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Desert safari in Rajastan

Independent desert safari out of Jaisalmer on a backpacker's budget

You can't spend a month in Rajastan without going for a safari.
We tried to research for it to get an idea of the cost and what to expect. But all that internet and Lonely Planet told us that it's a bit hit and miss and you should just come to Jaisalmer and go and see few travel agent.

I had a 5 year old LP where there was a good review of a place called Badal House, in a village of Khuri, 40 minutes out of Jaisalmer. A 5 year old LP said Mr. Badal Singh was charging 500 rs for a full board home-stay and organised safaris for another 500 rs per person per day, so we decided to give it a go.

We arrived Jaisalmer at 6am on an overnight train from Jodahpur and went to the road towards Khuri where we were supposed to catch a Bus. LP and Wikitravel were stating that you can catch a bus from the first cross road on road rd '15', where there is a large Banyan tree and a small shrine. We easily found the place, but after asking some locals who were hanging out on the streets at 6 am, and most of whom speak hardly any English, we realized it wasn't the right place. Bus departs from a small Bus stand further down that same road, you have to walk for about 10-15 minutes until you see a bunch of buses and jeeps parked. We had to wait for till 8 am for the first bus to depart and it took us under an hour to get the place. Tickets - 30-40 rs.

You can't miss that place it's right in the middle of the village and anyone can point you towards Badal House.
Here is the man himself -
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To our surprise we found out that none of the prices has changed in the last five years. Mr. Badal was providing a little sanctuary of home-stay where you live in mud huts from the smurf kingdom. The food is great, the family is very kind and you really feel like you staying at someone's home. He used to work as camel driver for decades, than when he got too old for that he put a sign on his house and waited for people to come.
He is a very modest man who has never been to Delhi, doesn't like Jaisalmer because it's too busy and is absolutely in love with desert.

Totally of point, but Also make sure that you spend at least one night on the roof under the desert stars!
We decided to take it easy and use this opportunity to have some rest from buzzing cities of Rajastan.

There isn't really much to do in Khuri, it's literally just a gateway into the desert. We strolled around to take pic at the quiet and somewhat primitive desert life.
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We decided to go for a 2 night desert safari, frankly it's hard to handle more than that on a camel.
We left in a late afternoon each accompanied by a camel driver. I don't think we were riding for longer than an hour, but we managed to cross a couple of dunes to find a remote and lonely spot for ourselves.
Our drivers managed to collect some firewood and cook us an intricate desert dinner, we in turn shared some whiskey. Sun set and an hour later we were of to sleep under the stars.
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The next day we got up for a sun set, had some breakfast and set off deeper into the desert. This is where we actually experienced what it's like to ride a camel and I mean galloping across dunes and desert bushes. The ride starts really cool and 15 minutes later you pray for it to stop...

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An hour and a half later we arrived at this little settlement in the middle of nowhere, where we were greeted by our camel driver's family.
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The re isn't whole lot to do during the day so we wondered about around the village, explored the dunes and after having a basic but very tasty desert lunch we set off back into dunes for another night under the stars.
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Next morning we got back home just before afternoon, leaving enough time to get a clean shave.
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I would recommend Badal's place for: great value for money, great relaxed atmosphere, 0 pushiness, open and honest service.

Posted by dima.safr 08:20 Archived in India Tagged desert india safari budget cheap camel rajastan cost badal_house Comments (0)

3 days in Delhi

Why I love this city

Prologue

Delhi was the place of my first encounter with India back in 2008. I remember experiencing a culture shock while taking a taxi from the airport to a hotel. The noise, the smell, the traffic - the Incredible India. Right at that moment I said to myself that I will go back to this amazing country.
Having said that, I'm probably the only person who actually rates Delhi as his favorite city in India if not in the world.
This post is about what you can do in Delhi besides waiting for your next train and not go crazy from the hustle of one of the world's largest mega-cities.
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Day 1

The chances are you are staying either at Karol Bagh or Main Bazar Road right at the heart of the old town and across a rail track from the full-on madness of Old Delhi.

Hence, a good idea for your first day is to familiarize yourself with the area, and absorb Delhi atmosphere. Both Karol Bagh and Main Bazar Rd are actually quite stress free, even the shops and markets tend to have fixed prices. This is because there are so many backpackers, who all developed sick skin and are naturally quite opposed to all forms of hassle at the area where they stay. Well there are plenty of other places to be hassled...

Once you are ready cross the train tracks at New Daily station and go over to the heart of Old Delhi. This is a totally different scene. Prepare to be attacked from all sides. There will be overly keen rickshaws who will be eager to give you an hour long cycle tour, show you spice bazar, etc for 20 rs each! Bargain!
This is of course is a scam you will end up being taken from stall to stall where you will be hard pressed to buy all sort of useless crap. Having said that, if you have the time, know what is happening and have sick skin, then it can be well entertaining and you are guaranteed to finish a day with a story to tell.

Right in the center of the Old Delhi there is Jama Masjid, pretty much everyone can point in you in the right direction and you are still guaranteed to get lost several times.
Jama Masjid is one of the greatest mosques and is claimed to be the second largest by capacity (after the one in Mecca).
Well it is great, there is no doubt about it. At entry to a mosque free, they need to make their money somehow, so they apply a 250 rs camera charge which of course includes mobile phones. You can of-course argue that all the Indians go in with their phones and no one seems to pay, but really save your breath pay 250 rs for one camera/phone among however many of you and enjoy the place.

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I highly recommend climbing a minaret right to the top for spectacular views over the old town. 100 rs.

The second stop is Red Fort.
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This is a place you go to if you are eager for local's to come and ask you to take pictures with them, over and over and over and over.....
The fort itself looks better from outside than inside (IMHO). If you decide to go in wait till the evening and go for a night lights show. 250 rs.

By this point you are probably well tired and hopefully somewhat acclimatized to the Delhi atmosphere.

Day 2

For a sake of contrast this is a good day to dedicate to New Delhi as in new side of Delhi.
Since this is where you will have to take Rickshaws it's worth to talk about coupon system.
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To be fair this doesn't happen now as much as 10 years ago when coupons were Delhi's leitmotif. Rickshaws will be eager to take you anywhere for as little as 20 rs, the catch is that they will also take you to several shops on the way. The way the system works is when a driver brings a client to a shop that get a coupon which entitles them to something from the shop. This is regardless of whether you buy anything or not. The main problem is that they try to lure you in the whole coupon thing, you feel being out of control and don't know what comes next and when the whole experience is going to end. In some cases drivers are quite upfront about coupons and it's a part of negotiations when you can agree for a ride for X price + 2 coupons for example.

To start with you can take a metro ride or walk to Connaught Place or CP. CP is a large roundabout that features modrn restaurants and shops, it's not much in itself but provides a bit of a breather from the suffocation of old town.

From CP it's quite easy walk to the India Gate. Check out the wasp nests right under the roof!
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From here it's about a one mile walk to the presidential Palace down the Rajpath. This part can be more fun than it sounds... mostly thanks to over entrepreneurial rickshaw drivers. They will see you as an easy prey with literally nowhere to run (as you have a 20 min walk in-front of you) and offer you a tour... After you told them a 1000 times that you know what you are doing and don't need any help, they are likely to offer to give you a quick lift to presidential palace for like 10 rs, well why not? it's a hot day after all... Well... once you are in the auto the whole tour sales pitch starts again... hang on - I told you "no thanks" you told me "understood no problem", why are we having this conversation again????
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You can't actually enter the palace, but like most of the things in India they look better from outside than inside...
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The next place to visit is Ghandi Smriti, a memorial house where Ghandi was assassinated. It's an easy 20 min walk, and if you managed to find it on a map than my advise would be to walk it. Otherwise it's a no more than 50 rs metered ride, with only problem than no one will want to use a meter will quote you 200 rs and will ultimately try to sell you a day tour.

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Ghandi Smiriti is a very calm a peaceful place, there is a nice park and a lot of information about Ghandi's life and death. You should spend some time going through the house and reading up on the Indian's transition to independence. It's amazing to see Ghandi's room, how basic it was. The guy had a billion people nation behind him and he still kept to his basics and didn't become corrupt by power and money that come with the job.
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Day 3

Humayun's Tomb - a massive complex which is a burial place of several monarchs across multiple generations. While not being made of brilliant white marble it's a more important historical site and a much grander structure than Taj Mahal.

You can get there by taking a Metro to JLN Stadium and doing a short walk. This is best done in the morning as this is a popular site for Indians and tourists alike. You will need at least 2-3 hours to fully explore the grounds.

Than take a metro Qutub Minar. Actually you should take metro in Delhi just for a sake of it. And check out this list of Dont's...
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My favorite is obviously - riding on the top of the train.

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This is an impressive site, but like everywhere else tends to get very busy with locals who all are too eager to take a picture with you. So just be ready for it.

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Once you done in Qutub Minar you can go to Lotus Temple which is located also in South Delhi. Negotiate with a rickshaw for about 150 rs, it's a long ride along a motorway which makes it a bit scary.

Lotus Temple or Bahá'í House of Worship is a unique place.
From Wikipedia
he Lotus Temple is open to all, regardless of religion, or any other distinction, as emphasised in Bahá'í texts. The Bahá'í laws emphasise that the spirit of the House of Worship be that it is a gathering place where people of all religions may worship God without denominational restrictions.[6] The Bahá'í laws also stipulate that not only the holy scriptures of the Bahá'í Faith but also those of other religions can be read and/or chanted inside the House of Worship regardless of language; while readings and prayers can be set to music by choirs, no musical instruments can be played inside. Furthermore, no sermons can be delivered, and there can be no ritualistic ceremonies practised.
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When you arrive prepare to be shocked by a queue which stretches around half a mile and that's outside the gates. Don't be alarmed the queue moves very quickly, we arrived at the end of the day and thought we wouldn't make it but were inside in 30 min.

Inside setting is very plane, most people come in just to look at the temple, a few stay for a while to meditate. All in all I think it's a beautiful structure from outside and a place worthwhile to visit inside.
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The easiest way to go back is to catch a metro from Orkla station.

Posted by dima.safr 05:49 Archived in India Tagged india delhi india_gate rickshaw red_fort qutub_minar lotus_temple bazar jamu_masjid site-seeing ghandi_smiriti humayun's_tomb Comments (0)

Sikkim - India's secluded kingdom

Exploring India's less known North East

Prologue

Not many people know that Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1975. It was jammed in a limbo between monarchy and communist tendencies coming from both India and China.
Still it's a very shake state. China is next door, and even if no one in the western world heard a word of it there are some serious tensions there. Foreigners need a permit to enter Sikkim and if you want ti visit upper Sikkim then you will need to guide up and get another permit in the top of that.
Sikkim fills more like Nepal rather than India. People are Nepali, the language is Nepali, not many folks wanna hug and take your picture that is definitely more Nepali then Indian. Any one who spent an hour in India would understand.

Darjeeling

Tea, train, town
On this trip to India I came with a bucket list, and since I never met anyone been to Sikkim it was surely on the list!
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There are two ways of getting into Sikkim; one is via Rangpo checkpoint if you are going to Gangtok; another one is via a windy secondary road to Jorethang, if you are planning to to go towards Yuksom the ancient capital of Sikkim kingdom. If you chose the former you can get your permit at the check point (DO have your passport pic and a cope of your passport) the latter requires you getting a permit in Darjeeling . Of course we had to go the hard way.

Well, if bureaucracy wasn't invented in India it was surely perfected there; and Sikkim permit will make you believe that... big time!

First you need to go to a "Sikkim Travel Desk" at the immigration office, your hotel will be able to point you there. It's just apposite SBI (State Bank of India). Enter one dull, dark building ... find the desk where they process foreigners... tell them that you want to go to Sikkim (NO SHIT!), and wait to have your permit written out. Actually not as leniently as I made it sound. At the end you get your Sikkim permit written it out to you! Bingo... Well not quite, it still needs to be stamped by a magistrate to become valid. They tell you that you have to, and i quote - "get out of the building, turn left, walk down the stairs and turn right". That is about right apart from the fact that Magistrates office is about 2 miles away towards the Zoo.
You have o keep asking the shop owners how to get there. Once you inside keep on asking as there is naturally nothing there to help you point the right way. The good news is that once you have stamped your permit you are pretty much set to enter mystical kingdom of Sikkim.

Getting there

You need to be at the jeep stand as early as possible. The way the system operates; when you buy a ticket you get allocated a seat. The earlier you buy the ticket the better the place you get. And in Sikkim the place you get on a 3 hour jeep ride is a big deal. We got two sits on very back and braced ourselves for the next 3 hours to Jorethang. It's a really bad road, a lot of serpentine, and some really crazy driving too.
We crossed the river and stopped at the checkpoint. At that point Dovile was about to faint, so she welcomed the break. We got of the jeep and went into the office, they checked our permits and stamped our passports just as if we were crossing an international border.
Once we arrived at Jorethang we were told that next jeep to Pelling was not until 3pm.
We went to have lunch and popped into pharmacy to buy some motion sickness pills - VOMITSTOP. That was a brilliant idea and made our life so much easier over the next two weeks.

Halfway through the ride we had to stop at a small village and were explained that the jeep broke down. Suddenly a ring of experts gathered around the jeep, with everyone taking turns at giving their expert opinion. Every passerby felt obligated to stop and chip in, which in turn would trigger a wider discussion. There was no way we were getting to Pelling that day...
Well the tides have turned. The consortium of automotive experts managed to figure out the problem. It was a wire connecting accelerator pedal that snapped. Our driver managed to pull the wire out through the front and lead it back through the front window. In this way he could accelerate by pulling the wire with his hand. I never seen a man more pleased with his engineering! And he did get us to Pelling that night after all.
We stayed at a basic hotel where the jeep dropped us off. I don't remember the name of the place but it's the first one as you enter the town. We payed 500 INR, which was a good value considering everything is slightly more expensive in Sikkim.
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Not the worst terrace view...

Trekking to Khechiberi Lake

The next day we set off to explore rural Sikkim by trekking 15 km towards secluded and holy Khechiberi Lake. You start by descending from Pelling towards the river. There isn't much in a way of signs or markings and maps are not supper handy either. Generally because Sikkim is so isolated and of high military importance it's not very well mapped out comparing to the rest of India or Nepal. Using the latest version of MAPS ME app that allows you pre-load offline maps is probably best. Prepare to get lost and be put back on the trail by friendly locals.
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Once we crossed the river we bumped into a couple of wild orange trees where we stocked up on some under-ripe oranges.
Than we crossed a road, at which point the map told us we had to pic up a trail up through the forest. We quickly found a trail and went up just to realize that it lead to a clearing for grassing cattle. We went down, walked along the road and picked up another trail up which half an hour later got us up to a bunch of houses where we managed to find one soul who told us we were way of mark and had to go back to the road.

At this point we decided that we lost far too much time and energy trying to find that forest trail and our best bet was to follow the jeep road all the way to the lake.
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We were recommended to stay at a place called Pala's Home Stay which is located on the top of the hill on the left hand side as you approach the lake. There are a few signs pointing you to Pala's and you have to climb some steep steps for 20-30 minutes before you reach the ridge.
Pala is a super-delightful 70+ grandpa, and the place is run by his daughters.
They charge only 500 INR per person which includes all your meals. And the meals are supper delicious.
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The Cave

The next day we decided to stay put and explore a holy cave. The cave is located on the top of the hill overlooking Pala's place.
We walk through a very primitive village, which despite being on the top of the hill and right in the middle of Indian nowhere had a little shop and was fully electrified.
Check out this picture of a mum and a kid turning big stones into small. And you thought your childhood sucked...
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It takes about an hour to hike up to the cave. The trail is well walked and obvious. Do take plenty of water with you as you will have to walk through some very hot and humid jungle.
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Way to Yuksum

Yuksum is an ancient capital of Sikkim, place of King's coronation, major pilgrimage site and a starting point of Kanchenjunga trek. It's also as far as you can go without obtaining a special permit given only to guided groups.

It's only a 10 km hike, but it's made much difficult by the fact that the trail is not on a map and there are no signs whatsoever.

First we came down to the holy Khechiberi Lake.
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We walked on the paved road back towards the junction until we saw first and only sign on the right hand side pointing to Yuksum.
You have to follow a general bearing towards Yuksum, passing a lot of local villages and keep asking for directions. Prepare to get lost and a lot.
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We saw a lot of boards describing various investment projects into the local infrastructure. Seems like Indian government puts a lot of money into the region to keep separatist at bay and prevent locals from looking towards China.

We reached the town by late afternoon. There are a few sights that you have to see such as coronation place, a monastery and a temple with some massive prayer drums!
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Posted by dima.safr 09:34 Archived in India Tagged home india trek lake jeep sikkim stay darjeeling permit yuksum khechiberi Comments (0)

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