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In the Japanese Alps

Japan day twelve


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Kamikochi

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Japanese tourists in Kamikochi

Kamikochi is a high plateau, surrounded by mountains, through which the Azusa River flows. It is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, because of the climate, only open to visitors from around mid April to mid November each year. When we visited in mid October the foliage was beautifully tinted with reds, golds and greens and the park, always popular with Japanese visitors, was busy even in the rain. And in the rain is how, for the most part, we saw it!

We had been enjoying great weather on our trip through Japan, but in Kamikochi our luck finally ran out. Rain is not at all unusual here, but we got more than just rain – we got one of Japan's autumnal typhoons!

Travelling to Kamikochi

But I am running ahead of myself – first, we had to get here from Takayama where we had spent the previous two days. We had arrived there by train but when we left a few days later it was by bus. The bus station is just next to and north of the train station and has a small waiting area with the ubiquitous vending machines – very useful for stocking up on provisions for the journey or an extra morning coffee. There’s plenty of seating and you can take advantage of free wifi if you’re going to be here any length of time.

Our bus arrived exactly on schedule to take us from Takayama to Hirayu, the first leg of our two bus journey. These are just local buses, not designed for tourists on lengthy visits to Japan, so we had used the excellent Japan Rail luggage forwarding service to send most of our luggage to Tokyo, where we were heading after Kamikochi, and took only small overnight bags on this trip. The buses were quite full, and we were very glad we didn’t have more bags to accommodate.

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Seen from the bus

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Kamikochi traffic jam

The journey to Hirayu took about an hour. There we changed buses, with a wait of about 15 minutes, for one bound for Kamikochi. No private vehicles are allowed beyond the entrance to the long Kappa tunnel that leads to Kamikochi; the only access is by bus or taxi and when you get on the road you see why. It is very narrow and winding and even with those restrictions in place seems to struggle to cope with the traffic. We were stuck for a while behind a bus that was manoeuvring inexpertly to allow another coming in the opposite direction to pass.

The views throughout our journey from Takayama were great, but on this last stretch spectacular – despite (or arguably because of) the very low cloud and rain. I was glad I had secured a window seat and could capture these first impressions of the Japanese Alps with my camera.

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Nearing Kamikochi

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Rainy Kamikochi from the bus

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Soba in hot soup

The bus deposited us at the terminal near the centre of the park, Kappa-bashi. Although it was a bit early for lunch Andrew suggested that we ate in the restaurant there (above the gift shop) as we wouldn’t be able to get anything at the hotel at this time. The wet weather had, it seemed, prompted everyone to have a similar idea, as although the restaurant here is large we had to wait a while for a table and our group broke into twos and fours to secure spaces.

Once seated we enjoyed our warming meal. visit I had soba noodles in a hot soup, which was described as being with ‘edible' (thankfully!) plants, and Chris the katsu (pork cutlet).

Kappa-bashi Bridge

After lunch we regrouped and headed for our hotel. This was right by the river on the far side of, and just a few metres from, the Kappa-bashi Bridge. This wooden suspension bridge is 36.6 metres long and just over three metres wide. It is something of a symbol for Kamikochi and is also the busiest point in the park as almost everyone crosses it at some point in their visit. By the way, bashi means bridge, but most English translations add the tautological 'bridge' to the name.

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Kappa-bashi in the rain

The bridge is named for a mythical creature, the Kappa, a name meaning ‘river child’. The Kappa is a trickster, as found in many mythologies, but a pretty malevolent one. They are said to lure people into the water to drown, to kidnap children and even to drink the blood of their victims in order to capture their soul. Even today you may see a sign warning of the presence of a Kappa by some bodies of water in more remote Japanese towns and villages. According to Wikipedia:

‘Kappa have been used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes, as kappa have been often said to try to lure people to water and pull them in.

‘Kappa legends are said to be based on the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki, an aggressive salamander that grabs its prey with its powerful jaws. Other theories suggest they are based on historical sightings of the now extinct Japanese river otter as seen from a distance, otters have been known to stand upright and a drunk, frightened or hallucinating person may think they are seeing a humanoid entity and not a wild animal.

‘The kappa is typically depicted as roughly humanoid in form and about the size of a child. Its scaly reptilian skin ranges in colour from green to yellow or blue.'

The bridge is surrounded by a number of mountains including Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake and Myojindake, which are all over 3,000 metres above sea level. But on this first afternoon in the park mountain views were in short supply, so we simply crossed the bridge and made the short walk to the hotel, Nishi-itoya Sanso, a good-sized guesthouse with traditional Japanese accommodation.

Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Exterior of Nishi-itoya Sanso - our room is bottom right

Our ground floor room here was probably the largest we had during our trip to Japan. We had a wash basin, but other facilities were communal - toilets in the corridor nearby, and a public onsen (separate men's and women's) on the second floor.

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Our room at Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Yukuta set

Sleeping is traditional style, on futons, which the staff laid out for us each evening while we were at dinner. But a welcome Western touch was the provision of a small table and chairs in the window alcove, from where we had a good view of the surrounding trees and a footpath traversed not only by human visitors to the park but also occasionally by the resident macaques!

Once we’d settled in we went for a walk in the immediate area, and despite the rain enjoyed taking photos of the trees, with the autumn leaves just turning, and the low clouds drifting through the wooded hillsides.

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Kamikochi in the rain

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Autumn colours

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Rainy day details

But having been warned not to be out after mid afternoon because of the approaching typhoon, we quite soon returned to our room to enjoy the views of the rather damp trees and equally damp passing macaques.

The macaques of Kamikochi

One of the delights of a visit to Kamikochi is the opportunity to observe the resident macaques, who are not too timid to venture into the ‘populated’ area around the hotels. From our limited two days’ experience, it seemed they would put in an experience mid to late afternoon, with a troop making its way along the path in front of our hotel and others taking a short cut across the staff car park behind. It was so much fun to observe their antics, especially those with little babies in tow or (very cute) riding on their backs.

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Bedraggled macaque with baby

The Japanese macaque is the most northerly-living primate (apart from humans, obviously!) and is sometimes called the ‘snow monkey’ because it is happy to live even where snow regularly covers the ground in winter. But you’re unlikely to get the opportunity to see it in the snow in Kamikochi because the park is closed during the winter months. However, we found that soggy-furred monkeys are almost as cute as snow-covered ones!

The macaques have a distinctive red face which makes them look permanently a little cross. They have thick brown or greyish fur which grows thicker in cold weather. They live in large groups or troops with males, females and infants all living, feeding and travelling together. The babies spend their first four weeks hanging from their mother’s belly before being transferred to her back where they spend most of their first year.

The macaques move quite quickly (or at least, they do when it rains) so you need to have your camera at the ready. I have a lot of very blurred photos to show for my efforts, and more than a few of bushes where, a fraction of a second before I pressed the shutter, a monkey was passing! The photo above was my only successful effort on this first afternoon, although I was to do better the following day.

After a relaxing couple of hours watching their antics, reading and catching up on my journal notes, it was time for dinner, which Andrew had promised us would be quite an experience – and it was!

A Japanese feast

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Table set for dinner

Stays at Nishi-itoya are on a half board basis and the dinners served are amazing, classic Japanese feasts, with multiple courses (albeit all served at once in the Japanese way). The table as we walked in to our group's private dining room on the first evening had us all gasping, and even so this was only part of our meal, as various hot items were added soon after we took our seats.

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An individual place-setting

Even with a printed menu sheet in English, some of the items remained hard to identify, and some of us found some of them a little hard to stomach, but really there was nothing here to deter anyone other than the ultra-squeamish (no odd parts of animals or insects, for instance!) and most of us sampled most things, though the non-fish eaters struggled a little at times. But everyone, whether they cleared their plates or simply grazed, found this an experience to remember.

The menu on that first night was (taken verbatim from the printed sheet provided):

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Walnut tofu

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Assorted samplers

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Grilled char

Appetiser: walnut tofu

Assorted samplers
~ burdock rolled with sea bream
~ boiled prawn
~ chestnut
~ cheese with citron

Sashimi: local salmon and char

Grilled char with salt

Sweet bun of lily root

Roast beef and salad

Fried salmon with eggplant
Fried potato with shrimp

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice with vegetable pickles

Fruit [grapes]

Wow! Of course, some dishes appealed to each of us more than others. My own favourites were the walnut tofu (I normally don't much care for tofu but this was a revelation), the sashimi and the fried potato with shrimp - a sort of Japanese fishcake. I also rather liked the lily root bun, which had the texture of mashed potato and a fairly mild flavour. The char was good too, though I found it a challenge to eat with chopsticks! Chris is not a big fan of fish so I traded some of my beef (which was his favourite) for his sashimi, and I noticed that around the table others were engaged in similar negotiations – one of the advantages of eating with a group ;)

After dinner we sat in the coffee shop for a while with Andrew and another couple from the group, Sue and Jim from Australia, with whom we were becoming friendly. We could buy sake here, tea and coffee, water and beer, although as the coffee shop closes at 21.00 we didn’t stay up late but headed back to our room to snuggle down in our futons and hope for better weather tomorrow.

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Andrew, Jim and Sue in the coffee shop

Posted by ToonSarah 10:05 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys food rain japan weather national_park kamikochi Comments (7)

Kamikochi in the rain

Japan day thirteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Rain over Kamikochi

After yesterday’s typhoon and associated rain, we awoke today hoping for better weather. Well, it was slightly better, in that the typhoon had passed and there was nothing to stop us getting outside, but the rain was still falling and not forecast to stop before the evening. Clearly we would not be getting mountain views today, but we were still keen to get out and see something of Kamikochi.

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Breakfast at Nishi-itoya Sanso

Over the Japanese style breakfast (salmon, pickles, miso soup, rice and tea) Andrew proposed leading a group on a walk to the Myojin area of the park, east of our hotel. The shrine that is located at the Myojin Pond is a popular sight and sounded lovely, but Chris and I decided we would rather do our own thing today. So after supplementing the breakfast with the free coffee available in the coffee shop, we got ready to face the elements. Chris’s umbrella had given up the battle with these in yesterday’s wind, so it was good that the hotel provided them for any guest needing one. While we had waterproof clothing, I find an umbrella invaluable in protecting not just me but my camera – most of the photos on this page were taken juggling camera and umbrella!

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Chris with hotel umbrella

Our riverside walk

Leaving the hotel we turned right, having decided to explore in the opposite direction to the main group. Kamikochi is a park for walkers and hikers (there isn’t much else to do here) and there are paths to suit everyone, from an easy stroll by the river to a challenging hike up one of the mountains. In this weather however the riverside routes are the only practical ones (even the best walkers in our group stuck to these) and the area around the hotels and Kappi-bashi was busy with visitors. But many don’t go very far from the hotels and bus terminal and we knew we would soon leave the bulk of them behind.

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The path by the river

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Information sign

The trails are easy to follow and clearly marked, and helpful little maps are available, small enough to slip in a jacket pocket. I had picked up one of these at the hotel, where they are free, but you can also buy them for 100¥ from the tourist information office at the bus terminal and from various shops. There are also signs along the way describing the landscape, trees, bird life etc. These are in Japanese and English, and are very informative – although it was somewhat frustrating to see on some of them the pictures of the stunning mountain range that was totally hidden from our view by a blanket of low cloud!

Following the park rules (naturally!)

Kamikochi is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, like national parks everywhere, there are various regulations in force to ensure the protection of the wildlife here. These include specific protection for certain animals, the rock ptarmigan, antelope and char, which are designated as ‘Precious Natural Animals’ in Japan. A voluntary group called ‘Kamikochi Preservation’ was established by the local community in 1965 to support conservation activities in the area. They promote three regulations that visitors are asked to observe in order to preserve Kamikochi for future generations:

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Tree with moss

1. Don't Feed & Disturb!
Do not disturb or feed birds, insects, fish or other wild animals.

2. Don't Harm!
Do not harm or damage wild flowers and plants.

3. Don't Dump!
Carry all your garbage home with your splendid memories.

With these in mind, and cameras and umbrellas at the ready, we started our explorations!

The Weston Relief

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The Weston Relief

This is the shorthand name given locally to the Reverend Weston Memorial Plaque, which we came to after a short walk from Kappa-bashi. It commemorates the Reverend Walter Weston, an English clergyman and missionary of the Church of England during the late 19th / early 20th centuries. He first visited Japan at the age of 27 and was captivated by its mountain regions which he introduced to the world through his book, ‘Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps’ (1896). It is he who is credited with spreading the popular name for this region, the ‘Japanese Alps’, around the world. He was influential in establishing the Japanese Alpine Club in 1906 and was its first honorary member.

In 1937, Emperor Hirohito conferred on him the Japanese ‘Order of the Sacred Treasures (fourth class)’, and the Japanese Alpine Club erected a bronze plaque in his honour here at Kamikochi. Today’s plaque is a 1965 reproduction of that earlier one which had got badly damaged over time.

From here we continued along the riverside path.

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The Azusa River near the Weston Relief

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Colours of Kamikochi

Tashiro Bridge

About a kilometre from Kappa-bashi the path, which at first follows the northern bank of the Azusa River, crosses it via the Tashiro Bridge. The river views on and near the bridge are great, and the water so clear as it runs over the pebbles, even on a wet day. On the far side of the bridge is a small shelter with some interesting information displays about the park’s wildlife. From here you could walk straight ahead to reach the main road and bus stop, but we turned right to continue along the trail.

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Kamikochi streams

Soon after this point the path divides and you have the choice of following a route near the river or one that runs among the trees. We chose the former, and followed the path as it crossed a couple of smaller streams that feed the Azusa near here, before arriving at the beautiful Tashiro-Ike.

Tashiro-Ike

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Tashiro-Ike

This was easily my favourite spot of those we visited in Kamikochi. We had been walking in the rain for some time, enjoying the soft light and changing colours, when suddenly the path through the trees emerged into a more open area, filled with rust-tinted reeds and edged with larch and other trees. This was Tashiro Marsh, which is gradually being formed by the silting up of Tashiro Pond through many years of accumulated dead leaves. A raised path crosses the marsh and leads to the edge of the pond itself, Tashiro-Ike. Its clear waters reflect, on a bright day, the surrounding mountains but today, in the soft Kamikochi rain, they glowed deep and green, reflecting only the nearby trees. In this busy park, and only minutes from its most popular trail, we had this spot almost to ourselves; many visitors, it seems, don’t bother to make the 100 metre or so detour to see this pond. They are missing a treat!

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At Tashiro-Ike

Tashiro is from all accounts lovely whatever the season. In late spring and summer it is surrounded by flowers, including Japanese azalea, and later the autumn colours that we enjoyed appear. In winter Kamikochi is closed to visitors, but if you were able to visit Tashiro you would find the waters still flowing, as it is fed by an underground spring and never completely freezes over.

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At Tashiro-Ike

From here we retraced our steps to the main path and continued in the direction we had been walking.

Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

This trail ends at the Taisho Pond, one of Kamikochi’s most popular and photographed spots. The pond is a relatively recent addition to the landscape here, having been formed in 1915 by the volcanic activity of nearby Yakedake. On June 6th that year an eruption caused an avalanche of mud which blocked the Azusa River and led to the creation of Taisho-Ike. The trees drowned when the river was dammed still stand, withered but upright, and make for an eerie sight, especially in the grey misty light of a rainy day. By contrast, a clear day will reveal reflections of Yakedake and Mount Hotaka in the pond’s still waters (we were to get a glimpse of this from the bus the next morning as we left the park).

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Taisho-Ike

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Reflections, Taisho-Ike

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Taisho-Ike

To reach the water’s edge we scrambled over the rocky foreshore to take some photos. We then climbed a short path up to the hotel that sits here, which in fine weather has great views of the reflections in the pond, and is consequently often crowded, I believe. But today it was quiet here and it was easy to get good photos from both foreshore and above.

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Taisho-Ike

Once we’d seen and photographed all we wanted to, we climbed up the short path to the hotel where we were able to use the toilets. We also went in the café here to get a hot cup of coffee to warm us up after the rainy walk. The café also has lovely views of the pond so there were more photos to be taken of course!

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On Taisho-Ike - taken from the hotel above

A relaxing afternoon

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Salmon and meat patty set

The only walking route back to Kappa-bashi from here is to retrace your steps along the same path, but we decided we had had enough rain for one day. So instead we caught the bus from a stop just outside the hotel. This took us to the bus terminal from where it is just a short walk to the bridge and hotels on the far side. But by now we were hungry so we went back to the restaurant above the gift shop where we had eaten on our arrival in Kamikochi the previous day. Again it was busy with visitors escaping the wet weather but we didn’t have to wait too long for a table. I had a ‘set’ with a small piece of salmon in crispy crumb, a meat patty cooked the same way, salad, rice, miso soup and pickles. It was more than I wanted but I fancied having salmon, so I ate that, the salad, a little rice and the soup. Chris had the meat patty along with his ‘curry rice’ - the Japanese take on curry which consists of a rich meaty curry sauce with very little actual meat! While this meal too was fine, I have to say I had preferred my soba dish of the previous day.

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Bedraggled Macaque

After this late lunch we crossed Kappa-bashi back to the hotel where we relaxed in our room for a bit. Later we visited the coffee shop for cake and coffee, and sat at a counter with a great view of the path outside that was favourite route for passing macaques. I loved watching their antics, especially the young ones, and managed to capture a few more photos than on the previous afternoon. I also made a little video of a couple of them, although unfortunately the window frame kept getting in the way, so you only get short glimpses of each as it passes.

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Macaque with baby on board

Dinner that evening was as much of a feast as on the previous day and served in the same traditional style, with all courses beautifully presented and served individually to each place-setting at the same time. This time the menu was:

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Assorted samplers
including river crab

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Sashimi

Assorted samplers
~ grilled saury [a fish] with citron flavour
- river crab
- chestnut
~ persimmon jelly
~ pumpkin millefeuille

Sashimi: local salmon and maraena white fish

Grilled sweetfish with salt

Hot buckwheat noodle

Beef steak and salad

Fried buckwheat noodle rolled with laver
Fried ginkgo nuts

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice and vegetable pickles

Fruit [apple slices]

Again, a fabulous spread! I loved the sashimi again and also enjoyed the buckwheat noodles both fried and served in their hot sauce. The river crab was really too tiny though to have any significant flavour or meat to it. But as on the previous evening we all came away from the table feeling very full and rather pampered by the whole experience.

When the skies cleared

Later that evening, at around 9.00 PM, we were sitting in the inn’s coffee shop, drinking beers and sake with some of the group, when the guy who was on reception came hurrying in. In his limited English he explained that if we came outside we would see the full moon and ‘white mountain’. So we left our drinks and hurried out, to find that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:27 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys rain water wildlife monument river weather national_park kamikochi Comments (2)

A stay in a hunting lodge

India day nine continued - and day ten


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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In the seventeenth century Jodhpur’s royal family built a hunting lodge on the edge of a small village in the heart of the Aravalli hills, Narlai. Today that lodge is an exquisite hotel, and my favourite of all the places we stayed in Rajasthan – I would very happily have stayed longer here than the two days that we had.

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On the road to Narlai

We drove to Narlai from Dechu, where we had spent the night in Samsara Desert Camp, by way of Jodphur where we stopped for some hours to visit the fort and old town. The journey was otherwise uneventful but we enjoyed watching the desert scenery gradually change to a greener, more agricultural landscape, dotted here and there with small mountains. We spotted antelope at one point, or rather the large deer, Nilgai, that the locals sometimes call antelope and sometimes wild cows, but they moved before I could grab a photo - one, the male, leaping over a fence of some considerable height.

We passed through small villages that seemed a little more affluent than those of the desert, some with quite grand houses here and there. And arriving at Narlai we found it much the same, with a large white temple at its heart and a few streets of quite humble houses with just a sprinkling of smarter ones, plus a few local shops to serve the farming community. The other main source of income here is the hotel, Rawla Narlai, which is located right in the village and which was to be our base for the next two nights.

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Courtyard and bar

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Around the grounds

This hotel has been very tastefully converted, retaining bags of character, and still feels old, unlike the other heritage hotels we stayed in which were perhaps almost too well restored, albeit beautifully. Our room was really lovely, packed with historic detail and antique furniture, yet with the modern conveniences we appreciate such as good plumbing and air conditioning. There were tea and coffee making facilities and complimentary bottles of water. The king-size bed was very comfortable. We had seating inside and a day bed on the shady terrace outside. This room was in the older part – I gather that those in the newer wing are larger but have less character, and personally I am very happy we were where we were as the room was more than large enough and I wouldn’t have wanted to sacrifice the character!

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Our bedroom

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There are plenty of activities on offer, including jeep safaris and village walks, and we took advantage of some of these, but it was also a great place for some time out from our busy sightseeing schedule in Rajasthan. The hotel grounds are gorgeous. Bougainvillea, morning glory and frangipani flowers trail everywhere. There's a good-sized swimming pool tucked in one corner, while elsewhere there are pretty courtyards, fountains and lots of marble elephants – a bit of a theme here because of the huge carved marble elephant on the top of a rocky outcrop, Narlai Hill, that towers above the property.

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The swimming pool

Narlai Hill

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Rawla Narlai lies at the foot of Narlai Hill, a rocky outcrop typical of this landscape, on the top of which stands a huge white marble statue of an elephant (and hence you will hear locals refer to the hill as Elephant Rock). Although we didn’t do this, the hotel organise free escorted walks up the hill at sunrise – there are a lot of steps to climb but I reckon the effort would be rewarded.

Towards the bottom of the hill are several temples. From the hotel we could see the large one that nestles under the overhanging rocks, and in the early mornings and evenings could hear chanting carried from here on the breeze. This is the Temple of Shri Aai Mata, who was an incarnation of the goddess Ambe Maa, found in a garden in Ambapur (Gujarat) as a baby by Rao Bika Dhabi and brought up as his daughter. It is said that she visited Narlai and stayed in the Jekalji Mahadev Temple in the village from where she taught the local people. According to local legend she created an opening in a cave on the hills with lightening and in it placed a Jyoti (divine lamp) which burns with a continuous flame which produces kesar (a saffron coloured soot) instead of a black one.

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Shri Aai Mata temple

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Lord Shiva cave temple

Near the foot of the hill and right opposite the entrance to the hotel is a much smaller temple, set in a cave and dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is said that the sage Shri Narad meditated here to please Lord Shiva and that the village was named after him.

So much for the temples on the hill. But about the elephant I have not been able to find anything – who put it there, why and when – all is a mystery!

Arriving here in the late afternoon we settled into our room; explored the grounds and took some photos; signed up for a couple of activities the next day; and spent a lovely evening which included an enjoyable and tasty dinner served by candlelight on the flat roof on top of the bar in the pleasantly cooling evening air. The food was excellent, especially the wonderful aubergine curry flavoured with mustard, and very reasonably priced.

A day in Narlai

With just a day in which to enjoy the facilities and activities here we were up fairly early and enjoying breakfast in the restaurant overlooking the main courtyard. Opposite this, on the far side of this courtyard, the hotel has a small shrine which on that morning, a Monday, was the focus for some activity.

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Shrine and village elder

The service at the Rawla Narlai is as attentive as everywhere, and that attentiveness seems to expand to include those living in the surrounding village. Every Monday morning the village elders are invited in for tea and a chat about village matters. I and another hotel guest spotted them while we were at breakfast and we went across to ask permission to take some photos, which was willingly granted. We had in mind to take photos from the courtyard but we were invited up on to the terrace (removing our shoes, of course) where I took these photos.

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Village Elders' meeting

This seems a great custom for the hotel to have introduced, as it helps to ensure good relationships between local community and hotel, and if any problems did arise they can be talked through straight away. Mostly though it seemed to be an excuse for a good gossip and plenty of tea!

A walk in the village

After breakfast we went for a walk in the village with a member of the hotel staff, a local resident. Narlai is a small village with an unusually large number of temples (even by Indian standards). It faces some of the same challenges as rural communities everywhere, with a declining population caused by some younger people drifting away, tempted by big city life and its wider opportunities. But its streets have thriving little shops, mainly catering only to locals; its farmers manage to feed their families and have produce over to sell; its people benefit from the opportunity to work in or for the hotel; and overall it has a more affluent (or more accurately perhaps, a less struggling) character than many other places we went to.

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Houses in the village

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Of course you can always walk around on your own (the hotel is right in the middle of the village) but going with a local like this enables you to be invited into some village houses. Although having said that, I was also asked inside one by a woman who, when I asked permission to take a photo, insisted on me coming in so that she could pose with her goat which was clearly a prized possession!

We also went in a few local shops – two clothing, one jewellers (and they were very much local shops, not tourist ones). I was tempted by a gorgeous pink skirt in one but it was so traditional I knew I would probably feel silly wearing it at home! The other woman in our group of four did buy a petticoat which I was pleased about as these local village shops must appreciate the additional custom the hotel brings.

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Village shops

In addition to seeing the general life of the village we made a brief stop at the Lord Shiva temple in a cave right by the hotel. We also saw several other temples, small and larger, which are dotted around the village, including the main Jain temple, Shri Adinath, which has a huge elephant outside and was being restored at the time of our visit.

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Village temple

But the highlight, or rather many highlights, of this walk were the large number of village people who greeted us, willingly posed for photos and generally made us feel very welcome here.

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Villagers in Narlai

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In particular the walk gave us a great opportunity to photograph the colourful traditional dress of Rajasthan, thanks to the openness of the women we met and their willingness to pose for us. This is always very colourful. It consists of an ankle length skirt, a short top (this may just skim the waist or stop higher up, leaving the midriff bare) and a long piece of cloth known as a chunari. This protects them from the heat and is also often used to cover or partly cover the face.

Mehar told us that it is the village daughters-in-law (those who have married into local families and come to live with their husband’s family, as is customary) who are expected to cover their faces, especially in the presence of older relatives, men and strangers. Having said that, many whom we met, here and elsewhere, seemed pretty relaxed about dropping the cloth to say hello, smile and pose for photos etc. I noticed that different colours seem popular in different villages. In some we had passed through the predominant shades were orange and yellow, or red and green, while here in Narlai it was pink, purple and reds for the most part.

The women’s adornments often include a large number of bangles worn on the upper arms. These are usually just of white plastic. It seemed to me that they may be cut from pot lids, although I could be wrong! But wealthier women wear metal, even sometimes gold, bangles.

Regardless of wealth though, it is traditional to wear an elaborate gold decoration in one side of the nose, a tradition that some here still follow even on a regular working day it seems. These nose rings are worn throughout India, with different styles popular in different region. In Rajasthan the most usually worn is the nathni, a large but delicate hoop connected to the hair with a thin chain. The women in my photos below though have a rather more elaborate version of this. I didn’t ask, but maybe it was a special occasion in their family (we met them in the same house).

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We spent the middle part of the day relaxing by, and in, the hotel’s pool and enjoying a light lunch there, before our next activity …

A leopard safari

This is one of several optional excursions offered by Rawla Narlai. It costs 2,000 IR per person and you can choose to go first thing in the morning or late afternoon. We chose the latter and set out at 4.30 PM with a number of other hotel guests in three separate jeeps. They reckon on spotting leopards on about 80% of the trips, so you have a good chance – as you can see from my photos below, we were in luck!

The hotel employs some trackers who know the habits and movements of the local leopard population and who go out walking the surrounding area during the day on the lookout for them. If they have a sighting they radio the guides leading the safaris. The leopards tend to stay in one place for some time, so the jeeps have plenty of time to get to the site.

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Tracker on the lookout

On our safari we had headed out of the village to the foot of the nearby Elephant Rock where leopards are apparently often sighted and where one had been seen that morning. We had no sighting here, though we did see some langur monkeys playing on a Jain temple roof. Then the call came – a female leopard with two cubs had been spotted some miles away. We immediately turned back through the village, out on to the main road and headed towards the site where we found the other two jeeps from the hotel already in position, with all eyes, cameras and binoculars trained on the top of a nearby rocky outcrop. There she was! Part-hidden by an outcrop of rock, but definitely there! Her cubs were harder to spot, staying mainly behind the rock, but we did get some glimpses of them too. Of course, being at some distance, it was hard to get great photos, but a few of those I took did come out well enough to at least serve as a record of the experience.

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Leopard on the rocks

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You can just see a cub in this one!

We stayed at this spot for quite a while, taking photos of the leopards, while the hotel guides handed out bottles of water, tea from a flask and sandwiches. As well as the leopards, we saw an antelope and quite a lot of peacocks. There was a hazy sunset which developed into a lovely pearly pink light, and an almost full moon had risen before we finally left and headed back to the hotel. In all the safari lasted about two hours and seemed to us to be very reasonable value for what we had paid – though of course we might feel differently had we not seen any leopards!

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Sunset and moonrise

That evening we ate again at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant – there really isn’t any other option here, but as it serves excellent food at a reasonable price we didn't have a problem with that!

Monkeys at Narlai

On our second (and last) morning at Narlai we woke early. I just happened to be looking out of the window when I spotted movement on a roof top - a monkey. We jumped out of bed and soon saw that it was a whole troop so of course we threw on some clothing, grabbed our cameras and hurried outside. It was a troop of langur monkeys passing through, or rather across, the hotel, stopping at a couple of trees that obviously had fruit that is to their taste. There were several cute babies among them and we took loads of photos as they paused briefly on the roofs before continuing on and into the trees. After about five minutes or so they moved on, and we could see them leaping across the roofs of the village beyond, no doubt heading towards more favourite trees, or to scavenge from rubbish heaps.

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India’s langurs are Grey or Hanuman Langurs (the latter name taken from the Hindu god). They are a pale or yellowish grey with a black face and long tails (up to 100 cm and always longer than their body), and rather attractive, I think. They are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and are therefore less likely to be regarded as pests than the macaques which live in this region too, although they do regularly steal food and crops. Watching them was a lovely way to start our day and ensured one more happy memory to take away from Narlai.

After another good breakfast it was time to say goodbye to Narlai, with some reluctance. There had been no time to climb Elephant Hill at sunrise, no time for dinner at a nearby step well (another of the activities offered by the hotel) and no time for a further wander on our own through the village.

But Ranakpur and Udaipur awaited us …

Posted by ToonSarah 21:47 Archived in India Tagged people animals monkeys india village rajasthan customs narlai street_photography big_cats Comments (7)

A Raiput capital

India day thirteen


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It was an apologetic Mehar who greeted us this morning – for the first time on the trip he had been unable to fill up with petrol the previous evening so we would have to stop on our way out of Udaipur. Of course this didn’t bother us in the slightest as it was a matter of minutes to stop at the petrol station and it gave me an opportunity to photograph more of India’s colourful lorries.

Our destination today was Bundi, but on the way we would visit the hilltop fort of Chittaurgarh, which occupies a prime position on a ridge of land above the modern day town of Chittor. From there a winding road ascends beneath seven gates to enter the fort. Inside are temples, palaces and towers, in various states of repair and many covered in beautiful and fascinating carvings. And all have a story to tell.

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Part of the fort from the ramparts

Chittaurgarh, or Chittorgarh as it is sometimes written, is the largest fort in India and indeed in the whole of Asia. From the 8th century, when it was built, to the 10th, and again from the 13th to the 16th, when it was finally abandoned after Akbar successfully laid siege to it, this fort was the capital of the kingdom of Mewar. The tales of battles fought here, of heroism and sacrifice, still resonate in the hearts of Indians it seems, although they are not much told outside the country and relatively few foreign tourists visit the fort. That is a pity, as it has a special atmosphere very different to the other forts on the tourist trails such as Jaisalmer or Agra’s Red Fort, owing in part at least to its more ruined state.

The three most significant events during the fort’s history were all sieges. The first was led by Allaudin Khilji, his eyes on Queen Padmini of Chittaur, in 1303 A.D. The second, in 1535, was led by Bahadur Shah of Gujurat, and the third in 1568 by the Mughal emperor Akbar. On all three occasions the women of the court committed Jauhar, mass immolation, rather than be seized and no doubt raped by the invading army. It is the bravery of these women, as well as the men who resisted the attacks, that has made Chittaurgarh such a byword for heroism among Indians.

We had been told in Jaisalmer that it was the only still-occupied fort in India, a fact that you will read in many sources. But when we came to Chittaurgarh we found that here too people still make their homes, in a village at the northern end of the fort. On arriving inside the fort, Mehar drove us to this village, as our guide lived there. We were later told that it had a population of about 5,000, living in this small area of the fort to which, under its UNESCO listed status (as part of a group of six Rajasthan hill forts which also includes Jaisalmer and Jaipur), residential occupation is restricted.

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Village temple and resident

We only saw a little of the village, which seemed to me at the same time unremarkable and yet extremely so – an ordinary-looking Rajasthani village in this very extraordinary setting. A sprinkling of temples, a variety of houses (a few quite smart, the rest less so, many painted Brahmin blue and all pretty old), cows and pigs wandering the streets …

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More residents!

Padmini Haveli

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The guide arranged for us by our tour company, Parvati Sukhwal, is a resident of the village in the fort, where she runs this guesthouse with her husband. She met us on arrival and welcomed us in her home with great Italian coffee (easily the best cup of coffee I had while in India) and a chance to use one of the guest bathrooms to freshen up after our drive. This gave me a chance to see one of the bedrooms as well as the public areas, so although we didn’t stay here I could see that while it is a fairly simple guesthouse, it is clearly run with a great deal of care and pride and in a very nicely restored haveli. The rooms are all en suite and vegetarian meals are available. Parvati in fact invited us back for a lunch of tomato soup and we would have loved to have accepted but we had our own accommodation already booked some distance away in Bundi and knew we would have to leave straight after our visit to the fort to get there on time.

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In the haveli

The guesthouse is run in partnership with a Swiss couple who live in Europe but visit frequently (that explains the good coffee!), and employs a number of local people. Both Parvati and her husband are qualified guides and offer tours of the fort and other nearby sights. But although she was supposed to be our guide, she explained that she had only recently had a baby and rather than leave him had arranged for her nephew to show us around. He was relatively young and I wasn’t sure at first whether he would make a good replacement, but I needn’t have worried. He proved to be one of the best guides we had in Rajasthan – very knowledgeable about the fort and the many stories associated with it, speaking good English and never rushing us when we wanted to take photos.

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Our guide (drawing a plan of the fort for us)

Our tour started by the reservoir in front of the Shiva Temple. Chittaurgarh is also sometimes referred to as the “Water Fort” because 40% of its area was given over to water bodies including ponds, reservoirs and wells. There were once 84 in total and together they held enough water to supply the fort for four years, meeting the water needs of an army of 50,000.

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Reservoir with temple beyond

Of these, 22 still remain. At our young guide’s suggestion, we stopped on the road that runs along the east side of the fort, which is relatively untravelled (most visitors stay around the “big” sights on the west side), for views of this reservoir. Beyond it is a Shiva temple dating from the 15th century. This location is not far from the inhabited village area and as you can see some locals use it for clothes washing. The combination of ancient temple and present-day activity made it a great photo stop, and having it to ourselves was a bonus.

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Washing clothes at the Shiva Temple

Jain Tower and Temple

This is one of two similar ornately carved towers at Chittaurgarh, and is located on the east side of the fort (the other, the Victory Tower, is on the west side – we will see it later). Also known as the Tower of Fame, or Kirti Stambh, this was built by a wealthy Jain merchant, Jijaji Rathod, in the 12th century.

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Jain Tower

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Details of carvings on the tower

The tower is 22 metres high and is dedicated to Adinathji, the 1st Jain Teerthankar, and the carvings include naked Thirthankar figures – their nakedness indicating that the tower is associated with the Digambars (a Jain sect known as the “sky-clad” who do not believe in covering the natural body) There are also some rather appealing elephants. The little pavilion at the top was added in the 15th century.

Next to the tower is a small Jain temple which we went inside. The tower is a place of pilgrimage for Jains and this temple is still active. Some websites label pictures of this as the “Meera Temple” but I believe that this is a different temple on the other side of the complex, near the larger Khumbh-Shyam Temple.

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Jain Temple

Suraj Pol

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Suraj Pol

Arriving in the fort from the town of Chittor, which lies on its west side, you will pass through a series of seven gates: Padan Pol, Bhairon Pol, Hanuman Pol, Ganesh Pol, Jodla Pol, Laxman Pol and the main entry gate, Ram Pol (Lord Rama’s Gate). But here on the east there is another impressive gate or “pol”, which is known as the Sun Gate or Suraj Pol because of this location. The heavy wooden gates are studded with iron spikes (just visible on the left side of my photo) to repel attack by elephants.

From this vantage point you have a great view of the plain below. Today this is peaceful farmland, with a small village also called Suraj Pol, after the gate. But in the past this was the site of many bloody battles, as the warriors of Chittaurgarh rode out to face their enemies and were often slaughtered. In the regular battles between Mughal invaders and Rajput rulers here, the Rajputs would do anything to avoid being captured alive and enslaved or tortured, so they would ride to their deaths rather than continue to resist the siege when defeat became inevitable – this practice was known as the saka. For the same reason the women would practice jauhar, mass immolation, along with their children – since the Mughals were believed to rape even the bodies of dead women.

Chittaurgarh is renowned for the three major acts of jauhar committed here, after defeat in three sieges. The first of these was led by Allaudin Khilji in 1303, the second in 1535 by Bahadur Shah of Gujurat, and the third in 1568 by the Mughal emperor Akbar.

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View from Suraj Pol

Adbhutnath Temple

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Three-faced Shiva

This seems to be another of the less visited sights in the fort and we had it to ourselves when our guide brought us here. It dates from the 12th century and is dedicated to Shiva – or rather, was dedicated to Shiva; it is now in ruins and many of its carvings defaced, so it is no longer considered holy, according to our guide. Nevertheless, it holds a beautiful image of the three faces of Shiva. A three-faced Shiva like this is known as Trimurti. The heads show him in his three forms: creation, protection, and destruction. In Hindu belief, Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. His role is to preserve the balance of the universe through destruction in order to generate renewal.

By the way, and to avoid any confusion, the Samidheswar Mahadev Temple nearer the Victory Tower also has a three-faced Shiva which you will see photos of more often than this one, as it is more visited.

There are good views from here of the Victory Tower which we will visit shortly.

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Defaced carvings

Padmini Palace and Jal Mahal

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Padmini Palace and Jal Mahal

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Jal Mahal from the palace

Perhaps the most visited and photographed of Chittaurgarh’s many ruins is this, Padmini’s Palace. This is due as much to the story of Padmini as it is to the building itself.

Maharani Padmini was the wife of Rana Ratan Singh, and very beautiful. Hearing of her beauty Ala-ud-din Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, laid siege to Chittaurgarh hoping to capture her. After seven months of siege, when those inside the fort were close to collapse, Ala-ud-din proposed to spare them if he could be granted one glimpse of Padmini. Ratan Singh agreed but didn’t permit a direct look. Instead a mirror was placed here in the building today known as Padmini’s Palace, while she sat on the steps of the small building in the lake, the Jal Mahal. Pretending himself to be satisfied, Ala-ud-din Khilji asked Ratan Singh to accompany him to the gate of the fort to see him off, and as the Rajputs were unused to subterfuge, Singh agreed.

Of course it was a trap, and he was captured by the Sultan’s army. Again Ala-ud-din proposed a deal – if Padmini would agree to go with him, her husband would be released. So she hatched a plan, agreeing to go with Singh only if her entourage of servants and companions could accompany her, as befitted a queen. Her wish was granted, but the palanquins that went with her to the gates of the fort held not maidservants but soldiers, who attacked the invading troops. Defeated Ala-ud-din retreated – only to return again the following year with more and better soldiers.

This time Chittaurgarh could not hold out and the Rajputs were overpowered. Their warriors died on the battlefield and Padmini led the women of the fort into the burning pyres in the first of the three acts of Jauhar to be performed here.

The other instances of Jauhar followed the two sieges of 1528 and 1568. Although similar to the practice of Sati, which we had heard so much about in Jaisalmer, it differs from it in that in the latter a widow or concubine committed suicide as a sign of devotion to her dead husband and grief at his death, while Jauhar was usually a mass act and was motivated by a desire to avoid being captured and raped by the invading Muslims – that is, to prevent something happening rather than a response to something that had happened.

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Jal Mahal detail

On the ramparts

This was another spot that our young guide led us to, which we would never have found on our own. About half way between Padmini Palace and the Victory Tower a path leads off to the left (if driving north) through a grey kissing gate. You walk across some scrubby ground for about five minutes and at the end climb on to the wall. If you then walk right for about 100 metres, you will get excellent views of the modern town of Chittor below and several of the fort buildings.

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View from the ramparts

Victory Tower

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Victory Tower

The Victory Tower or Vijaya Stambha rivals the Padmini Palace as the most visited and photographed sight in Chittaurgarh, and here you will certainly encounter the crowds. But as it is one of an impressive group of buildings, that is hardly surprising.

The tower is 37.19 metres high and was built by Maharana Kumbha in 1448 to commemorate his victory over Mahmud Shah I Khalji, the Sultan of Malwa, eight years earlier. It is part of red sandstone and part white marble, and is carved with images of gods and goddesses, seasons, weapons, musical instruments etc. Although we didn’t do so, it is possible to climb its nine stories and the views of the fort must be great from the top.

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Victory Tower details

Also in this part of the fort are several temples, including the Kalika Mata Temple which was built in the 8th century as a Sun temple but destroyed in the 14th century siege by Ala-ud-din Khilji. It was restored and rededicated to the Goddess Kali. Nearby is a partly ruined temple that frames the tower for good photos.

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Victory Tower from ruined temple

These temples look down on a garden that marks the spot where, according to our guide, some of the famous acts of Jauhar were carried out. Beyond is the Samadhishwar Temple dedicated to Shiva which dates from the 11th century and was renovated in 1428. Like the Adbhutnath Temple it contains an image of Trimurti Shiva, that is, three-faced, but we didn’t go in as we were running out of time at this point if we were to reach Bundi that afternoon.

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Samadhishwar Temple

The monkeys of Chittaurgarh

On the path leading to and from the Victory Tower we encountered a large troop of langur monkeys. They were totally unafraid of people, being obviously very accustomed to the attentions of passing tourists. Consequently, I got my best monkey photos of the whole trip here!

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India’s langurs are Grey or Hanuman Langurs (the latter name taken from the Hindu god). They are a pale or yellowish grey with a black face and long tails (up to 100 cm and always longer than their body). I found them very attractive, with expressive faces and the tail curled rather elegantly. They are increasingly moving away from their natural habitats, which include forests, mountains and grasslands, to more urban environments. They are considered sacred in the Hindu religion and are therefore less likely to be regarded as pests than macaques, although they do regularly steal food and crops.

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This was also one of the spots on this trip where we found ourselves starring in other people’s photos, as a group of visiting school boys were all keen to pose with us here. In the end we had to turn down their requests as we knew we still had some distance to drive to reach Bundi that afternoon …

Posted by ToonSarah 18:34 Archived in India Tagged buildings monkeys temple ruins india fort rajasthan Comments (6)

Tiger, tiger burning bright

India days fourteen and fifteen


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Ranthambore

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Like just about everyone else who visits, we came to Ranthambore with the aim of seeing tigers. And Ranthambore is all about the tigers. Every conversation you have here is guaranteed to start with “Did you see any tigers?” The answer is quite likely to be yes, although there are, as ever with wildlife, no guarantees ...

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Painted storks

We drove (or rather, Mehar drove!) to Ranthambore from Bundi, a drive of about three hours. We weren't able to stop too often for photos, as we had an afternoon safari drive booked and had left Bundi fairly late after a visit to the palace there. But we did stop briefly twice. The first was at a pretty lake where lots of Painted Storks and other birds were feeding. Painted Storks get their name from the bright pink feathers near their tails, which do look just as if someone had dabbed them with paint! They are found in the Indian subcontinent south of the Himalayas as well as in south east Asia. Wikipedia’s description of their feeding behaviour matches exactly what we observed:

“They forage in flocks in shallow waters along rivers or lakes. They immerse their half open beaks in water and sweep them from side to side and snap up their prey of small fish that are sensed by touch. As they wade along they also stir the water with their feet to flush hiding fish.”

Our second stop was to take photos of some young girls in colourful saris working in the fields. This was a shot I had been after for the whole trip, but it proved slightly difficult to get because as soon as the girls saw us and our cameras watching them over the hedge they stopped work to pose rather stiffly – very nice of them, but not what we had in mind! Luckily after a while they relaxed and went back to work, and I got my shots.

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They've spotted us!

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Back to work

Tiger Den Resort

Our base for our two nights near the national park was this fairly basic resort not far from the entrance. This was the least good of all the accommodation we used in Rajasthan, by some way. Of course a visit to Ranthambore is all about the animals and the quality of the accommodation comes second. But you get the same safari experience wherever you stay, and between drives you want somewhere to relax – and from what we saw there are better quality places than this in which to do that. Having said that though, Tiger Den is certainly more than adequate and not without its quirky charms.

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Our bungalow is the one on the far left

Our bungalow room was a good size and had all the basics, including a comfortable (but creaky) bed and air conditioning. The bathroom had a bath with shower over and basic toiletries were provided, although not as nice as those in other hotels we stayed in on this trip, and although there were sufficient towels, several were fraying and one unpleasantly stained. Some of the light fittings didn't work either, making the room a little gloomy at night.

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Our room

Wifi is available, at a cost - 500IR for two days' use on a single device. It only works in the reception and restaurant areas, although as our room was right behind the reception desk we found we could pick it up there too, which was a bonus. The “resort” has a swimming pool, which we didn’t use, and a small shop selling souvenirs rather than practical items.

Overall we found this a reasonable base for a couple of days but I wouldn’t choose it for a longer stay because of the dull and repetitive meals and unwelcoming bedroom. By the way, do check out the website, Tiger Den Resort, if you’re a fan of ludicrous hyperbole! Here’s a small sample:

“An ideal RE-SORT (yes, you will re-sort your self) to distress and detoxify away from the maddening crowd away from the constant ringing of your cell phones, emails, Internet and newspapers. You definitely deserve it, and we know you desire it as well. Come and live your dreams, of a peaceful life, close to nature, close to God, and above all close to yourself….

Experience immortal bliss and behold peace in your body, mind and soul. You will really hum the famous line by Robert Frost:
‘Woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promise to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.’”

Arriving here meant saying farewell to Mehar. As we would be travelling back from here to Delhi by train there was no need for him to hang around while we did our game viewing, so he was headed back that afternoon, with more work waiting for him there the next day. We took some photos, exchanged contact details and promised to send pictures and to recommend him in our reviews and via the tour company. We were sad to say goodbye to him, but very happy to see him again briefly when we bumped into him at the station in Delhi a few days later where he was picking up another couple of tourists who had been on the same train as ourselves.

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Farewell to Mehar

Ranthambore National Park

Ranthambore can be regarded as something of a wildlife preservation success story; a former hunting ground for the maharajas of Jaipur, it is today a hunting ground of a rather different type for camera-wielding tourists. Its almost 400 square kilometres were declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1957 and it became a national park in 1981. Although you come here to see the wildlife, and the tigers in particular, it is worth saying that the park itself is beautiful in places and was especially so on our one early morning safari, when the light was at its best.

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Looking up at the fort

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Small temple by the lake

The park lies at the junction of the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges, and the landscape varies from grassy plains to rocky hills. The park is named for the fort that lies at its heart. Historically this changed hands several times, passing from Mewar rulers to the Rajputs of Bundi, from them to the sultans of Gujarat and from them to the Mughals under Akbar, before passing to the maharajas of Jaipur in the 17th century – hence the development of the area around it as their favoured hunting ground. Inside the fort are three Hindu temples and one Jain temple. It’s possible to visit the fort, although we didn’t do this, and Hindu pilgrims are allowed to walk up to the temples without paying the park entrance fee – you will probably see many on your way into the park.

Our first drive in the park

The basis for everyone’s activity when staying in Ranthambore are the safari drives. Regardless of where you stay you will have the same options and the same experiences – it is not your hotel which organises these but the park. The drives operate twice a day, leaving around 6.15/6.30 and around 14.30/15.00. They last about three hours, but that can include picking up other tourists from their hotels, unless you have paid the extra for a private safari.

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Rufous Tree Pie on our jeep

There are two types of vehicle used – open-topped jeeps seating six people, plus driver and guide, and so-called cantors, large vehicles accommodating 20 people. The jeeps offer the better experience as you are seated only three to a row rather than four, and can manoeuvre more quickly to reach the best viewing positions for the wildlife. To get a seat in a jeep seems to be something of a lottery however, as although you can book in advance, numbers are limited and there are no guarantees. We got our tour operator to reserve ours at the times of booking the holiday, about three months before our visit, but even then they could make no promises, and it was only on arrival in Ranthambore that we knew we were sure of the jeep places.

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Map by the entrance

The other lottery is where in the park you will go. Some areas are closed for visits, and the remainder is divided into nine zones. Each driver is allocated a zone by the forestry authority that administers the park, and only learns what zone they will be visiting about 30 minutes beforehand. For the tourist this means that it is pot-luck whether you get a "good" zone or otherwise (although this hasn’t prevented loads of online discussion about which is “best”). In practice however there is no saying what constitutes a good zone, as of course the tigers move freely between them, and a sighting in a particular zone on one day is no guarantee of a sighting on the following day.

You can book to do as many or as few drives as you want during your stay, but with little else to do here apart from relax by a hotel pool, you might as well do as many as you can fit in and afford. Received wisdom is that if you do three or more you have a close to guaranteed chance of seeing tigers, but of course there is no such guarantee. We met people who had done four drives and only seen tigers on the last of them, so three would not have been enough for them. Other people see them on their first drive and may ask themselves why they paid for more! It’s all a matter of luck, and the only thing that can be said for certain is that by increasing the number of drives you are increasing your chances.

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One of several lakes in the park

We had our first drive on the afternoon of our arrival and were allocated zone four (zone three is generally held to be the best!) The other four people in our jeep had already done a drive that morning but not seen a tiger, and as someone (our tour company? our hotel?) had told our guide that it was my birthday he was determined to find me one.

For a while though it seemed we would be unlucky, although we enjoyed getting our first views of the park which is, as I have said, very pretty. And there were plenty of other wildlife sightings:

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Spotted deer, also known as chitral, with faun

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Sambar deer

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A crocodile

We also saw a number of colourful birds:

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White-throated kingfisher and Bulbul

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Peacock

Then our guide got a message that a tiger had been seen in one of the neighbouring zones and was walking towards ours. Cue great excitement! The jeep was turned around and we headed back to a likely spot, where several other vehicles had also gathered, lining the road and looking towards an area of long grass. And we waited … and waited … Then our guide exclaimed – he had spotted movement at the edge of the grass. Most of us could see nothing at first but then we spotted him – a solitary male, some distance away, just emerging from the grass. We need binoculars to see him clearly, and I was grateful for the good zoom on my camera that ensured I got a couple of reasonable photos. He lingered for a while, turned and followed the edge of the grass for a distance, then disappeared into it again. Our first drive and we had seen a tiger!

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Our first tiger sighting

As we drove back to the park entrance we saw for ourselves that there is no “best” zone for tiger sightings. We passed the low chain barrier that separates zones three (generally talked of as the best) and four. Lined up on the far side were all the vehicles who had been allocated zone three that day, their passengers desperately hoping that the tiger we had seen was coming their way – but he wasn’t, and they would leave without a sighting on that occasion. We on the other hand were very happy – and I think our guide may have been the happiest of all at having found me a tiger on my birthday!

Evening at Tiger Den

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My birthday cake

Stays at Tiger Den are on a full-board basis, but the included meals are nothing special – rice plus the same, or very similar, curries served buffet style for both lunch and dinner. On this first evening the latter was served outside, with tables and chairs set round small bonfires. Unfortunately, the staff insisted on regularly dowsing the flames with kerosene (even when asked not to by some guests), making the eating area unpleasantly smelly. The food was unexciting but OK (I did like the stuffed potatoes), while the inevitable music and dance performance was quite fun to watch as a young boy did a sort of hobby-horse dance and one of the men was a flame thrower (more kerosene!)

The local agent had clearly told the hotel that it was my birthday as I found a cake awaiting me in the room after dinner that night – a sweet touch (very sweet, as it turned out – Indians love their sugar!). In fact, the staff here were the best thing about the place, as they were generally very friendly and attentive, anxious to hear if you had seen a tiger (we had), wanted more coffee (no thank you) or beer (yes please), and were enjoying your stay (we were).

Safari drive two

The next morning we were up early for our second drive in the park. The hotel provides much needed tea, coffee and biscuits for early risers, but breakfast would have to wait.

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Early morning in Ranthambore

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Tiger tracks

There was much to enjoy about this morning’s drive. Our companions in the jeep were friendly and interesting to chat to. Our guide was the best of the three we had. We were allocated zone two which is one of the prettiest areas and looked lovely in the soft early morning light. And we were told that there had been a good tiger sighting in that zone the previous afternoon and it was likely that he was still here. Wrong! Despite the best efforts of our guide and driver (even lingering slightly longer in the park than is strictly allowed), and seeing some tracks at one point, the tigers eluded us on this drive.

Funnily enough, that didn’t seem to matter over much, and I realised on reflection afterwards that in many ways this was my favourite of the three drives we took. The light was beautiful for photography, we saw lots of other wildlife and I got my best bird photos, and the lack of tiger sightings made it a more relaxed experience. Of course, had we not seen a tiger on our first drive we might have felt differently (luckily our companions had also seen some the previous morning).

Our best sightings on this drive included lots more chitral, some langur monkeys and a wide variety of birds.

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Chitral

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Langur monkeys

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White-throated kingfisher, back and front

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Bulbuls and Rufous tree pie

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Lapwing

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Brown heron

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Scops owl

Back at the hotel we had a leisurely breakfast and spent the middle part of the day relaxing, catching up on photo sorting, and eating the unexciting but included lunch.

Safari drive three

We had already seen one tiger but were keen to see more, so we were pleased to have this third drive in our schedule to increase our chances. It didn’t start well as the jeep was rather late in picking us up (so much so that the concerned hotel staff, spotting us still sitting on the terrace when others had already left, called the local agent to check that we weren’t forgotten). When the vehicle did arrive, we found that our companions for this drive were already in there and I suspect they may have caused the delay by not being ready for pick-up. No matter, we were off – and pleased to hear that we were to visit the much-coveted zone three!

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By Rajbagh Lake

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Cormorant

This took us past one of the several lakes in the park, Rajbagh Lake, where we saw cormorants and other birds, and a crocodile. We also got some nice shots of the ruined temples dotted around the lake and saw some Sambar deer among the trees.

But like all the guides, this one was keen to find tigers for us. He heard that there might be one in a certain spot so we headed in the direction of a path he thought the tiger might take, and parked up to wait. While we did so he showed us some photos of previous sightings on his phone – he was clearly proud of the photos and they were good but of course not the same as seeing for ourselves. After a while I found myself thinking it would be better to drive around seeing other wildlife even if it meant missing a possible tiger, but I didn’t say so as I had a feeling our companions (who were from another part of India and didn’t speak much English it seemed) hadn’t yet seen one.

Then a message came through that the tiger seen earlier had gone in the opposite direction and was now to be found in another part of our zone, with her eight month old cub! The driver started the engine and we were off, racing along the track to get there while they were still in view. And he made it, but our time spent waiting at the wrong spot had cost us a bit, as other vehicles were in better positions to see them. Our guide was confident though that mother and son would come our way, and he was right. They followed a path past the other vehicles and came right alongside our jeep.

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Walking away

This should have been a wonderful opportunity to get some great photos, but the experience was somewhat marred by the bedlam caused by the drivers and guides of all the other vehicles jostling for position to give their passengers the best view. While our guide and driver jostled with the rest, the vehicle was rarely still enough for photos, and when it was our guide stood up and blocked our view while taking his own video "to show his tourists", he said. In fairness, he did sit down when we asked, but by then the tigers were walking away and the best photo opps were past. I did point out that we too were “his tourists” and that we had very limited time here to see and appreciate the tigers, while he could come every day to take photos. I have also since complained about his behaviour to the tour company.

Still, we had seen the tigers at close quarters and that counted for a lot. And maybe one or two of the photos were OK! So we headed back to the hotel pleased to have had this second sighting and to have got so close to these magnificent animals.

Dinner on this second evening was in the restaurant and the food a little better, and we enjoyed sitting out on the terrace afterwards over a Kingfisher beer.

The next morning we left Ranthambore for Delhi, the last leg of our tour around Rajasthan. Meal timings here are planned around safaris, so breakfast doesn't start till 9.00 when the early morning ones return. This is fine if you're going for a drive, but if not you just have to wait, which was a little frustrating. However we had plenty of time before our pick up for the drive to the station at Sawai Madhopur, and the helpful driver who took us stopped on the way so we could buy cold drinks and snacks for the journey in a local shop, so we were all set for the six hour journey back to where we had started.

I have described this journey already in my Delhi entry but as it completes the circle I repeat it here – feel free to skip!

Our journey from Sawai Madhopur, near Ranthambore, took something over six hours. The train had started in Mumbai the previous evening so the second class a/c carriage where we sat was a sleeper one. We had been allocated both lower and upper berth in a four person curtained section, but only used the lower for sitting as the journey was an afternoon one.

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At Sawai Madhopur station

For part of the time we shared the section with a friendly young local couple. She spoke some English and chatted to us a bit about our holiday as well as pointing out one of the stations in which we stopped as being Mathura, believed by Hindus to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna, and offering us bananas.

I enjoyed taking my last long looks at the passing landscape, watching the largely rural communities we passed through going about their daily lives. This was to be our last day in the country (for this trip) as we flew home the next morning. The windows were just a little less grubby than had been the case on our first train journey and I was able to take some reasonable photos of the various sights.

The train pulled into Hazrat Nizamuddin station only slightly late. We were met there (and as I have already mentioned, bumped into Mehar) and driven to our Delhi hotel for one last night in India before our flight home. A last night, that is, for this trip, as we would quite soon be back …

If I have whetted your appetite and you would like to read about our next visit to this fascinating country, you can do so on my other blog: Return to India

Posted by ToonSarah 05:35 Archived in India Tagged birds monkeys wildlife india tigers rajasthan big_cats Comments (7)

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