notes only). Breakfast at hotel, then at 10 picked up by Sam to go to Amber. Bought a few bananas and a couple of guavas to give to the Elephant that would carry us up to the Fort. Arrived Amber bought Rs400 ticket for Elephant ride up to the fort. Lake at bottom of fort completely dry, Our elephant no. 130, a female called Laxshmi. Boarded from high platform. At top we had our photo taken on the elephant. Then we fed it the fruit. She ate the guavas still wrapped in newspaper! I fed her by handing the bananas to the waiting trunk! Looked round fort, very beautiful. Then went down again by elephant. Popped back to hotel, then visited the Hawa Mahal. Then to block printing textile shop. Angela bought Pashmina and miniature painting. I bought one miniature painting. Back to hotel, swim in pool, then to Niros again. This time had chicken korma. In the afternoon I visited the ‘Tiger Fort’ and my driver persuaded me to book tickets for us to visit a ‘traditional village’ in the evening. The village turned out to be purpose built for tourists and was completely artificial. Really disappointing. Day 19 - Saturday 27th October. Currently unfinished (notes only). Easy day in Jaipur exploring more of the sights / shopping. Evening train journey back to Delhi on the Shatabdi Express. Hotel in Delhi. Day 20 - Sunday 28th October. Currently unfinished (notes only). Sights and shopping in Delhi. Day 21 - Monday 29th October. Currently unfinished (notes only). Sights and shopping in Delhi / reserve day. Day 22 - Tuesday 30th October. Currently unfinished (notes only). Very early start to catch Lufthansa Flight to Frankfurt, and then on to London. 
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