Category Archives: 2015 India-Nepal

Report from Delhi, Varanasi, Sarnath, Khajuraho & Orchha, India Jan. 18, 2015

On Jan. 6 my flight left Tucson, arriving in Delhi Jan. 8 at 1:30 am.  Without much thought, I had booked my first 4 nights hotel for the 8th through the 12th, missing the fact I was arriving at the hotel in the wee hours of the morning on what for the hotel was the night of the 7th.  They found me a small room in the hotel next door which served for my first few hours rest.

The airport arrival was somewhat memorable; this time of year all of north India is shrouded in heavy fog at night and sometimes all morning.  The newspaper the next morning stated that over 50 flights had been unable to land that night.  On my British Air flight, half an hour before landing, the pilot announced to all passengers that all electronic devices of any type must be turned off, as we would be making a long approach, landing entirely by instruments, as visibility due to fog was effectively zero – he quickly added that we were not to worry.  That final admonition was not followed by most of us.

For those of you reading this who do not know or remember, India is where I grew up, from ages 3 to 17.  My parents lived in Maharashtra State (the old Bombay State) in central India, and I spent 9 months of most years 1,000 miles south in a boarding school in south India.  I last visited India in 1982, so 33 years have intervened.  I will spend close to 3 months on this visit, almost all pre-arranged.  The second 6 weeks of the trip I will be joined by my old boarding school room mate and best friend from long ago years, together with his wife (Ken and Anna) – and the last week we will travel to the town of our old boarding school where we will meet up with 7 more old class mates.  In the interval, I will travel much of northern India and Nepal, meeting my friends in late February in Assam.

Delhi was cold and foggy pretty much the whole four days, with some moderate clearing in the afternoons.  My first full day I spent hours in the wonderful National Museum, which is not much visited by tourists.  This is the repository of many of the great works of the Harappan Civilization (also known as the Indus Valley or Mohenjo-Daro civilization) –  considered one of the 3 earliest civilizations of humanity – most of the ceramics and bronzes date from the 28th – 21st centuries BC, though the ruins and civilization date back much further.  What really surprised me was to find 3 of the most interesting bronzes (see picture of rhinoceros) to be from a site in Maharashtra, the state I grew up in – I certainly had not realized the Harappan civilization in the 21st century BC extended into central India.  The museum also contained a room of artifacts of the great Mauryan Dynasty of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, which greatest ruler was King Ashoka, who turned to Buddhism and probably ensured the lasting reach of that great belief system.  The remaining rooms contained wonderful stone carvings of gods and religious themes from the Shunga Dynasty of the 2nd C BC through the last 2,200 years.  I have included a handful of photos to give a sense of the artifacts.  A long walk through this museum, as with the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, conveys better than most other archaeology museums on earth the great antiquity of mankind’s settlements.

My third day I, unfortunately, got a good case of food poisoning, apparently from the little tandoori restaurant nearby which displayed its roasted fowl hanging unrefrigerated in the window, and spent the day unpleasantly in bed.  This gave me just one day to try a number of the major tourist sites, all of which I last visited 33 years ago.  With the perpetual foggy weather, great photos were not generally in the cards.  I hired a private car and driver, and visited just 4 sites.  First was the Red Fort and nearby Jama Masjid Mosque, both built by Shaw Jahan – who also built the Taj Majal and Agra Fort.  We then traveled to south Delhi to the famous Qutb Complex, the first of the 7 cities of Delhi, built in the 11th century;  its MInar Pillar rises over 230 feet and is covered with Koranic verses – an early wonder of India.   I read that a later historian lamented it presents a hint to the modern eye more of a factory chimney, something that smoke should be emerging from – I think this is unnecessarily unkind.  Finally I visited Humayun’s Tomb, a Mughal predecessor to Jahan’s Taj – the overall form of Mughal  garden tombs is well represented here.

On Monday I flew to Varanasi.   This is where my agency-pre-booked trip commenced, and it was a most unfortunate start.  Without going into many details, suffice it to say the hotel was not just unsatisfactory but completely unacceptable in every way, including cleanliness, bed covers, hot water, food service, staffing and access.   Being festival time prevented my private car for two days from getting closer than 1 km from the hotel, and as I had limited time, changing hotels would have prevented sight-seeing.  This unfortunate situation cast quite a pall over my stay and left me fairly depressed.

I did a sunrise boat on the Ganges River, visiting all the ghats from south to north.  Varanasi (aka Benares) is the holiest city of the Hindus, with its ghats (wide stone stairways descending from the banks into the river and lined with temples) filled in the morning hours with sadhus (holy men) and all manner of bathing and worshiping men and women, along with cows, goats and, of course, tourists.  The city is perhaps the most ancient living city on earth, with passageways and sections said to date back 4,000 years.  The heavy fog prevented any kind of sunrise photography.  I did get some decent photos of the colorful people doing there morning ablutions from the ghats.  The river water is not just dirty from the multitudes of pilgrims and residents who daily bathe in the holy water, and from the endless and countless remains of the dead being scattered into the river after cremation on the holy banks, but also apparently from a number of factories upstream which permit heavy metals to pollute the waters.  Still, I understand that most Hindus believe it is purified and safe for bathing and even consumption due to its holiness.  On the southern and northern ghats are crematoriums, the famous “burning ghats”, where countless Hindu dead are cremated in the open upon the banks of the river, the remains to be scattered into the river, believed by the devout to end the cycle of necessary reincarnations.  Indeed, thousand of men and women travel to Varanasi in their old age, to live out their final years alone perhaps begging in temples along the ghats, so that they may die and be cremated in this holy place.

The second day we drove north of Varanasi to Sarnath, the site where Buddha gave his first discourse upon becoming fully enlightened.  The archaeological ruins date from the 3rd century BC, when the Mauryan King Ashoka built the Ashoka Pillar here, with the famous 4 headed lion, now the symbol of India.  The site is headquarters for an amalgamation of three great religious traditions, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain, and the construction of monasteries and temples reflecting all three belief systems continued here for 1,800 years.  It still is a holy site for all three religions, and draws pilgrims from all over the world.  The head of the Ashoka Pillar, which stands in the site’s museum, is alone worth the visit – unfortunately no photographs are allowed in the museum – I don’t understand why, as the National and other museums permit photos, and indeed do quite well financially by charging double the foreigner entrance charges for a permit to use a camera.  An interesting aside – I do not think I previously appreciated the fact that the Buddha, upon seeking and ultimately achieving enlightenment, realized the all important principal which requires releasing all attachments to worldly goods and all forms of emotional and other ties and commitments, for it is from these attachments that all fear and desire arises, which prevents enlightenment;  therefore, as his first step to enlightenment, the Gautama Buddha fully and permanently abandoned his young wife and newborn infant child.

From Varanasi,  on Thursday, my driver and I did the very long journey to Khajuraho;  the highways in India always are very slow, but on this route, practically the entire road system is undergoing years of renovation.  We drove straight for 11 hours averaging barely 20 miles per hour.  Khajuraho, a World Heritage Site, contains the complex of famous Hindu temples built by the Chandella Dynasty in the 10th and 11th centuries.  The temples are monumental and inspiring from a distance, but it is up close that the revelation emerges for their real reason for fame.  The outer walls and basements are covered in fully three-dimensional panel friezes, carved into the tan colored sandstone – the intricacy is staggering.  It seems every god and goddess in the Hindu pantheon is represented hundreds of times in an unbelievable array of scenes.  The temples also are infamous for their stark portrayal of very explicit sexual scenes – all forms and manner of intercourse positions, oral sex, masturbation, sodomy and bestiality.  The meaning of these portrayals is debated and simply not understood.  My Rough Guide book, though, did provide me with some wonderful quotes displaying the British Victorian view of the temples upon discovery in the mid-19th century.  The first systematic survey undertaken by Sir Alexander Cunningham concluded the sculptures to be “highly indecent and most of them disgustingly obscene.”  Any wonder that todays guides trek around with their tour groups to point out each and every instance of these most indecent panels.

Yesterday we drove the short distance from Khajuraho to Orchha, a medieval ghost city of the Mughal Bundela Dynasty, with mostly 15th and 16th century palaces and buildings spread over a few kilometers within hardwood jungle along a river bank.  It is somewhat eerie to walk along the abandoned pathways meeting derelict building after building standing crumbling in the countryside.  The flowering shrubs attracted numbers of the tiny but brilliant Purple Sunbirds, the Asian answer to America’s hummingbirds.  At the entrance I photographed a number of primates hanging around the walls.  Although the Rhesus Macaques (Rhesus Monkeys) and the Grey Langurs (Hanuman Monkeys) both are common Indian residents, in the forests and around towns and temples, I never have seen them interacting together.  The dominant males occasionally displayed aggression toward males of the other species, posturing for position on a favorite stone outcrop, but I never saw actual contact.  The small current village of Orchha contained a traditional market square set beside the largest Chandelan temple ruins and the brightly painted modern temple.  It presented wonderful opportunities for photos of street vendor transactions, and two grand wedding processions with drummers and dancers.

I have been eating nothing but Indian food, of course.  Generally very good.  Alcohol is sometimes a bit of a problem to procure.  The large hotels tend to serve it, but for exorbitant prices.  Some towns have small liquor stores where at least beer and cheap whiskey can be purchased.  More than an occasional shot of the cheap whisky does not sit well with me.  Orchha does not permit any alcohol sales in the town; my driver yesterday found a black-market dealer from whom I purchased 2 bottles of the mysteriously named “Vasco 50000 Super Strong Beer” – not particularly good, but preferable to the Indian whiskey, and to the Indian wine which I have not tried, as the cheapest bottle runs $15.  I may try wine soon, despite the price.  Generally I have found the lager Kingfisher to be an ok beer if it can be purchased.

Outside of my hotel in Delhi, I have had internet access only once, at the hotel in Khajuraho, and had to pay $4 a day for that.  So although I write this report on the 18th, I am not sure when I will be able to upload it and photos to my website.

From Orchha, we travel tomorrow to Agra, where I will pick up a new driver to take me onward into Rajasthan.  Later.  Dave

Travel Report on Agra, Keoladeo NP & Ranthambore NP, India, Jan. 30, 2015

Hello everyone.  Again I have been many days without internet access, so am forced to file travelogues less often; more pictures per report for those who may look at the site just to glance at the pics.

I visited a number of sites in Agra, mostly Mughal tombs, but just one so overwhelms all others it demands exclusive prominence – that of course is the Taj Mahal, a World Heritage Site, and considered by many as exhibiting the most beautiful architecture in the modern world, often said to be the 8th wonder of the world after the original 7 of the ancient Greeks.  It is, as you know, the tomb of the favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, of Shah Jahan, the fourth of the 5 great Mughals who ruled much of India during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Shah Jahan was later overthrown by his own son, Aurangzeb, and incarcerated for the rest of his life in the Red Fort of Agra, and later buried beside Mumtaz in the Taj.

The building is instantly recognizable by all, but the intricacy of the white marble inlays of Koranic verses on the front and precious stone throughout, together with the carved curtains throughout the interior, simply defies belief that such effort could be expended.  Though it is very large, unlike the pyramids it does not awe with size, but with an apparently perfect form at distance and intricacy close-up, both coupled with the large scale.  I have included 2 pictures, one just a classic view, though it is one of my combination photos which will print to a very large size for a possible wall hanging – it shows the Taj during the very brief 40 minute period in mid-afternoon when the fog just cleared sufficiently for the sun to briefly brighten the view.  The second shows a section of the interior carved curtained marble walls, inlaid with semi-precious stones, which surround the cenotaphs themselves.

From Agra I traveled by private car and driver to Bharatpur, a small town alongside the world famous World Heritage site of Keoladeo National Park, the best known and best of bird parks in India.  It was once flood plain owned by the Maharaja of Bharatpur who built a dam and annually flooded the area in the mid 18th century.  This created lakes and marshes which for over two centuries attracted over 350 species of birds, many migratory from the northern tundra and parts of China and Russia.  I was able to locate and hire a couple of different expert bird guides, and spent 2 full days within the park by foot and bicycle rickshaw exploring the 12 kilometers of road and trails.  I especially enjoyed the Yellow-footed Green Pigeon flocks, and the brilliantly colored Spot-billed Ducks, as well as the large numbers of mammals including Sambar (aka Swamp Deer), Spotted Deer (aka Cheetal), Nilghai (aka Blue Bull), wild boar, Jungle Cat (aka Swamp Cat) and Indian Jackals (these jackals are much larger than those in Africa and very much resemble Timber Wolves – see picture) (Sorry for all the aka’s, but for those interested, many of the Indian animals and birds have gone by multiple names in the recent past, and may be known by many under only one of the many names).

From Bharatpur I traveled to Ranthambore National Park, which lies within another previous Maharaja’s private lands, and covers hundreds of square kilometers of heavily jungled and mountainess countryside.  It is one of the best known and most successful of India’s efforts to save the tiger; the park has doubled the number of resident tigers to almost 50, and some of its tigers have been relocated to other parks where the species went extinct through mostly habitat loss and poaching for illegal trade to China (where it should be noted all rhino horn and most elephant tusks also illegally go, threatening 2 of the 3 species survival).

Unfortunately, the hotel booked for me by the agency again did not meet minimal expectations.  It was an attempt to copy the great tent safari camps of Africa, with included bathroom; however, tents with openings with broken and non-functioning zippers, with no heat during very cold weather, and mostly with only 10 liter hot water heaters, which are rated to just fill the plastic buckets provided in the bath area so one may use a cup to douse oneself with warm water in an effort to bathe, was not my idea of a pleasant 4 day stay.  I did not bathe for 3 days, as the weather remained foggy and very cold – on the 4th day sunshine minimally heated the tent, and by ordering delivery to my tent of a second plastic bucket of hot water, a bath was accomplished.

The park itself is an impressive area of dry jungle covering steep hilltops and large valley floors, with several small rivers and seepages providing year-round water.  It is filled with two types of antelope and two types of deer, both common to India, the Indian Gazelle (Chinkara), the Nilghai (Blue Bull), the Spotted Deer (Cheetal) and the large Sambar (Swamp Deer).  These all exist in large numbers which, along with the habitat, supports the population of almost 50 tigers and about 90 leopards.  Unfortunately, sightings of the big cats is exceedingly rare, as both are nocturnal and all safaris into the park are daytime.  The Park is so popular with tourists now, including huge numbers of Indians, that the government, which controls all ingress and egress, allows only a limited number of ranger led jeeps and trucks into 10 different zones which are somewhat allocated randomly.  The experience is cheapened by the sheer number of jeeps and trucks always converging on the same spots, the loud discussions between the jeep rangers and drivers, and the constant feeling that all other wildlife is just to be briefly glanced at while the rangers try to show their prowess at looking for tiger tracks and discussing the most recent sightings (always the spot where the jeeps converge for the next 2 days, as if being close to where someone recently saw a big cat will somehow make our experience richer).  Pretty much daily there would be a report of a tiger sighting; even if true, with some 80 jeeps and a similar number of trucks permitted inside the Park each morning, and again each evening, I figure the odds of being in a group to spot a tiger is somewhere in the range of 1 or 2 in 100.

I was going to visit the famous and huge Ranthambore Fort, perched on top a huge mountain inside the park, but learned locally that within just over an hour’s drive of Ranthambore was one of the Chambal River Gharial Sanctuary areas.  Gharials, aka Gavials, are very large fish eating crocodiles (as large as Nile Crocodiles), recognizable by their very long narrow snouts.  At the top end of the male’s snout lies a huge bulbous knob.  There are fewer than 250 Gharials in the wild remaining in the world today – this definitely puts them in the critically endangered category, and likely to go extinct in the near future.  I hired a private diesel jeep and driver for the short but difficult ride to the river.  Along the river are no towns, and just 2 very small tent camps, though no one was staying there.  I had my hotel call to pre-arrange a boatman and guide at the river.  We took an hour and half ride around the junction of two other rivers into the Chambal River, which is the only river in India with remaining Gharials (the other lies in Nepal).  The local population counts just 26, including young – I was able to photograph 13, including one of the 2 large males.  It was sobering to then realize that within a 40 minute period I had witnessed and recorded over 5% of the entire population of Gharials remaining  in the world.  I saw no evidence that other tourists visit often – it is not advertised, and is certainly not easy to get to.  We also saw a number of Muggers, large crocodiles while more closely resemble the Saltwater Crocs of Asia, but with much broader snouts (which somewhat resemble American Aligators); the Muggers are infamous for filling the rivers of India 100 years ago, and killing a great deal of livestock and occasional humans.

I have somewhat re-arranged the next portion of my trip.  I was to travel to Udaipur after Ranthambore, but after looking at the extremely long drive times each way, I cancelled the Udaipur leg, and arrived in Jaipur 2 days early.  From here I have added a new small National Park, Sariska, to my itinerary.  I will report on these in the next installment.

Indian food remains excellent – definitely better generally here than what is served in the hundreds of Indian restaurants that now fill most cities in the US.  I have pretty much settled on drinking Kingfisher lager beer (what is here labeled “heavy” beer is somewhat akin to an overly sweet malty light stout, and not good to my tastes).  As the hotels charge exhorbitant prices for beer, I am in the habit of having my driver pick up the beer and keep it in a cooler in the back of the car so I can pop a couple of cold bottles each evening.

Till later, Dave


Report On Jaipur, Sariska NP & Corbett NP, India, Feb. 7, 2015

Since my last posting, I have visited the more famous tourist spots of Jaipur, in Rajasthan, as well as the small National Park of Sariska, and the first of the great Indian National Parks and Tiger Reserves, Corbett, in the Himalayan foothills.

First Jaipur:  I traveled to the “Pink City” where I spent just a couple of days, as I have visited it before, although many years ago.  My favorite site before, and still, is the Amer Palace sitting within the outside confines of the great Amer Fortress, about 10 kilometers from Jaipur.  This was the capital of the leading Rajput clan from the 11th to the 18th century.  The setting is still one of the most dramatic in India.  Within Jaipur, of course the Hawa Mahal (Wind Palace) must be visited just for the exterior view, one of India’s most memorable after the Taj, and the City Palace where the Maharaja of Rajasthan still resides.  Beside it is the Jantar Mantar, one of the many great 18th century observatories built by the Maharaja Jai Singh, with its giant calibrated and extremely accurate stone instruments for tracking all planetary positions (for astrological as opposed to astronomical purposes).

From Jaipur I traveled to the little visited Sariska National Park, with its few tigers, but abundant other wildlife.  I was situated in a small hotel with a dirt road running right along the Park’s western boundary, and spent one entire day walking along paths just outside and within the Park.  Of the larger wildlife, I was constantly surrounded by the Nilghai (Bluebull), the second largest antelope in the world.  One large male, who was very close to me, kept issuing alarm calls as he could not spot me, and was troubled by a Rufous Treepie sitting on its ear trying to pick ticks from the ear canal (see photo).  Within the Park, on safari ride with a customarily rowdy group from Australia (I think I was able to give better than I got – 3 months of practice a few years ago in the Outback trained me well), I finally got decently close to both the Bar-headed geese and the Painted Storks, both of which avoided me at Keoladeo.

From Sariska I traveled to Delhi, where I spent the night before the long drive up to the Jim Corbett National Park and Tiger Reserve in the Himalayan foothills.  The park is named for the great white hunter, Jim Corbett, who, in the early 20th century, tracked and killed more man-eating tigers and leopards than any other person.  He also spent some years in Africa as a “great white hunter”, and perhaps is the most famous of the genre in history.  In childhood I grew up reading his books telling the many tales of the different man-eating tigers he had tracked and dispatched;  these stories created lifetime memories and sometimes nightmares for a boy growing up in tiger infested jungles.  In his later years, towards the mid-century, he turned preservationist, as have so many famous hunters, and is credited with pushing for the creation of wildlife reserves; the Corbett National Park is the first and still largest of the many Indian tiger reserves now dedicated to the preservation of the endangered species.

My first day in Corbett I spent traveling to the very heart of the huge preserve to stay at the jungle camp of Dhikala, by Ramganga River and Lake.  Here is the heart of tiger-land, teeming with wildlife and birds.  It takes about 3 hours of jeep trail driving within the park just to reach the camp; I had hoped to spend at least 3 days here, but could only book one long day (and night).  From entry to exit of the park, in just over a 24 hour period, I spend 11 hours on private safari.  AND, did I mention I saw TIGER – TWICE, first in the afternoon ride, and again the next morning.  This was my first sighting of live tiger in the wild since some views of late night road-crossings in boyhood.

The first tiger was resting in the middle of the jeep track, with the setting sun in the background, and a herd of Spotted Deer just up the trail warily watching the tiger.  The tiger finally sauntered off in the general direction of the deer, and then into the jungle.  We moved the jeep up, and within 10 minutes the tiger reappeared from the edge of the jungle within just 20 meters of the jeep.  I must say, being alone in the back of an open jeep, with just the driver, and a tiger within a few bounds is exhilarating, and affected me more than the lions of Africa.  The following morning I again saw a tiger crossing a trail, perhaps the same tiger.  The central area around Dhikala also had a large number of other animals, including the endangered Gharial (Gavial) crocodiles, of which I previously wrote; they have been reintroduced into the Ramganga River and Lake, and seem to be doing well, but can only be spotted at great distance, together with the mugger crocodiles which are fairly common in the Indian jungle rivers.

My next three days at Corbett had been booked by the agency at an expensive resort, which, it turns out, is a destination resort for Indian families and conferences.  This “resort” turned out to be 23 kilometers of single track jeep trail away from the central town (and away from Park gates and the highway).  That 23 kilometers turned into 1 hour and 10 minutes of kidney-painful driving, EACH way; this before transfer by jeep from Ramnagar for the 10 to 30 minutes to the various gates to start the safari rides.   I was required the first morning to leave the hotel at 5am to get the 6:30 safari.  After some trouble I was able to rebook into a cheap hotel in the town of Ramnagar which suited me fine for the remaining safari rides.

Anyway, my next safaris all were into the Park, but none went so far into the interior as the great Dhikala site.  However, a great deal of wildlife is visible, including many Asian Elephants (wild, of course), Spotted Deer, the bucks with massive antlers relative to their small size, Sambar, Wild Boar, Great Hornbills, and a good variety of other birds, including 4 species of the brilliant colored  Minivets, the rarely seen Kalij Pheasant, and the impressive Grey-headed Fish Eagle and Changeable Hawk Eagle.   I have included a fairly large selection of wildlife and bird photos with this posting – and did I mention I saw TIGERS.

On a separate note, let me talk a little about forms of bureaucracy in the country which can boggle the mind.  All permits for such things as the Park entries, jeep safaris, all hotel registrations, and many other activities require a time-consuming filling in of forms.  All hotels, even the top tier ones, not only require for registration all passport and all Indian visa details (numbers, dates and places of issue and expiry) but full addresses, telephones, India arrival and departure dates, places just arrived from and next destinations etc. – and these must be hand-filled in, in painstaking detail, in giant ancient style ledger books, with multiple tiny columns into which one must try to fill entire addresses into boxes the size of this word “addresses”.   And then the government form comes – requiring of foreigners again all the same information as filled into the ledger – this government form must be hand filled out in triplicate, by the foreigner, written onto old-fashioned sheet forms with carbon paper used in between the different colored sheets.  Safari bookings require such ledger book detail, then the filling in of the permit paper itself – and on arrival at the Park gates, one again must show the passport and fill out another ledger book.  Nowhere, except at a large Delhi and Agra hotel, have I seen a computerized system.  All restaurants in the large hotels also have a person sitting behind a desk who hand-transfers all one’s order information into a large ledger, and onto separate sheets, which then are taken to the hotel registration desk to be stapled to the room information.  Almost every third-world country I have visited has better systems, including computers, at the more expensive establishments.  I never would have thought India, with its huge technology universities, could be still so completely mired in a form (pun intended) of such outdated record-keeping, mostly dating back to the British Raj of the first half of the 20th century.

I have returned today to Delhi to spend the night before my airport transfer in the morning to fly to Kathmandu for 9 days in Nepal.  As I only rarely have had internet access, even in the fancy “resorts”, I do not know when I again will be able to make a posting.  Later.  Dave





Report on Kathmandu, Pokhara & Chitwan Nat. Park, Nepal, Feb. 16, 2015

From Delhi I flew to Kathmandu 9 days ago;  I again had a little trouble clearing security – my daypack is filled with camera and hiking items, most of which have metal.  The Indian security, much tighter than in the USA, requires every item with any metal to be removed and put in separate containers for inspection – a very time consuming process for me (I do not trust most of these items to my checked luggage).

Kathmandu has certainly changed since my last visit in 1982.  It has gone from a hill town, with many old wooden structures and population of 350,000 to a vast continuous concrete jungle, with terrible air and water pollution, choked streets and arteries and a population of over 3 million.  Getting to see the sites was a real chore.  Still – the entire valley is named a World Heritage Site for 7 remarkable  core areas – I visited 6 of these.  The capitals of three Kingdoms which ruled the Valley from the 12th through the early 18th centuries, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan, each has an ancient center called Durbar Square.  Here one finds the old palaces and temple pagodas, mostly constructed of brick and wood from the 15th through the early 18th centuries, with intricate carvings in the wood.  Pillars and stone gods abound.

The monuments are a photographer’s dream – which creates a photographer’s problem, identical to one I encountered in the Cambodian Angkor Watt temples.  Roughly 90% of the tourists here are from mainland China, coming by the thousands in large tour groups.  Numbers of young women come with friend, husband or contract photographers, I don’t know which, and perch themselves as “models” before and upon the temples, statues, windows or any spots providing photogenic opportunities.  They dress in spectacular colors, favoring local indigenous clothing, with gaudy jewelry, and the males with the cameras start shooting.  I have not figured out whether this is just a form of self-absorption or whether these are women trying to create portfolios for entering careers as models.  Whatever, it is a bit of a nuisance for those of us interested in the Heritage site monuments themselves.  The structures should remain unadorned by dressed up wannabee models, sitting glamorously, even sulkily, but, always, sitting to block the windows, doorways, ledges, stairs or wherever.  This certainly is a form of monument pollution – it should be forbidden.  They strike poses, gazing through sunglassed eyes off in the distance, one arm languorously extended with a hand resting on an elephant’s or god’s head.  These photo “shoots” can extend through dozens of poses.

The other Heritage sites in the Kathmandu Valley include two spectacular Buddhist Stupas, the Boudhanath and the Swayumbhunath, both dating from the 5th century.  Finally, the Pashupatinath Hindu Temple is the holiest in Nepal and famous throughout SE Asia, and its site on a small river rivals the Varanasi Ghats for funerals.  No one knows when the temple first was constructed – the earliest historic reference to reparations are from the 12th century – but it all is very old.  I watched one entire cremation ceremony, moved by one wailing woman, presumably the wife of the deceased.  The Temple monuments cover over half a square kilometer, and everywhere are both Brahmins bestowing blessings on visitors, and large numbers of Sadhus (holy, usually ascetic, men), many covered in ash, all with long hair and beards, and most wearing blazing colors.  Decades ago one could ask and usually receive permission to take photos of a Sadhu, usually then giving a small baksheesh (gift).  Today they band together and actively market their availability for photo opportunities for cash payment.  I wonder how this commercial activity has affected their “holiness”.

From Kathmandu I drove to Pokhara, in a different Himalayan foothills valley.  The road to Pokhara, the only “major” highway through central Nepal, is a death-trap.  I have traveled the world and seen some dangerous mountain roads, but this was the worst I recall.  Drivers of the huge trucks speed downhill, and many crazies attempt to pass on curves.  We were involved in a dozen very near misses, and along the 200 km route I counted the results of 7 accidents, two clearly fatal.  I advise anyone traveling this route to consider using the small prop aircraft that fly to Pokhara.

Pokhara itself sits in a valley with the highest rainfall in Nepal, close to the Annapurna  Range of the Himalaya.  From Pokhara, and particularly from the tops of some of the low mountains around it, one has a view of 3 of the highest peaks in the world, all over 26,000 feet.  A major factor in mountains’ impressiveness is, of course, scale – the gain in elevation over one’s view point, and distance to the mountains.  The Rocky Mountains from Denver, though with several 14,000 ft. peaks, tower only about 9,000 feet above Denver.  Even the great Andes Peaks, which climb to over 20,000 ft., must usually be viewed from elevations of close to 8,000 feet, giving a differential of about 12,000 ft.  But the Himalayas, with many peaks over 26,000 ft. can be viewed from many vantage points at under 5,000 feet, giving them over a 20,000 foot differential.  This creates an “awesomeness” no other mountain range in the world achieves.

Pokhara sits on the north shore of a dammed lake, on the south side of which is the Raniban Forest.  I hired a local guide to lead me on a hike though the forest – twice we had to climb about 200 meters up 60 degree slopes to gain passage around the lake, often climbing on knees to keep from careening back down the mountain side.  I did get to see 8 new and glorious species of spectacular forest birds, including the Greater Yellownape, Long-tailed Broadbill, Asian Barred Owlet and Maroon Oriole; got a few pictures, but the distance, intervening growth, and under-foliage darkness made any great photography practically impossible (my apologies in advance for including a few less than stellar bird photos, but those included were some of my favorite birds).

From Pokhara I drove down a steep river gorge into the southern lowlands of Nepal to the Chitwan National Park, another World Heritage Site.  I had visited here 33 years ago, and wanted to return for its famous Greater One-horned Rhinoceros, which have been critically endangered for decades (the population was under 600 in 1975, but now has been brought back to around 3,000).  It is the world’s largest rhino, with heavy skin folds appearing as armored plating.  The first afternoon, I watched three rhinos from my 4th floor veranda as they grazed – one crossing the Rapti River to enter the Park – about 1 km downstream.  I had one early morning elephant ride into the park, but it was marred by my being paired with a family of 3 Nepalese who carried on a conversation non-stop for the first hour.  I  finally requested their silence so we could hear the jungle sounds (at the location for boarding the elephants is a large sign stating “do not talk”, among other admonitions).  The mornings seem always to have a very heavy fog, making photography all but impossible.  I took one 5 hour private jeep ride in the afternoon, with a good private bird guide, and though the birding was a little thin, we were rewarded with one excellent encounter with a large male rhino taking a water-mud bath.   When it lifted its head out of the water, the wounds on its chin made clear it had been sparring with others – the guide noted it was the beginning of breeding season and the males were all fighting.  I also finally got a decent photo opportunity for the seldom seen Hog Deer.  Another highlight was to view nesting Lesser Adjutants, an ugly and endangered stork, related to the Marabou Storks of Africa (see photo for a face only a mother could love).

As an aside, in the interior of Corbett National Park, and here at Chitwan, where there is no refrigeration and the electricity may run half the time, making cold beer unavailable, I have been drinking a Nepalese dark “oak-aged” Rum which I find far more palatable than the local whiskey.  Even here in Nepal I find the Indian food very good.  Tomorrow I fly back to India, to Kolkata for a couple of days, and from there up to Assam in the far northeast to join my Canadian friend Ken Pease and his wife; we will visit the Kaziranga National Park and then head south to central India.  Later.  Dave


Report on Calcutta and Kaziranga, Bandhavgarh & Kanha National Parks, India, Mar. 2, 2015

Hello everyone.  From Nepal I flew the 17th of February to Calcutta, where I stayed just two nights before flying on to Guwahati, Assam in the far northeast of India.  My free day in Calcutta I spent about 4 hours in the very old Indian Museum, which dates from the 1850s.  It is the oldest museum in Asia, and it shows in several ways.  The building was constructed around 1800 and is a marvelous old bit of British colonial architecture, with the four sides surrounding an open courtyard.  The museum houses all forms of collections, from the terrific archaeological gems and statuary from all parts of India, to paleontology and fossils, to the natural history section with its ancient stuffed mammals and birds.  As to the sad and hilarious stuffed creatures, my Rough Guide simply stated that “most look in dire need of a decent burial.”

On the 19th I arrived in Guwahati, capital of Assam, where I met my friends from Canada, Ken Pease and his wife Anna; we had a car and driver drive us directly to Kaziranga National Park, about 5 hours to the east, where we stayed for 5 nights.  Kaziranga is famous mostly, and justly, for its tremendous numbers of the endangered Great One-horned Rhinoceros.  The park sits covering a huge 430 square kilometers on the southern banks of the great Brahmaputra River system;  this land consists mostly of lowlands, which periodically flood, and is covered about 1/3 with elephant grass.  Here live large numbers of endangered very large beasts.  Most of the world’s remaining Great One-horned Rhinos live here, the largest Rhinos on earth, together with equal numbers of the very large and mean looking Asian Wild Buffalo (ancestor of water buffalos), with large populations of Asian Elephants.  All these large animals seem almost commonplace as one jeeps around the various Park trails.  Also present are large numbers of endangered Barasingha (Swamp Deer), and Hog Deer, together with Sambar and Muntjac.  Tigers and leopards are here in fair numbers, but very rarely seen.

The first morning we did our one and only elephant ride into the edge of the park.  The elephant back gives one a vantage point to look down from above the elephant grass and so to get right up close to the Rhinos.  The rhinos are pretty much unperturbed by the presence of the elephants, even with the people talking.  The elephants are, however, fairly uncomfortable to ride, with an uneasy and lurching gait (not nearly so bad a riding a camel, but considerable worse than a horse or mule).  One rhino had a very young and cute newborn with her.  Another had a major horn wound on its rump.  They say its breeding season, and the rhinos tend to fight, whether male or female.  The Asiatic Wild Buffalo look pretty much like very large water buffalo, but the males have generally much broader horns.  The Asian Elephants are not as dangerous as their African brethren, but still they are reputed in each Park to kill several people a year.

We drove back to Guwahati on Tuesday and spent a very long day flying first to Calcutta and, after a 4 hour layover, to Nagpur.  After a short night’s sleep we drove a long day up to Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, famous for supposedly having the highest density of tigers of any reserve.  The jeep safaris, however, leave very much to be desired.  We did see tiger the first time out, but with 18 jeeps in the same area, and all literally racing to each scene of a reported tiger sighting, the dust clouds were enormous and made seeing practically impossible.  Further, as the jeeps raced up, invariably, the resting tiger would walk away into the forest.  It is an almost unconscionable way to run a famous tiger reserve.  Our final safaris we insisted upon getting away from the other jeeps; we were rewarded with a private tiger sighting in a riverbed, and watched the tiger bed down behind a large boulder.  There is not a large diversity of species of birds here in the central plains of India, but I was impressed with my first several sightings of the Crested Hawk Eagle with its very long crest feathers almost comically jutting from the top of its head.  I also saw the beautiful little Black Redstart, and the unusual Red-naped Ibis.  Our accomodations were a series of cottages spread around a small lake, and we constantly had a troupe of Common Langur monkeys in the trees and on the roofs around us.

From Bandhavgarh we drove back south to Kanha National Park, perhaps the best of the central Indian Parks.  It has dense jungles of Sal and Teak, with the canopy often well over 100 feet.  It has large numbers of the endangered Barasingha Deer as well as the largest buffalo species in the world, the Gaur.   We saw no tiger here, but did see many Gaur and our first sighting of a pair of Sloth Bears.  The Spotted Deer bucks were fighting and the Peacocks displaying as mating season arrived.  The weather was terrible, and it rained most of the first two nights and our entire first safari day which had booked 2 “premium” safaris.  We spent much of the time huddled under a plastic jeep top, and the rest I was bundled under my poncho, trying to keep myself and camera dry.  It was dark, and needless to say, pictures were way below standard due to both lack of light and the heavy rain.  The second morning, after rainfall continuously for 36 hours, the rain cleared but the Park closed temporarily due to wash-outs, and our safaris were cancelled.  They reported a total of 76mm (31 inches) of rainfall in the park over the last day and half (This doesn’t sound credible).  This is supposed to be the dry season.

Tomorrow we head out for a long day of driving to Chikaldara, a jungle hilltop station where I went to boarding school in 1954-55.

Report on Chikalda, Ellora & Ajanta Caves & Goa, India, Mar. 11, 2015

I reported last from Kanha National Park where our first 2 safaris saw us pretty much riding through rain in an open jeep.  After two nights and 1 day of heavy rain, our final day turned out beautiful, but the Park cancelled the morning safaris because of downed trees and mud; so we really were fairly out-of-luck for wildlife viewing.

From Kanha we drove southwest to the low hills of northern Maharashtra where I went to boarding school for the first grade in 1954-1955, in a town then called Chikalda (now Chikaldara).  We stayed 2 nights in a rather decrepit hotel, reputed to be the best in town.  It certainly cooked us wonderful Indian food, but getting hot water was a bit of a rare occurrence.  We actually managed to find our old school building, now converted into a hotel – rather a poor looking hotel – with no guests, as it is the low season.  We also managed to find the reconditioned building where I boarded for a year with 11 other children – it now is an Indian Government Tourism Department hotel – more decrepit than the school property hotel, and also without guests.

We spent one entire morning visiting the famous (to us) fort known as Gawilghur, located in a stunning location on a giant mountain top outcroppng with cliffs on three sides and just a long narrow stretch connecting the double sets of walls to the mountaintop.  Mainly built in the 15th century, it saw its last battle in 1803 when General Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington of Napoleonic Wars fame) successfully attacked the Maratha forces with British and various Indian troops, taking the fort after great losses to his attacking troops.  He spent weeks having his engineers built a road up the mountain for hauling his cannon.  Military historian Jac Weller apparently has said that three boy scout troops armed with rocks should have been able to defend the fort against military force.  The breaches in the walls still are visible today as the fort was abandoned after 1803.   As a very young boy, the fort always captured my imagination on our infrequent hikes, and it did not disappoint on this trip. The fort still has its largest canon sitting forlorn overlooking the cliff where General Wellesley watched from a distance as the British flag finally was raised over the far ramparts.

From Chikalda we spent a long day traveling back to my childhood home in Basim (now Washim) in Maharashtra.  There I found my old childhood home, where I lived with my family from age 3 to 17, in more decrepit condition than the Chikalda properties, with the entire outer veranda porch collapsing into the soil, and the interior a mess.  Trying to “go home” after half a century can be a real disappointment.

We drove by the Lonar meteor crater, a natural wonder of the world.  It is one of two recently (within, say, 50,000 years) formed meteor craters in the world heavily studied by NASA (the other being Meteor Crater in northern Arizona).  My father used to take us there in November to hunt peahens (females of Peafowl) for Thanksgiving dinner (you may ask why we hunted the peahens instead of the peacocks – the answer is simple – the peacock is India’s national bird and protected, but the peahen may be hunted).  The meteor crater floor is covered by a lake, and around the edges are the ruins of a number of ancient Hindu temples, their placement in recognition of this site as being other-worldly.  From Lonar we drove on to the Maharashtra city of Aurangabad where we stayed 3 nights.

The hills east of Aurangabad offer two of the most spectacular archaeological ruins on earth, both now World Heritage Sites; the Ellora Caves and the Ajanta Caves.  These are not natural caves, but Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monasteries, chapels and temples, hand carved into solid volcanic basalt cliffs between the 2nd century BC and around 800 AD.  The earlier of the two sets of monuments is at the Ajanta Caves, which consist of 27 different  Buddhist “viharas” (chapel shrines) and monasteries, all carved into a long horseshoe shaped cliff overlooking  a small canyon with creek.  Many of the structures have interior walls still completely covered in painted murals depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life, as well as scenes of visiting rajas and traders.  The interiors of the monuments are kept very dark to preserve the paintings, and so it is very difficult to obtain photos.  The caves were not discovered in modern times until well into the 19th century.  The Ellora Caves were constructed about 100 kms away, after the Ajanta Caves were abandoned.  The early Ellora Caves all were Buddhist and very similar to Ajanta, but any wall paintings have been destroyed.  The later Ellora caves are Hindu and Jain temples and monasteries.  The 8th century Kailash Hindu Temple probably is the largest monolithic structure in the world made by man.  Rather than being a “cave” carved into the side of the mountain, it is a monolithic temple carved from the top of the mountain down, resulting in a huge domed structure some 95 feet tall, with interior floors, stairs etc.  Around the outer courtyard are verandas carved further into the sides of the mountain.  Everywhere are Hindu gods carved as part of the monolithic structure.  It is not hyperbole to say it staggers the imagination.

From Aurangabad we had a long day of flying (over 4 hours in Bombay airport) to Goa where we have stayed the last 3 nights.  Goa, which was a Portuguese enclave until a few decades ago, was the landing point of Vasco de Gama when he “discovered” India.  It is separated from the rest of the Indian subcontinent by the Western Ghats, a large mountain range running down the southwestern coast of India.  In recent times, Goa has become the beach resort destination for foreigners, most of whom have come from Russia and the Slavic countries.  With the economic downturn throughout much of Europe and the collapse of the Ruble, tourists just are not visiting Goa as much and times are hard for the merchants.  Old Goa is the original colonial town which has some fairly interesting Portuguese 16th and 17th century churches and ruins.  I also spent two half days doing some birding in the nearby foothills of the western Ghats at a place called Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, and was rewarded with several new bird, including the Crimson-backed Sunbird, Asian Paradise Flycatcher and Malabar Pied Hornbill.

Report on Badami-Pattadakal-Aihole, Hampi, Madurai, Kodai & Bombay, India, Mar. 26, 2015

I last reported on Goa, from where we drove over the Western Ghats to Badami, Pattadakal and Aihole, where for two days we visited the archaeological remains of the great Hindu Chalukyan Empire which controlled much of south-central India from the 6th through the 8th centuries.  Badami served as the capital from 543-757 AD.  Four of the earliest Badami temples are monolithic carvings into stone cliffs in a style patterned after the Ellora Caves; these have some magnificent 3-D relief panel carvings of heroic sized Hindu deities.  Of particular note is the 16 armed “dancing Lord Shiva” with images of Nandi the bull and Lord Ganesh the elephant headed deity below.   Scattered around a lake just below the caves, and on nearby mountaintops, are a large number of temples constructed from finely cut and fitted stones, using no mortar, in a manner reminiscent of the ancient Hittites and more recent Incas.  At nearby Pattadakal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Chalukyan temples all are constructed in a single large courtyard, believed to have been used just for coronation rites of the various kings.  The most unusual, slightly oval, late 7th century Durga Temple, as well as a couple of others, appear to have “sealed” their entirely stone roofs by placing stone “half logs” (as if one cut a log in half lengthwise) on top of all stone seams.  Aihole, further to the east, was the largest Chalukyan center, operating well into the 12th century (the later period being denominated “Rashtrakuta”), and contains over 120 temples and structures spread over a very large area.  I had never properly seen these southern style temple structures before this trip, and realized now the contribution this architectural style apparently made to the Angkorian Empire construction in the 9th-14th centuries in Cambodia.

From Badami we traveled south to Hospet to visit the World Heritage Site of Hampi, an ancient ghost town now.  We spent two days covering the more important of the hundreds of temples, pillared halls and palaces of the capital city of the Vijayanagar Empire, which founded this capital in 1343, where it remained until destroyed by Muslim forces in 1565.  The city at its height was the trading capital of the Indian Deccan,  trading horses, spices, jewels and silk.  The kilometer-long approaches to the major temples are stone paved “roadways” a hundred feet wide, lined on both sides with double storied pillared shopping stalls which created the gigantic markets for the traders.  The buildings are spread over many square miles, most constructed of finely cut sandstone, with intricate pillars and carvings.  Many of the pillared temples and long hallways are reminiscent of classic Greek architecture.  Here also, especially on the massive Vitthala Temple, are the pillars with fantastic carved rearing horse and dragon creatures, each ridden by a small deity figure, most closely reminiscent of carousel animals with their riders.  The high fortified city and palace stone walls, where still standing, display the incredible mortar-less stone work where each stone is custom fitted to the exact shape of the surrounding stones – so that most are only roughly rectangular, having often 5 to 10 edges to precisely fit their neighbors.  Again, this is most reminiscent of the ancient Hittite and much later contemporary Inca construction.

From Hampi we traveled south, flying to Madurai, where we met a number of members of our 1967 high school class from boarding school days in India.  Our hotel, the Gateway Resort was located on top of a heavily wooded hill overlooking the town; at least 15 fairly exotic species of birds resided on the forested grounds and provided good photography targets.  We visited the outer perimeter of the famous Meenakshi Hindu Temple, but were hugely disappointed at the extreme police barricades completely encircling the square block, with police watch-towers at each corner and no photography permitted inside.  The “blessing” elephant came around the side street to intercept us, rubbing its snotty trunk on our heads and shirts looking for money which it grabbed in exchange for issuing a “blessing” on us.

From Madurai we traveled to Kodaikanal, the old British hill station where we went to boarding school from the mid-1950s through 1967.  Mostly we all just spent the entire time at different old Kodai classmate’s houses for teas and dinners (a number of ex-Kodai School alumni now live part time in Kodai, many of them artists or teaching part-time at the school).  Kodai School at the time we all attended in the 1950s and 1960s was a small school teaching grades 1 through 12, with generally no more than 300 total students, all of whom lived in various boarding houses for 9 months of each year.  This made us much more like family than classmates, and even after 50 years we find we have solid bonds and incredible mutual memories.

Kodaikanal town itself lies at about 7,700 feet, at the side of a picturesque lake, and is surrounded by hilltops and dense sholas –  heavily rain-forested areas filling the watersheds, which forests are comprised of around 70 species of trees.  This dense and wet environment provides a most beautiful countryside, with multiple damned lakes, and is filled with a huge number of wildlife and bird species.  The gaur, the world’s largest buffalo (and dangerous), now wander down shola roads around the Kodai Lake.  I had time for a couple of short hikes, both led by ex-boarding house mate Bruce Peck; the first just through Bombay Shola where we were rewarded with 20 minutes of entertainment by a pair of rare Malabar Giant Squirrels, and the second down to the top of Pembar Falls where we saw both a giant flying squirrel and a very endangered Nilgiri Wood Pigeon.

From Kodai, my travel partners Ken, Anna and I traveled down the back Ghat road to Coimbatore, from where we flew to Bombay.  We have spent the last two days visiting sites Ken and I remember from the days we lived in India.  Of particular interest was our half-day boat trip across the harbor to Elephanta Island, another UNESCO World Heritage Site with several 6th century,Ellora style, monolithic rock cave temples; the Cave 1 contains the famous and huge (20 feet high) 3-face image of Shiva known as Trimurti.  The 1 hour boat ride to the island still leaves from the Gateway to India, built in 1924 to honor the visit of King George V in 1911.   We also visited the famous Victoria Terminus, the main train station in Bombay, built with the classic British architectural style of India in 1887.  Ken and I wandered for a while through the narrow passageways of Crawford Market where our parents once a year, 5 to 6 decades ago, would come to shop for tinned and packaged specialty goods imported from England and the USA.  We had lunch on consecutive days at Gaylords Restaurant, where I have fond memories, over 5 decades old, of pickled onions and hard-crusted rolls with creamery butter (neither now available – the restaurant has gone from old British to Indian food), and Khyber Restaurant, perhaps the fanciest Indian restaurant in town, where Ken’s accompaniments of a bowl of white rice and plastic bottle of water alone cost 560 Rupees ($9.00 US).  This morning I walked to the Red Shield House, a hostal/hotel operated by the Salvation Army since the early 1900s.  When in Bombay in the 50s and 60s my family used to stay there in a double room with private bath, now still available with added AC for $24, inclusive of breakfast.  The backpacker dorms cost $5.50, inclusive of breakfast.  Directly cattycorner stands the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which was the major target in the 2008 Bombay terror attacks, and where rooms start at over $600.  Quite a contrast in lodging, which has existed unchanged for close to 100 years.

My India time is up, and I head to the airport this evening for the very long flight back to the United States.  Later.  Dave