Delhi, Amritsar, Agra, and Leh (Ladakh) February 10 – 26, 2009
2/10/09 - 2/26/09 60 °F
Ashok has to be the first Indian citizen to attempt a Round-the-World trip. I don't see how it's possible given all the idiosyncratic rules of all the countries. Ashok had to get visas for all 24 countries on our trip except for India and Aruba (only because he has a US green card). In comparison, I only needed to get 5. We got most of the visas in the US, and figured we'd get the rest in India since it's a midway stop for us. Luckily it worked out that way as most countries only take visa applications from country of citizenship or residency (something we found out later at the expense of not going to Morocco). Otherwise we would've been really screwed and would have had to end our trip a lot earlier.
The idea of spending a couple of weeks in New Delhi just for the visas was not very appealing (Ashok had no friends or family in Delhi, and there's only so much there to see), so we devised this plan to see sights that were within an easy train ride from Delhi. It also turned into a big family trip as both my mom & sister and Ashok's parents flew in to join us. It was nice to have this extra time with them, and made these side trips and our time in Delhi more fun.
The gang at Agra Fort (with Jean, mom & sis trying to look like locals):
Our first stop was Amritsar, north of Delhi, known for the Golden Temple. The style of northern Indian temples is different than that of the southern ones, but ornate nonetheless.
Amritsar is also less than 40 Km from the Pakistan border, and probably one of the friendliest borders between the 2 countries judging by the Border Closing ceremony we witnessed. This “Beating the Retreat” ceremony is by far the most entertaining military ceremony I've ever seen, involving traditional uniforms with high head dresses, over-the-head high kicks, and friendly screaming contest between the MCs and audiences of each country.
This is one instance where the video gives a much better taste for what it's like:
After a short trip back to Delhi to pick up and drop off another visa application, we went south to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Nowadays considered the greatest monument dedicated to love, it was a very appropriate way to spend Valentine's Day. The dinner with the whole family was very romantic too.
It's my second time there, but it's just as impressive to see the grand structure and the intricate patterns filled in with various precious and semi-precious stones. It's one of those places where you can't stop taking pictures so I had close to 100 before you know it. Here are just 2 of them:
early morning view from across the river:
We also had a “Slumdog” moment outside the Taj when this little boy came up to try to sweet talk us into going to his shop... oh and we did take our shoes off and they did not get stolen. Actually for the foreigners now they give you these shoe covers so it's not necessary to take them off.
It was good we had these breaks because getting the visas in India was a huge pain. There's a lot more paperwork involved than if we had applied in the US (seriously, why do they need the employment letter notarized for a 10 day trip, or a letter from the company to say you have their approval for going to that country for vacation? I can't imagine people putting up with that in the US!).
Here's the place in Delhi for notory services - it looks more like a farmer's market:
There are 8 stamps total on this document!
The funny thing is, no one actually checked any paperwork - no proof of identity, nothing - before notorizing the document.
In the US, the embassies gave you an idea for what the country is like. In India, the person that takes the application is Indian, so instead, we got to experience Indian bureaucracy and class-ism at its worst. As soon as an Indian person gets an uniform or sits behind a desk, he feels like he's better than others and starts to get an attitude and expects others to kiss his ass. It's wrong, but the common Indian citizen is usually treated like shit. You have to be a foreigner or an Indian with money or power to be treated with respect. At the Argentine embassy, we actually ended up calling the Consular General, who is Argentine (extremely friendly) to get Ashok's visa application processed.
Somehow we managed to get all except for Morocco in the 2 weeks there, then off we went to Leh in Kashmir state for the Tibetan New Year festival. Leh is in the Himalayas, at an altitude of 3500 meters (11483 ft). After my experience in Cuzco, we planned an extra day to rest and get acclimated. Even with that, I still got extremely sick, and spent most of the 4 days in bed with the oxygen machine running. The bronchitis I got while in Delhi (from all the open air auto rickshaws, I'm sure) probably didn't help.
The hotel staff was extremely nice and went out of their way to take care of me. The Omasila was one of the few hotels that stays open year round, and even Brad Pitt stayed there during a movie shoot, but only for one night... is it because he couldn't handle the altitude also?
I did manage to crawl out of bed long enough to witness the Dosmoche festival (ritual to ward off evil spirits and natural calamities), and to take a drive along the Indus River valley. There's a special significance because it's the 50 year anniversary of the Tibetan resistance.
People gathered at the base of the Leh Palace to watch the ceremony:
Masked dances performed by monks:
Himalayan peaks surrounding Leh:
Overlooking the Indus River outside of Leh:
It's too bad that, due to the altitude sickness, I will not be going back to Leh because it's so beautiful, and the people so warm and helpful. One of the organizers at the festival took Ashok to the back where they were getting ready so he could take pictures, and offered us soup afterwards. Even the manager at Kingfisher Airlines checked on me a couple of times to make sure I was doing ok and assured us that we would be on the first fight out (all flights had been canceled the prior 3 days - all flights since we arrived - due to weather). I've never been so happy to land at sea level. The pounding headache, however, stuck around for another week.
The next day, we picked up Ashok's final visa and flew to Egypt... and just like that we were done with Asia.
Some final funny signs in Delhi... one of things I love about India:
The left turn is free, but how much is a right turn?
Instructions on how to take the escalator:
The first one reads: "While climbing escalators put right leg on moving stairs and hold handrail and put other leg immediately on moving stairs while climbing down put right leg on stationary plate and leave the handrail put other leg on stationary plate"