Taj Mahal and Agra

On Wednesday I took a tour from my hostel to the Taj Mahal. We left early at 7:30am and made our way on the 5 hour bus journey to Agra. This was fairly uneventful if slow. I chatted to an Indian from Mumbai (Bombay) who spoke excellent English on the journey.

After arriving in Agra we first went to the very impressive Agra fort which was built around the same time as the Taj Mahal itself. Though the fort was actually built by four different kings and the Taj was built by a single king in the middle of this period. After this we headed to get some lunch and for a shopping opportunity where I got a marble Taj mahal model for 1100 rupees (US$23) – whether it is real or not I’m not 100% sure but as the tour was booked by the Indian YHA it should have been kosher (though actually there were some issues later). After this we headed to the Taj itself where we got to spend an hour looking at it’s stunning beauty. It actually really is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen and is up there with the Grand Canyon, Maccu Pichu and Iguazu Falls. The building is literally completely built out of marble and even after seeing all the photographs it still took my breath away. Even the gates surrounding it are impressive. We got views of it from far away and up close and even got reflections. We also went inside the maulsoleum itself to see the stone coffins inside. They are probably the only thing not built of marble.

The other interesting thing about the Taj Mahal was that even though it is a wonder of the world there were far less European and American tourists than at the other sites I mentioned. Probably even including the Iguazu falls which is far less well known than the other three. It wasn’t exactly unbusy though – lots of Indians had made the journey there. It was good that that didn’t spoil it however.

After this we headed back to the bus quickly but it was in vain and we managed to be first back (though it’s the Taj so I’m not convinced that is a good thing!) and we headed to the birthplace of Hindu god Krishna which was very interesting to see I also had some delicious warm milk and sweets before returning to the bus once more.

This time it wasn’t so great and we headed to a dodgy set of 5500 temples nearby. I went with the English speaking group and we were asked to donate large sums of money to the temple we were taken to. I basically told them to fuck off though not using those words so we didn’t lose any cash. What was more shocking was that the main group of Indians got this treatment which although this isn’t that dodgy as my experience in India went it’s something I’ve never experienced on a coach tour before in any country. Even the tour was fairy cheap at US$9.50 that is comparable to what Sinh Cafe charge in Viet Nam for one day tours and they offer far better service as they have more comfortable fully AC buses and give you loads of information enroute about Viet Nam as well. It was also booked through the Indian YHA so should have been 100% ledgitimate.

After this diversion we got back to Delhi very late and I only got a couple of hours sleep before my flight to Chennai in the morning.

Arrived in Singapore

I arrived in Singapore this morning from Chennai. I didn’t get much sleep for the past couple of nights so this morning I’ve been resting. I have to admit I liked Chennai more than Delhi; it was a far more laid back city. I’ll post more later as I don’t have much time online now as I want to get some lunch.

I’ve realised that Singapore is also quite like Japan, except with worse trains, slightly less clean, but with an architectural style.

New Delhi

After a lazy morning I went out on Tuesday afternoon to see some of the sites of New Delhi. First I went to Safdarjung’s tomb which is a beautiful building a bit like the Taj Mahal. After having a wander around the beautiful gardens and after seeing this I headed to the excellent Indra Gandhi museum which described her and her sons life very well. It was better than the other museums I’ve seen. After this I went to the Nehru museum which was more anti-British retoric.

It does seem from reading the wikipedia articles on Indian economics that the British probably did damage the economy as growth was only an average of 0.1% a year from 1700 until 1925. Though I’m sure the continued resistance as well as changes in the world economy as probably hurt India more than most. The British restriction of trade to the empire and their lack of granting of Dominion status (which made states largely independent of the UK) for a long time as well as not moving the currency to the gold standard were all errors by the British which would have damaged the Indian economy.

There is also the fact that even today over 800 million people live on less than US$0.50 (20 rupees is the figure given) a day which is shockingly low.

I should note that none of the museums that I have visited quoted any of these facts.

PS sorry for getting all political. I’m not used to seeing such critism of the UK that I knew nothing about the issues of.

All information sourced from Wikipedia.

Delhi

So I flew into Delhi on Friday evening and then went straight to bed and got up moderately late on Saturday morning after checking my email and breakfast I headed out for the day. Unfortunately first I got waylaid by touts including one with fake government ID but no harm came of me aside from the time wasted and I then headed to Old Delhi and the Jama Masjid mosque. I basically fell for it as I was walking in the same direction as this other guy “towards” Delhi railway station according to my hotel (but we were actually going in the other direction.) I managed to take the wrong road from the metro station so I had to walk about 3 times further than necessary but I did eventually make it. Old Delhi is an interesting place. The streets are completely full so although the fastest way through them is by scooter or bicycle, walking manages to beat every other type of transport. So eventually the mosque poked it’s head out from the Delhi smog but by the time I got there it was time for lunchtime prayers so I went off to a nearby restaurant to grab some food. Then I headed into the mosque itself and had a look around the fairly beautiful building before heading off on foot to the nearby Red Fort. This is a giant Mughal fort right in the centre of Old Delhi and it was a beautiful place to relax. As it wasn’t free to get in there were no touts which was relaxing. A woman walking down the stairs with a small child was very happy that I was prepared to wait and let them go down first.

There were some museums in the grounds as well but they weren’t very good. The grounds also included a museum on the history of British rule which was full of hatred for the British. It whined that we hung their people who failed to uprise against the British at various stages as well as complaining we weren’t fair on the poor and we didn’t educate them. As we behaved the same in our own country at that time I don’t really see the problem – obviously the killing of 1000 innocents by General Dyer just after WW1 was covered and that was one of the few genuine complaints mentioned. I’m sure if the museum had kept things in perspective it would have been great like the war museum in Sai Gon talking about the Viet Nam war and especially Agent Orange. I’m not totally sure on what most Indians feel about British Raj rule (though I’m sure they are glad to be independent) though clearly the government resents it a lot due to museums like this and the places that have had their names “de-Rajified” (I am more than happy to be corrected on this if the British really were terrible people to India and were worse than other rulers.)

After returning to my accommodation at Smyle Inn to be threatened about not using their tour company I changed my accommodation to somewhere else where I slept much better and the people running it were some of the few people in the tourist industry who were friendly like most other Indians seem to be.

The next day I headed off to New Delhi for the day. First I headed to the National Museum which looked like it had a lot of great stuff though the information was either inadequate or like a University essay and far too long and boring. It was also fairly dirty and dusty like the rest of the country. I wish they spent the money they gained from the tourists paying 10x higher entry fees (though I got on with student discount so only paid 1 rupee or £0.02 which gave me access 300x cheaper than other tourists.) on cleaning the museum up the as well as summerising the museum text better. Sadly though I suspect the extra money from tourists is mostly wasted.

Anyhow after that I walked to see the nearby India gate, along the day I was hassled by taxi drivers who I think were very surprised to see a white tourist walking. The gate is beautiful but was surrounded in fog/smog from the pollution. After seeing this I took an auto-rickshaw to Connaught Place where I tried to get into the park but wasn’t allowed due to having a camera but I still managed to see a lot from the outside. I also managed to get shit dropped on my shoes (the scam is that they rob you while cleaning it off -according to the Rough Guide and other Indians). I ran off so I didn’t lose anything and went to clean it off. After this I returned to my room for the night.

The next day I arranged to leave India earlier than expected and went to stay in a hostel in the embassy district away from most of my fellow travellers. This enabled me to have lots of conversations with Indian travellers staying there, all of whom were very friendly. I first talked with some students who were very surprised I didn’t know any Hindi. I suppose one of the issues is that it is expensive for Indians to travel abroad as well as difficult for them to get visas (apparently for the UK and the Shengen EU region they require an interview like you need for the US unless you are on visa waiver.) so they don’t see other perspectives on the world.

It is definitely great to get to talk to the locals here but it is sad that in the tourist areas that they always seem to want more than conversation. There are also a lot of travel shops and others claiming to be official government bodies. I think the Indians should invest in tourist police and street sweepers for these areas to clean them up to remove the worse of the scanners and make it more healthy to bring the standard up to that of other developing countries that I have visited.

It would enable them to charge more too as although the accommodation in Delhi is cheap it is also of poor quality given what it costs compared to other countries I have visited. This would also allow the shops and restaurants to be more overt with selling there wares as often it is difficult to find what is available as you are closed off. This reduces me to going to Western Restaurants even though I like Indian food. It also means I haven’t enjoyed myself in the tourist areas and it looks like most of the honest locals there resent that we are aloof and distant towards them as we can’t easily tell who is honest and who isn’t. it’s only been in the YHA away from most other foreigners and the scammers that I am able to interact with the interesting people around me. I am sad that I need to leave early as it is clearly a great country with a huge amount of great stuff to see (I think it is probably comparable to Italy if not more interesting.).

Hopefully with some work Delhi and probably other parts of the country could be more welcoming to tourists because if it doesn’t improve sadly I don’t think I will return.

PS Tomorrow I am off to Agra (where the Taj Mahal is) which looks like it’ll be a long day. I leave at 7am and return late in the evening.

Visiting Japan around New Year

It’s worth noting that if you choose to visit Japan in the few days around new year that many attractions will be shut at that time. Lots of museums and attractions aren’t open for the week around new year and some aren’t open longer.

Yokohama and the journey there

So I got the train up from Hiroshima to Yokohama on Monday the journey was fairly uneventful (I even got 2 seats for the price of 1 for most of the journey.) except when I was told to move behind the yellow line on the platform. Now this would be fair enough except firstly there was a big metal fence between me and the train and secondy the train was stopping. Even if I’d had a heart attack the train wouldn’t have hit me, and even if I’d got crazily towards the train somehow 999 times out of 1000 the train would have been able to stop in time as it was going slowly probably making the odds of something going really wrong like 1 billion to 1. This is an example of the Japanese going too far on safety.

One interesting thing to note about the Shinkansen in general is how it runs entirely on seperate track from other Japanese trains. They are narrow gauge and the Shinkansen is standard gauge (which unsurprisingly is wider) also a huge percertage of track is built either on bridges or in tunnels which is different from standard railway construction. This is because the track is new and most of Japan is built up and so difficult to find space to build new track on. That the Japanese have managed to sucessfully build a new railway like this makes technologies like maglev which allows you to run trains at more than 500km/h look more promising as they also have to be built on an entirely separate line. That kind of speed allows you to compete directly with airlines.

After arriving into Shin Yokahoma I caught a couple more trains to where I’m staying over New Year or Oshogatsu as it’s known in Japanese.

On Tuesday we headed on the train to Kamakura which is an interesting collection of Buddhist shrines and temples and it includes an 800 year old giant copper Buddha that unlike the Buddha in Nara is outside rather than protected by a building. You can also go inside this one which is really cool as well. After seeing this we went to dinner to have Okonomiyaki at a traditional Japanese restaurant that involved sitting on the floor around a low table. You even had to cook your own food as well.

After that I went back and went to bed. In the morning I got up and headed into Tokyo for the day to Akihabra. There seemed to be a lot of electronics shops (though they all seemed to be more expensive for cameras than Bic Camera in Kyoto was) and some manga stores as well. It was quite good but not amazing – probably because it wasn’t that busy around Tokyo today. After this I had some lunch before getting the train south on the Yamote line so I could get a picture of a Shinkansen. As I’ve been using the Shinkansen as a train I hadn’t got any pictures of it. But it is cool so I thought I should get one and right on cue a Shinkansen appeared. After this I headed on another stop on the train line and had a walk down to the bayside; or rather part of it as much of the bay is actually surrounded by canals. There are a lot of cool buildings down there as well as the fish Market which were worth seeing briefly. After that I returned to Yokohama for the evening meal of Kobe beef which was delicious and after that to welcome in the New Year. In the evening we sat on the floor in the traditional Japanese style and watched the temple bells being rung all over Japan. This is because the Japanese ring their temple bells 108 times to ward off evil at New Year.

The next day we headed out on a short drive to see the sea and also Mount Fuji in the distance before returning for lunch. In the afternoon we then headed out once more to Yokohama where we went on a harbour cruise and look at the, frankly garish and overly golden, temple in Chinatown.

Then the next morning I got up at 5:45am to get the train and bus to Narita airport so I could get my flight to Delhi.

Getting seriously weirded out here in India

I’m getting seriously weirded out in Delhi India by my accommodation (Smyle Inn) practically forcing me to book tours with them (and blatently saying “when are you booking a tour with us”, never seen that before.)

Many other people seem to be acting very strangely and pushing far heavier than I’ve seen before (even in South America, Thailand and Vietnam.).

PS I’ll keep you guys updated.

Arrived in Delhi

I just arrived into Delhi last night, and I haven’t had time to do anything yet. Delhi is very noisy and chaotic, and I’ve even seen a cow in the street. Now I’m off to get some breakfast.

Hiroshima

So I arrived into Hiroshima at 1:30pm on Saturday after having my usual lunch of rice in seaweed. First I checked into my hostel for the next couple of nights. After that I headed to the mixed contemporary arts museum. It had some moving art on the atomic bomb in the foyer and in the exhibition they had some great exhibits including a video describing the procress of life and a video of a cherry tree growing in a mans head but it had some really weird shitty ones like a video of a guy diving (yeah that’s “art” :rolleyes:).

After that I went to the prefectural art museum but it was shut so I just had a wander around town. I tried to find a cinema that was “close” to the city hall. After I found it was actually several metro stops to the south which is hardly close so I didn’t find it. The city looks nice but it’s basically like any other Japanese city. After that in the evening I had a Hiroshima pancake dinner which was delicious, ordering it was an experience too as their were no photos and the menu was only in Japanese. After this I returned to my hostel for the evening.

On Sunday morning I got up bright and early at 7:30am and headed over to Miyajima for the morning. I managed to get the 8:50am train from Hiroshima station west on the Sanyo line to the short JR ferry over to the island. This worked well and first I went to the floating shrine Itsukushima-jinja the island is famous for.

That was pretty impressive and as it was only an hour off high tide it was completely covered in water below it’s base making it look like it was floating. After seeing this I headed up to the temple Daisho-in which was very beautiful and also didn’t have an entry charge which was a refreshing change. The temple was also one of the most attractive I have seen here in Japan. After this I headed over to the cable car to head up the mountain. This was expensive at ¥1800 (£13) but worth it. The views at the top of the inland sea were absolutely stunning and it was well worth it. There was even a walk for the final distance to the very top of the mountain for an amazing view as well. After that I headed back to town on the train to take a look at the Peace Park and the museum there. That was very moving and had stuff on the leadup the war in the Pacific as well as why Hiroshima was picked and the aftermath. They also had the 1,000 paper cranes made by the girl who wanted to cure her Lukemia which was probably the most moving thing in the museum. All in all approximately 140,000 people died in the A-Bomb at Hiroshima.

There were some notable emmissions of the history though. They probably should have gone into more detail on the Rape of Nanking rather than quibbling about the number of people killed, the number is probably at least 100,000. They also failed to mention that American bombing before had been pretty hurrendous and that 100,000 people had been killed in three nights bombing in Tokyo which puts the deaths in some perspective. There was also nothing on the Americans land invasion of Okinawa where 260,000 Japanese and 13,000 Americans died in the invasion of that island chain because the Japanese fought to the death which adds a lot of weight for the justification for the atomic bombing.

Kinkakuju temple and the journey to Hiroshima

I got up at 7am on Saturday to head on the train to Hiroshima. It’s clear at this point that the New Year which is the Japanese equivalent to Christmas has begun and there is a lazy atmosphere in the air. First I headed to Kyoto station to leave my baggage before catching the slowest express bus I’ve ever caught which took 35 minutes to get to the shrine. The shrine was very beautiful and well set with a pretty lake in front of it however after a quick look around as there really wasn’t much to see I rushed back to Kyoto station (I got strange looks for walking at commuter speed through the rest of the shrine – hey I had a train to catch!) so I could get the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. I seemed to have bad luck with public transport today as I missed quite a few trains by a minute or less. I did even experience my first late train in Japan as well which was a whole 5 minutes late. The one behind was even worse at 15 minutes late! Outrageous. The Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima was also even full in the unreserved section so I didn’t get two full seats to myself like I usually do and had to make do with only a single seat.

To avoid hypocracy I’m going to criticise the Indian trains in the same way that I critised the Japanese ones but so I don’t bore you like I did with bus-movies in New Zealand I’m going to do it in advance now. The Indian trains all suck for being at least 5 minutes late, it’s a disgrace.

Now I have something else to say about Japanese trains that the British actually do better. I’m deadly serious too.

Now you’re over the shock that Britain isn’t actually that bad with it’s trains I’ll tell you what it is. It’s the automated route management software that the ticket office access which doesn’t seem to easily allow you to compare train changing points on the Shinkansen as well as even a paper timetable. This means they didn’t recommend the fastest train yesterday and on Monday my journey back to Yokahoma will be 30 minutes longer than necessary. Oxford also does better with their automated display boards telling you which train to catch so you get to see what is the “next fast train” to your destination. This would be very useful at Kyoto for Shin-Osaka and Osaka for example.