27th Oct - 31st Oct 2005 Crossed the border into India and encountered the expected crowded, dirty, noisy, rubbish-strewn streets - a taster of what was to come. First stop the holy city of Varanasi, on the Ganges: right into the thick of it - a city of over a million inhabitants. It has a medieval feel to it, with narrow streets, old, decaying palaces, open sewers along the streets and sewage discharging, some untreated and some treated (probably), into the river where Indians were busying 'cleansing' themselves in the holy water of the Ganges. Washing wallahs were busy battering people's clothes clean on stone slabs, theoretically making them cleaner.Further up the river, bodies were laid out on wooden funeral pyres on the river bank and burnt, one after another. As a sign of modernisation, a crematorium has sprung up - a cheaper and cleaner option. We also came across our first cows in town - blocking the narrow streets, standing peacefully, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around them - an admirable attribute. 1st Nov - 3rd Nov Headed for Khajuraho for the rather interesting sculptures on its many 10th - 11th century Hindu & Jain temples (see pic). It seems that they decided to sculpt the Kama Sutra on the outside of these religious buildings! The nationwide 5-day Diwali celebrations began with dancing on the streets, fireworks, the giving and consumption of Indian sweets, candles in front of the houses, and the occasional pattern made from cow dung (holy, of course) in front of the house door.We joined in the celebrations by co! nsuming 1kg of sweets (we gave each other 0.5kg!), lighting a couple of fireworks in the hotel garden, and joining in with some dancing (men only). 3rd Nov - 4th Nov A flying visit to Orchha, a relaxing village with imposing old, fortified palaces and more old temples. Here we had our closest encounter yet with the India's holy animal, while eating at a small roadside restaurant, as one of them took an interest in our empty plates and banana skins, and demonstrated the reach of its tongue! 5th Nov - 7th Nov We made the mistake of picking the weekend after Diwali, probably the busiest time of year, to visit India's most famous monument: the Taj Mahal & fort. As we approached, we passed several stressed-looking westerners. We soon found out why. The structure itself is impressive and intricately carved but the groups of youths had nothing better to do than follow any western women they found around! the Taj Mahal grounds until they left. This not only stressed Susana but also Roger, who switched his surveillance circuits to full alert, intervening in many of their attempts to 'brush past' Susana. Even sitting on the grass wouldn't deter them. One too many approached Susana, so Roger practised his newly-found hypnotising skills. "You are feeling sleeeepy..." to which a confused reply: "No?!", "You are feeling sleeeeepy...". Puzzled looks. A few more hypnotic orders and a prod on his nose and success: "I go now?!". "Yes! Goodbye!" - and he left, never to return. In Agra itself, not only can you see the pollution in the air and in the streets, but you can smell it in your hotel room, a couple of floors above street-level. "Stinkstadt" is Susana's term for the place. 7th Nov - 14th Nov Having planned our trip superbly (i.e. found out 2 days beforehand) we headed west to the holy town of Pushkar for its famous annual Camel fair coinciding with another religious festival. We spent a relatively relaxing week strolling around the 1,000 camels, and hundreds of beautiful horses, and tried a camel's-eye view with a 40-min camel ride around the fair.We observed colourful religious rituals occurring throughout the festival, even rousing ourselves for their pre-dawn 'Puja' ceremony - washing in the holy lake. It wasn't so difficult to wake up given the prayers, chanting and singing blaring out over the town's loudspeakers and the stereotypically loud Israelis nextdoor.Sadly, all of the excellent cultural events in the show were cancelled due to the death two days beforehand of an Indian ex-president. Er, why? Maybe a minute's silence would have been a better option, but hey, this is India! Still, it won't stop people from having a good time. Being such a holy place, all meat and even eggs are banned here, as are drugs and alcohol. Incidentally, it's the only place we've been to so far where several times a day, we've been offered hashish and/or alcohol! And now, time for the overnight sleeper train, Amritsar-bound (north-west)... 15th Nov - 17th Nov Awoke early in the morning still on train entering the outskirts of Smelly Delhi, to be welcomed by the sight, stretching over several kilometres, of hundreds of men squatting on the tracks. We dubbed them, accurately, the "Delhi Defecators"! A quick day looking at some of Delhi's sights, a night on a real bed, and we were off up to Amritsar on another overnight train. 17th Nov - 24th Nov Spent a day in Amritsar, where the home of the Sikh's religious and polical centre: the beautiful and peaceful Golden Temple sits. Our evening entertainment consisted of a 34km trip to the border with Pakistan for the daily lowering of the flags. This is a comical, theatrical occasion with cheering crowds chanting "Hindustan" on this side of the border!, and "Pakistan" on the other side, complete with leader on microphone. With funny hats, exaggerated and high-speed marching, the soldiers all but ran to the border, shook hands with the opposite side, and lowered the flags in complete sync. Off then to colder climes and the heights of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama, where the nearest we got to an audience was sitting in a cafe with his picture on the wall. Still, at least the monasteries here are allowed to show his picture, unlike those in Tibet! We were surprised by the number of Buddhist nuns around. Then to the further heights of Chamba for some old temples, Dalhousie - an old British hill station for people from Lahore to escape the summer heat. 24th Nov - 1st Dec In the Kullu valley we spent a couple of days in Naggar, a chilled out place, where a couple of Indian weddings were going on, and Roerich (a Russian artist) spent many a day, leaving his house and art gallery behind. Further up the valley, we reconnoitred Manali, concluding that it is a useful starting point for arranging treks, but doesn't have much else going for it. No treks for us this time - instead we got a taste of English winter weather with temps of 4-11C. In Shimla - the old British summer capital (the entire government upped and moved here to the cool height of 2000m for the summer) - we admired the colonial architecture, including the impressive Viceroy's mansion with 'botanical gardens' (more like 'tended lawn some trees & flowers'). That was enough cold weather, windy roads, and crazy drivers (most buses had at least one person being travel-sick down the side of it!) for us, and we high-tailed it down south. 2nd Dec - 6th Dec A 12 hour train journey, a several hour wait, and a 3.5 hour flight later, and we arrived in Bangalore, "down south", and back in the warmth. After a frustrating time trying to speak Hinglish to get the auto-rickshaw drivers to understand where we were trying to go (we swear it's easier in countries where they don't speak English at all!), and finding one that would actually agree to use the meter (like the law says they should!), we managed to get to, and enjoy, the city's large botanical gardens. Sadly, not many flowers at this time of year, so no pics (sorry Neville), but lots of big trees and a relaxing place nonetheless. Then off for our next overnight train to Fort Cochin, an old Portuguese, then Dutch, then British and now Indian(!) settlement on the coast of Kerala, where we are enjoying the abundance of fresh fruit (Susana has gone pineapple-juice-mad) and unchallenged strolls along the streets. Both Roger & Susana had a go at hoisting the old Chinese fishing nets (5-person operated) lining the shore. 6th Dec - 9th Dec The literacy rate in Kerala is between 91 & 100% and it showed, being the most relaxing state we've travelled in, in India. After enjoying Cochin, we headed for Alleppey further downriver and arranged a two-day boat cruise in our own private wicker boat, exploring the backwaters of Kerala above ricefields that are 1-2 metres below sea-level. Very relaxing compared to an auto-rickshaw in the city! 10th Dec - 15th Dec We briefly visited Quilon - centre for cashew production, so Susana was nuts about it - where Roger saw his tasty banana crisps being made. Due to inclement weather, and quickly disappearing time, we moved on to Varkala to stock up on sun, sand and sea with a few days' relaxation on the beach. Once we got past the usual extortion racket operated by Cartel AutoRickshaw we had a thoroughly enjoyable time, splashing around in the sea and eating good food (even a Tibetan restaurant!). Watching 20 fishermen on shore hauling in their nets for an average haul of $1 a day was an eye-opener. 17th Dec - 19th Dec Our time came to head to Bombay (Mumbai) where we stunned all the auto-rickshaw drivers at Bombay airport by declining all offers and stepping into the car that had been sent to pick us up by Mahesh - Bond Commodoties' (Susana's old firm) representative in India. The best driver in India - Mahesh had trained him well (and sacked him 5 times in a year!). Mahesh & family took us for a nice dinner in an outdoor restaurant where Mahesh's knowledge answered some of our myriad questions about India. A brief couple of days exploring Bombay with side trip (two-overnight train journeys) to see the fascinating Ellora Caves - ornate Buddhist, Jainist & Hindu temples carved out of the rock over 1000 years ago. 20th Dec Got a taster of the U.K. with Bombay's impressive old British Colonial buildings before finally fighting with the taxi drivers to take us to the airport for a non-extortionate fee (another story here). Finally, the check-in saga, our last taste of India this time with Virgin Atlantic's meagre hand luggage allowance being less than our internal Indian Airline flights meant we were suddenly and unexpectedly 'overweight' (like most other passengers judging by the sagas at the other check-in desks - $20 a kilo...). Result: we binned our Everest trekking poles so carefully carried across India. 20th Dec - 11th Jan 2006 Boarded the plane home, arriving back in the UK 5 hours later, after a 10 hour flight! Still so used to backpacking we went from place to place: a quick look at the house, collection/purchase of car, dinner with Leslie & Pat and formally relieved Leslie of his Yatlik webmaster duties - without his help, you'd never have seen all the pictures. One last trip up to Kettering, and we were reunited with Roger's family in time for Christmas.