India · 53 Days · 44 Moments · February 2016

Fiona Casling

Fiona & James's adventures across India!

1 April 2016

23 March - Day two of our 4x4 adventure. Headed to Sur, famed for its boat making. Took a tour of a boat yard, where we poked our heads onto the King of Qatar's Dow. It was a WIP, and had taken over a year to build so far. Then on to wadi tiwi, where we did some off road driving which took us deep into the canyon and up to some great views. I was most excited to take James to Tiwi beach, a pristine, sandy beach that is one of my favourites. However, turns out with all these new roads, it's not so easy to find. We stopped at two pebble beaches, but alas, neither was the one I was thinking of. Our driver was very confused and naturally assumed that I was losing the plot. A lot of the coast that we used to drive along is now a wildlife conservation area. We did see two turtles bobbing along the coast, which almost made up for the fact that I had lost a beach.. Next stop, old Muscat, where we scouted out the Sultan's palace. Sadly he was still out of town, so no afternoon tea invite..

25 March 2016

25 March - 8 hour flight back to London Heathrow. We will now stop spamming you with our daily activities! Normal life resumes after what can only be described as a once in a lifetime adventure!

24 March 2016

24 March - Whirlwind tour of Muscat for James: 1) The Grand Mosque 2) Our (the Casling's) old villa in Azaibah, now largely concealed by vegetation..! 3) My old school, BSM, whose old dirt running track has been transformed to a snazzy all weather pitch 4) D'Arcy's cafe, an old haunt which has not changed one bit, and still serves up a mean tuna melt and chocolate shake 5) Beach walk back to Crowne Plaza After an afternoon by the pool, we dolled up for some posh nosh at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel, which was hosting an Omani themed buffet. Not a bad way to finish the holiday!

22 March 2016

22 March - Embarked on a two-day 4x4 adventure with our driver, Abdul! I wanted to take James to see where I used to spend my weekends. What used to take 4 hours to drive now takes 1.5. Turns out in the last 10 years new highways have been introduced, making everything that little bit quicker! First, we stopped at bimmah sinkhole, a great big hole in the ground (70m x 30m). I wouldn't let James wander in, I made him clamber the rocks and jump from a ledge. Let the record show that I jumped first! Then on to wadi tiwi. It was a 45 minute walk up the wadi, through plantations and canyons. Due to strong rains, the wadi was deep and the current was strong. Got to know our driver well as we held hands to cross the strong waters! Finished our day at Turtle Beach Resort. Headed out to a turtle reserve in the evening. Stumbled across a couple of turtles nesting & a couple of babies headed for the sea. There wasn't too much activity due to the full moon, but it was still pretty special!

21 March 2016

20 / 21 March - 10+ years later and I'm back on Omani soil, and it feels good! We have spent some time taking in our surroundings and enjoying the pool / beach at the hotel. Also made our way to Muttrah Corniche where James used his expert haggling skills to bag a few souvenirs in the souq. We navigated our way through the narrow alleyways to the gold souq, but refrained from an impulsive purchase of wedding bands! James took a shine to the Sultan's cruise liner, but sadly he wasn't in the country to take any visitors. Next time.

20 March 2016

19 March - Walked down to India Gate and hopped on a ferry to Elephant Island to explore some caves. James and I are both proud to have survived India without any property loss or thievery. This changed today, as we were mugged by monkeys! James had a bottle of water stolen from him by a very animated monkey, and I was ambushed by another determined friend who pilfered my masala 7up! Then back to mainland for high tea at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel (again, continuing our theme of finishing India on a high). We threw caution to the wind - we didn't antibac our glasses, nor did we stick to veg dishes. It was bliss. That said, the dessert prospects looked bleak. I conveyed my disappointment to a staff member, who promptly assured me that he would speak to the baker and make sure everything was replenished shortly. Happiness was restored two chocolate mousse and one chocolate cake later (two guesses who's writing this post 😉). Next stop - OMAN!!

19 March 2016

18 March - Arrived into Mumbai at 6.00 am after a very comfortable 1st a/c journey in a private cabin. We thought we'd finish our train adventures on a high, much as general sleeper class was fun..! Went on a wander around the CST station and through the parks over to Marine Drive. Sat and looked out to sea, pleasantly surprised by how quiet the city was. We were expecting absolute chaos! Went to the cricket stadium and scored a couple of tickets to see England v South Africa T20 match. Wandered to Chowpatty beach. Not quite Varkala or Goa, but a good spot to watch the world go by. Then downtown to wander the markets. Returned to Wankhede Stadium in the eve, dolled in matching India jerseys. What a game. Mr. Root represented Yorkshire well! It was nail biting stuff with a great atmosphere and even seat side dominos delivery!

15 March 2016

14 / 15 / 16 / 17 March - Been having a fab time in Goa. So fab, in fact, we've forgotten to blog ☺️ We arrived at Palolem beach shortly before dinner on Monday night. Our beach hut is conveniently located on the north end of the beach where the river meets the sea. We've been swimming, played some frisbee, walked to neighbouring Patnem beach, taken a kayak out to Butterfly Beach, and done some more swimming. We've eaten local kingfish, as well as some not so local tapas. And been enjoying the 11am -11pm happy hours (which is perhaps the real reason we haven't been blogging in the evening..)!

13 March 2016

13 March - In the morning, we crossed to the mainland in search of a waterfall. There was no map and no signage, but we thought (naively) that we would just follow our noses... One savvy villager had seen it all before and followed us until, after 3 dead ends, we admitted defeat and allowed him to lead us on. As we got lost in banana plantations and scaled huge boulders, we became increasingly dubious. It certainly didn't feel like we were on a "tourist trail". Eventually, the boulders opened up and we found the river / waterfall / rock pools. After clarifying twice that there were no crocs, James jumped in for a swim. Slightly less willing to strip down to my underwear, I paddled my feet. We were then guided back to the main road and both live to tell the tale. We celebrated with a lime soda. In the afternoon we made our way to Hospet (where the train station is). Had a fab afternoon by the pool (yes, POOL!) followed by some good grub. Early train to Goa tomorrow.

12 March 2016

12 March - "... But that's ridiculous!". "Yes, but you're in the land of the ridiculous". That is how our morning started. We are staying on Hampi island, and we had to get the ferry to the mainland for our bike excursion. A ferry came over and dropped passengers. Then started to pull away. James and I jumped up - we were dismissed: "one way only". Turns out that ferry only services one direction. We would have to wait for the other boat, which services the drop off to mainland only. We waited 45 minutes, whilst 3 "one way to island only" ferries came and went. Ridiculous. Once that ordeal was over, we took a quick peak at Hampi's resident elephant (Lakshmi) taking her daily bath in the river, then trotted onwards to grab our bikes. The excursion was crazy hot but good fun. Lots more temples and ruins. Lots of sweating. Finished with lunch served on banana leaves under a mango tree.

11 March 2016

11 March - Arrived in Hampi! It's like we've been transported to the Flintstones' film set! Lots of old ruins and large boulders. And some 6 ft 5 gent screaming yabba-dabba-do..! Like any good travellers, we chose to hike in the midday sun, armed with a bottle of water. It was bliss - no one else was stupid enough to do the same, so it was just me, James and 500 years of history. Back at our bamboo hut, James decided to rig his hammock (which marks the second time it's been used this holiday!). We've no more beef, no more alcohol, and no more hot water. But hey, it was fun whilst it lasted! Tomorrow we've signed up for a 4 hour bike excursion...

9 March 2016

8/9/10 March - Up to Hampi via Bangalore. On the 8th we stepped on board our £14 Air Asia flight to Bangalore not sure what to expect, but were pleasantly surprised. We stopped off in Bangalore to a) break up the long trip to the ruined city of Hampi, b) revisit some nostalgia of where I did 4 weeks training with Accenture 4.5 years ago and c) soak up some western luxuries. Upon arriving at our hotel and after Fiona calmed down re excitement of finding a hair dryer, we dolled up for a night on the tiles Bangalore style at the Hard Rock cafe. We sinned - beef burgers happened, happy hour cocktails happened, and we witnessed some excellent Karaoke. The next day was pretty chilled (I had a super lie in), with a quick trip to a palace before chilling in the botanical gardens with our books. One annoying tuk-tuk ride later (the driver had no idea where he was going) we had some super cheap dinner and grabbed our night train to Hampi. We even got a cheeky upgrade to 1st class!
9 March - Fiona gets access to a hair dryer for the first time in a month!

8 March 2016

7 / 8 March - It's time for some serious luxury (but still at bargain prices!). We have spent the last two days being very well looked after by our two crew members on a luxury house boat (converted rice barge). Lots of nature, rice paddies and general chill out. It was even completed by a beer, a big rarity in these parts. On the second day we watched the sun rise and then hopped on a much smaller boat to see the smaller canals (without motor noise!), witnessing the locals morning routines of leaving their very nice houses to wash and do their teeth in the river before rowing to school. Back to Kochin to then fly to Bangalore tomorrow!

6 March 2016

6 March - 8 hour ferry from Kollam to Allapuzha! Pick up house boat tomorrow morning!

5 March 2016

3 / 4 March - Finally got round to having a couple of relaxing beach days (once we'd checked into the correct hotel!). Splashed out on sun beds and an umbrella on our second day (this backpacking malarkey is tough going). Sea is like a bath. Absolutely fab. Though I've not been able to dish out the usual complaints about icy Atlantic waters.. Which I think James is quite pleased about! Did a couple of morning yoga sessions - been working on our sun salutations. Just a pity James can't touch his toes, or ankles, or calves… Next, it's on to Kollam to explore the Keralan backwaters up to Kochi.
5 March - After another yoga session, we had a very Indian brekkie of egg and beans on toast! Then hopped on a quick train to Kollam (photos enclosed). On arrival, went down to the jetty to bag a house boat. As we were negotiating our new home, we were pipped to the post by another couple! Made other arrangements - will take an 8 hour ferry tomorrow, then pick up our boat from Allapuzza instead!

3 March 2016

1 March - Decided to move from our plantation accommodation to the main town for a night. Good day to have chosen.. town was on strike, so no shops or restaurants open! However, tuk tuk drivers remained persistent, so took a 4 hour tour of the hills (for a staggering price of £3.50 each). Meandered the roads to market stalls, bridges, lakes, viewpoints and finished on the Tamil Nadu border. Halfway up the mountain I very calmly informed James that I'd seen a wild elephant and that we should probs pull over.. So he yelled to the driver and we both jumped out. There it was - wandering the tea plantation. Proud moment. On the way back down we stopped by a man-who-can, who happened to have a shed full of diesel. We refuelled using a water bottle and a funnel! (Diesel drought due to strikes). Had dinner at High Range Club (another of my Great Grandad's haunts). It hasn't changed in 106 years, was like entering a museum of Victorian Britain!

2 March 2016

2 March - Long day on the roads, and certainly not the most relaxing of journeys, but we made it to Varkala! We had our doubts at points. We seemed to circle Kollam for ages, stopping to ask street vendors for directions. Eventually James and I took control and directed the driver to the hotel using Google maps! Had dinner overlooking the beach. On the way back to hotel, we realised we'd checked into the wrong one (ours was next door... signage was confusing, we were tired, manager was happy to take our business. Fail.) Checking into correct hotel tomorrow!

29 February 2016

29 Feb - Our bonus day! Since we didn't exactly realise it was a leap year when we were planning (*cough* thank you, Mum!)... It was a 6.00 am start for our 15 km trek through the plantations! We walked through tea, spices, cocoa and coffee. We ate passion fruit, pepper and cocoa off the tree. We were promised no snakes, but saw two. No more cobras though (and don't worry, Fiona had her snake stick for protection)! At the end of the trek, it was a 10 minute drive back to the cottage for a very late lunch. We were met by one 4x4. At this point we were 12 passengers. Welcome to India...

28 February 2016

28 Feb - Arrived in Munnar! Encountered all sorts on route - elephants, tea, spices, waterfalls, hairy driving and chocolate 😍
27 Feb - Yoga instructor was a no show - what a disappointment! Walked to Jew Town (genuine name) in the morning, and did some haggling over art work. Then got the ferry over to Willingdon Island as part of some further Casling family history research! Willingdon Island was build by the British using land that was dredged when they expanded the port. The island was used as an RAF base in WWII, where my Great Grandad (my Dad's side) was stationed during the war. Been trying to follow his footsteps based on diary entries! Visited Malabar Hotel (now a fancy Taj hotel) which used to provide quarters for all wartime staff. Had a spot of lunch (think the standard may have improved over the last 75 years!). Also poked our heads into some notable looking buildings and a museum. Would have been quite a different atmosphere back then, but just as hot! Went to a Kathakali theatre show in the evening. Didn't have much of a West End vibe! More fresh fish for tea!

26 February 2016

26 Feb - Greetings from the tropics! Kochi is amazing, and a complete contrast to the dusty hustle and bustle that we've had so far. We are surrounded by palm trees, lush landscape and, more importantly, the sea! This morning we headed out for a wander round town. We watched local fisherman wade out to their waists and fling out their fishing nets, with minimal reward. We also watched the teams of men working the Chinese fishing nets, hoisting the contraptions in and out of the water, and trying to bag the fish before the birds got to them! Ate some fresh watermelon, and (drum roll, please...) we had PRAWNS for lunch. This marks our first non-veg meal of the holiday!! Followed by more 🐠🐟🐠🐟 for dinner! Everything's so serene, and so quiet. We're slowly getting into horizontal mode... In fact, we've booked in for a yoga session tomorrow morning!

25 February 2016

21 - 25 Feb (continued 3) So after catching a bit of sleep in the sleeper class we arrived in Delhi, headed to the hotel we had already booked and paid for, and freshened up before actually catching our flight to Kochi!! The North has been fantastic, but now it's time for the next stage in tropical Kerala!
21 - 25 Feb (continued 2) We hastily booked a hotel for the night in Jaiselmer and resolved to return to the station the next day at 8am when the reservation desk was open. Upon reaching the station we managed to book and 8am train to Jodhpur to at least get us part of the way. When we then arrived in Jodhpur Fiona became the true hero of the hour! We found out that there was a train leaving Jodhpur at 8pm which would get us to Delhi the next morning, in time to catch our flight. After Fiona telling the queue bargers what for at the reservations desk, we were told that there were no tickets left, until we asked for sleeper class (pretty much the same as what we have been travelling in but with A/C), and suddenly tickets were available. Apart from the fact that to book these tickets the reservation clerk suddenly decided that we needed to go and get photocopies of our passports/visas. However, she didn't anticipate Fiona's desire to get to Kerela and was quickly told what for.
21 - 25 Feb (continued) - Fiona wasn't initially convinced by the idea of sleeping in the desert without a tent but the beauty of it won her over and we had a great (if cold) nights sleep before waking up to catch the dawn (and found a dog friend who had decided to curl up and sleep next to Fiona's bed in the night). Another short camel ride (that was enough for my bony bum) took us back to the jeep. Our plan was to then get a mammoth 22 hour train that evening at 23:00 to Delhi to catch our flight down to Kerela. However, there were still problems getting in to Delhi due to the Jat caste in the neighbouring state protesting (about want reserved government jobs as the lower castes do) and holding Delhi to ransom by cutting off transport links and the water supply. We were reliably informed that the trouble was over (after 1 week!) but remained sceptical and unfortunately upon reaching the station in the evening our fears were confirmed and our train was not leaving Jaiselmer…
21 - 25 Feb: Jaiselmer and plenty of travelling. Just before heading to Jaiselmer we ran in to a couple that had just been told all the trains and coaches in to Delhi had been cancelled. We felt bad for them but foolishly thought it wouldn't affect us, more on that later… We set off on our first (6 hour) night train at 23:45 which was fine and got us in to Jaiselmer (a desert town near the Pakistan border). Things didn't get off to a great start as we were not met by the hotel's driver as promised. Instead we sorted out an overnight desert camel safari with a different hotel (Fiona took some serious convincing about the legitimacy and that the camels wouldn't eat her). The safari was fantastic. The two of us were driven deep in to the desert in a jeep before a camel ride to the camp site where we were treated to a fantastic dinner cooked on the camp fire and a nights sleep on comfy camp beds under a beautiful full moon and starlight (with no horn noise!). Fiona wasn't…

23 February 2016

21 Feb - Jodhpur is famed for its fort but little else, so we were concerned that we had until 11.45 pm before our next train. Had a lazy morning on the hotel rooftop before walking to town. Visited a handicraft warehouse - experienced two blackouts whilst there (generator failure), which made it spooky but memorable. Then to the market, where we took in a whole spectrum of smells. Stopped by a spice shop and got a lesson in "masala" (which literally means "spice mix"). Were offered "brain spice" (good for intellect), but we politely declined. Bought chai instead. Had planned to go to Umaid Bhawan Palace (2/3 hotel, 1/3 maharaja residence) for some posh nosh before train. However, were turned away (confusion over booking - embarrassing!). Had to rough it near train station instead, where a very tolerant restaurant took us in for 4 hours (eating / reading / card gaming).
20 Feb - Took a walk up to the fort & completed a 2 hour audio tour (it did not disappoint!). James can fill you in on the history upon our return, as he retained a little more of the info than I did.. For my part, I can confirm that it was the best fort yet! And that back in the day, someone volunteered to be sealed inside the fort walls to end a curse on the water supply. Very honourable, or stupid. Next to the "Taj of Marwar" (beautiful tomb). Spent a while in the gardens taking in the views over the blue city. Dinner - decided to treat ourselves to wine / beer, which was seemingly acceptable (Pushkar was strictly no alcohol, so we had been looking forward to a cheeky sundowner!). James's Kingfisher arrived wrapped in newspaper. It was poured into a mug and then the bottle was hidden under the table. Felt a little sketchy. We also splurged out £1.60 on dessert (our first pudding of the trip). I've no idea what we ate, but it was downed in syrup and tasted like Christmas!

19 February 2016

19 Feb - Arrived in Jodhpur just in time for sunset!
18 / 19 Feb - Pushkar, distinctly average. After a fantastic and tiring time in Jaipur, we headed off on another excellent train journey to the holy town of Pushkar. The town is based around a lake where Brahmin (the creator) apparently used to hang a lot. The main thing to do is visits the ghats (bathing pools) and temples without getting ripped off by priests. We also had a nice walk up to a temple on the top of a hill to get a great view across the desert (and of people building a rather sketchy looking cable car up). The place is fine, but it's full of western hippies not doing much - not really our scene. Next is a short trip to the blue city of Jodhpur.
19 Feb - Dangers of having too much time before the next train... James decides to hit the shaving salon (complete with head massage)!

17 February 2016

17 Feb - Arrived in Pushkar this afternoon after another easy train journey. A few pics from our first explore of the markets and the lake!

16 February 2016

16 Feb - Morning hike up to Nahargarh Fort (Tiger Fort), where we encountered pigs, dogs, cows, goats, monkeys, and motorbikes. Once at the top we visited the palace, including the 9 private apartments where the king housed his various wives. James thought that sounded like a lot of effort - apparently one is enough to deal with ;) We then got a tuk tuk to the city palace, where they were setting up for a wedding. A rich man from Mumbai apparently, all looked very elaborate! Then on to bazaars where we haggled with various vendors. James was impressed by my mad skills in whittling the prices down. Hidden between two shops and up a steep staircase was a questionable looking but great restaurant with the best food we've had yet. The "kitchen" was open on the roof. Restaurant manager was confused by our presence - he asked to read the review in our travel guide! On the way home we picked up tickets to a Bollywood film. Apparently Jaipur houses India's best cinema... We'll see.
15 Feb - Another relaxing, comfy 5 hour train to Jaipur (honestly can't believe how great train travel is over here). Afternoon spent walking up to Galta "Monkey Palace" - home to 5,000 monkeys! Good idea in principle, but on arrival we suddenly realised just how many monkeys we were dealing with! Lots of amusing photos. Glad we both had our rabies shots!

15 February 2016

14 Feb - Another early morning to catch the Taj at sunrise. Although busy, there's something very tranquil about being in the grounds. Even up close it doesn't seem real. We then decided to have a nice relaxed day before heading to Jaipur early the next morning. This involved a detour down a nice track which promised views of rescued bears. However, after being chased down the path by a very scared looking Indian shouting 'cobra' we quickly realised that we should perhaps vacate and enjoy the 'nature walk' instead where we were once again asked to pose for multiple photos for tourists from Delhi (I could get used to this fame malarkey).
13 Feb - Today we left the hotel at 4.30 am to catch our train from New Delhi station to Agra. We surprised ourselves with the ease in which we passed through the train station's security, on to the correct platform and along to the correct coach. So much so we had to check with the guard - it had all seemed too easy! Upon confirmation, we boarded, located our births and padlocked our bags to our beds. James promptly made his bed and nestled down to sleep! Over the next 3 hours we had calls of "chai chai" through the carriage. We passed towns and slums, people, pigs, monkeys and cows. We rolled into Agra promptly at 8.30 and got a tuk tuk to our hotel. From the rooftop cafe you look out on to the Taj. It's alright, I guess..! A whirlwind tour of town took us to Itmd-Ud Daulla (Baby Taj), Mehtab Bagh (gardens), Agra Fort, and the local bazaar. Then back to the rooftop for chai, to look over the Taj some more!

14 February 2016

14 Feb: Greetings from the Taj. We've hundreds of cringey photos, but we won't bore you with them all!

13 February 2016

13 Feb: Our first train trip, New Delhi to Agra. James fast asleep within minutes!

12 February 2016

12 Feb (2/2): We came across lots of babies in wolly hats and men in jumpers and scarves. It's no wonder James and I look out of place in t-shirts in this "winter" weather of 25 degrees. We then made our way through busy traffic to Lal Qila (The Red Fort). Modelled on Agra Fort, and composed of red sandstone, it was a splattering of private apartments, halls of private audience, marble palaces and monuments, and a busy bazaar. James got a lot of attention for his height and I think it's safe to say he is probably featuring quite heavily of Facebook tonight thanks to some very happy (and not so discrete) snappers. We then ventured to Kake Da Hotel for dinner. James was tempted by the non-veg menu but reason (read: Fiona) suggested not to, especially before tomorrow's train to Agra..!
12 Feb (1/2): After surviving our first authentic curry and sleeping for 12 hours, we headed off to discover Delhi in a day. What an experience! Everyone wants to take you in their brother's tuk tuk to their father's temple... Driving skills leave a little to be desired - it seems that traffic lights and lanes are but an inconvenience. The horn is the way forward. So we opted for a bus instead. It was a comfort to be the bigger guy on the road. We drove by India Gate, along Embassy Lane and past the Rail Museum before we made our first stop - Qutb Minar, a red-sandstone tower overlooking the ruins of the rest of the complex (the quwwat-ul-Islam mosque, Alai Minar and the Iron Pilar). We then got totally ripped off purchasing a bottle of water and some masala crisps (our haggling is currently a WIP...). Next stop was the Baha'i Temple (Lotus Temple) which is composed of 27 white marble petals. The temple is framed by 9 pools of water and set in vast gardens.

11 February 2016

We've arrived! And more importantly we now have train tickets for the rest of the trip! Trains have been stressing us out for a while as we've been told that you need to book ahead but then this has not been possible without and Indian mobile number… However we held faith in the mysterious foreign tourist booking desk in Delhi station, and after several attempted scams on the way there managed to sort out everything we needed (even if some of the night trains are now 3rd class…) Walking the streets of Delhi today and getting scams thrown at us left right and centre (it is as bad as the warnings) has been a baptism of fire, but after a decent meal (veg only…) tonight the true touristy stuff can begin in earnest tomorrow with a tour of all the Delhi tourist stops and then a 05:15 train to Agra on Saturday.

9 February 2016

The first part of our epic journey saw us take a gruelling two hour train from Manchester to London. We then battled the disgruntled commuters with our bags on the northern line, and managed to bag a seat on a train out of Waterloo (after bumping into a friendly face - nice to see you, Sean Lennon!). Next stop Heathrow airport. Stay tuned for more exciting travel updates..!