Monday, 20 February 2012

Surprise City Break

After 6 weeks in the British winter, and just as the first real snowfall started, we were putting away the down jackets, sleeping bags and woolly hats of Nepal and packing for the heat of Southern India, first stop Mumbai.  With temperatures hovering around 37'C, it would represent a jump of about 37 degrees! Our journey to Manchester airport by train was bound to be a little cold, but in about 12 hours we would be sweltering. It didn't quite work out like that - the snow that hit the UK that February morning was nothing compared to the disruption it caused in south eastern Europe. Our flight was delayed due to the snow in Istanbul, where we were had a short transfer, with a good 3 inches on the ground. The airport was chaotic, and we felt for the poor lady with her head in her hands at the transfer desk as she tried to deal with all the people like us who, due to the snow, had cancelled flights or missed connections. We were pretty easy - we had no fixed itinerary, all the time in the world, and a desire to see Istanbul. If it was at the expense of Turkish Airlines, even better! Eventually we were booked onto a flight for the following evening and  transferred by mini bus to the Hilton. The only snag? No luggage, and being dressed for India! But we enjoyed the nicest hotel room we're likely to see for a very long time.
Colourful turkish lamps in the Grand Bazaar                 

The next morning we headed into the centre of Istanbul to see what sights we could. We started in the Grand Bazaar, a massive covered warren of assorted shops selling all manner of items, such as spice, turkish delight (no, not belly dancers), carpets and lamps. The warm woolly hats and thick sheepskin coats looked particularly appealing. This was the only inside attraction that day, as from here we went on to see the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, both as impressive as they were massive. This was an interesting time to visit, as hundreds of Muslim men were streaming towards the Blue Mosque for Friday afternoon prayers.

Palm trees in the snow, outside the Blue Mosque 

By the time we were chilled to the bone it was time to head back to the airport. But it being Friday afternoon, and the fact that the shuttle bus had to visit several city hotels to pick up other stranded passengers, the 30 minute journey took over two hours, and as a result we arrived at check in very close to closing time. After 20 minutes waiting to see if there was space on the overbooked plane we got a boarding pass, but then had to high tail it to the gate. Once there, as if fate was trying to keep us in Istanbul, a Turkish Airlines official asked if we would give up our seats, as the overbooking still hadn't been resolved. Some decent compensation and another night, this time in an even better hotel, was tempting, but just as we planned our second day in Istanbul it all changed again. Due to some airline visa issue we were asked to board the plane after all. We were finally on our way to India.

From Bombay to Om Bay

We're over a fortnight into our time in India, but it's taken me this long to sit down to write the blog.  The problem is you can't use a computer on the beach! Actually, that's unfair as we've done a lot more than lounging on the beach, and it's going to be hard to sum up the last couple of weeks in one go.
Mumbai (or Bombay, depending who you talk to) was hectic but no more than we were used to from Nepal. It was a weird mix of modern India bustling around crumbling buildings from colonial times. The old markets, mansions and town halls were in such a state of disrepair it's hard to imagine that they'll survive much longer, just gradually decay away into the melting pot that is modern Mumbai. It's a city of contrasts, and it was odd to see how intermingled the slums were with smart tower blocks next to ornate gardens.
We left the city by train from the still grand Victoria Terminus (think St Pancras in the tropics, but with people actually living on the platforms) on our first Indian railway journey down the Konkan Coast. Leaving Bombay the train passed by shanty towns (over half the population of the city live in slums) adjacent to posh glass tower blocks. While commuters with shirts and briefcases travel by foot along the rails others squat naked washing (amongst other things..).

Victoria Terminus behind Bombay's ubiquitous Ambassador taxis

Train travel in India is enjoyable- on our comfortable air conditioned sleeper bunks we relaxed watching the surprisingly arid scenery through the window, while a constant procession of chai, samosas and biryanis pass by up the aisle. We broke our journey at two points on the Konkan coast, jumping onto tuk-tuks for the scenic trips out to the beach through fishing villages and past banana plantations and palm trees. These first two stops were far from the backpacker trail- we stayed in quiet Indian holiday resorts next to wild, wide, windswept beaches where we watched the sunset beyond the breakers. We walked through the fishing village of Tarkarli, sandwiched between the beach and the backwaters, where little girls lined the street waving flags, music blared from speakers and pyres of banana leaves were being prepared for lighting. We wondered what exciting festival it might be- it turned out it was election day, a little more colourful here than in the UK!

Traditional fishing boat on the Konkan Coast

Arriving in Goa after this was a bit of a shock- we cringed as our taxi to the beach passed by a constant procession of scantily clad western tourists riding scooters through coastal villages. We'd chosen to stay at a beach called Mandrem, quiet only by Goa standards. It's a beautiful wide beach at a river mouth backed by bamboo huts and cushions-on-the-floor style restaurants playing Bob Marley. Despite our initial reservations about how touristy Goa was, Mandrem was a pretty chilled place to spend a few days lounging under palm frond awnings next to our beach hut on the dunes.

Mandram beach in Goa, without a hippy in sight

From here we left the coast on a sleeper bus- a first for both of us, and I hope not to have to endure a second. Basically if you are prone to motion sickness at all, then being stuck lying flat on a high bunk while being thrown around on Indian roads is not a good idea. Emerging from the bus at Hampi at dawn, trying to fend off the crowd of 'rickshaw mafia' that such an arrival attracts, we were greeted by a pretty amazing scene. Pink granite boulders perched precariously on smooth rock slopes, interspersed by temples. There was rock everywhere and the whole scene was a mixture of dusty orange/pink, contrasting with the bright green of rice paddies and palm trees below. We spent a couple of very hot days exploring the temples and rice paddy scenery by bicycle. It must have been at least 40 degrees in the sun but cycling was a pleasant way to get between the temples, which are spread over a massive area around the central village. Everywhere you look is another one, full of stone pillars all beautifully carved with fantastically preserved pictures of warriors, gods and animals. We'd contemplated climbing on the boulders of Hampi, the most famous climbing spot in the country, but it was far too hot for that!

Lush yet rocky landscape of Hampi

From Hampi we returned to the sea, this time to the coast of Karnataka, much less visited than Goa. We arrived at Om Beach by bus at 4am, along with some other bleary eyed backpackers. Not a great time to arrive anywhere, but at least here we could sleep on our rucksacks on the sand as we awaited dawn, which brought a view of our nicest beach so far. A crescent of sand lapped by a calm sea perfect for swimming, with a rocky headland on either side. There's just the right amount of the right kind of development here, so you can sleep in huts above the beach and eat in bamboo shack restaurants, but it's still unspoilt. Om seems to attract a certain kind of tourist- let's say we're in the minority by not having dreadlocks, being from Israel, or practising any kind of circus skills on the beach. There are also quite a few Indian tourists who come on day trips, arriving by boat and jumping around in the sea screaming with excitement. They love having their photographs taken with us, which is odd but makes us feel a bit like celebrities. And then there are the cows, who wander along the beach slobbering on your towel and headbutting you out of their way. We imagine this beach is how Goa might have been 30 years ago, and we really like it. Starting the day by running into the sea for a morning swim and ending it lying on the sand watching the stars- it's not a bad way of life! Tomorrow, after taking a kayak along the coast for a couple of hours, we are wrenching ourselves away from the cooling sea breeze again and heading south into Kerala by sleeper train. First stop a forest reserve to try to see some wildlife- I'm really hoping to see my first wild Indian elephant. Then we'll decide where next!
Say hello to Daisy!