India (3 of 3): Udaipur

Last stop! I really enjoyed Jodhpur and wouldn’t have minded a few more days there, but Udaipur was beautiful as well. I’d heard it was a nice drive between the two cities so we booked a private car tour that stopped at the Ranakpur temples about halfway in between. Jess and I were too broke to actually pay the entrance fee (more on this later; we had some funny stories) but we walked around them to stretch our legs before getting back in the car. I don’t have any photos because in many places cameras weren’t allowed, and in others there’s a fee to bring a camera into the site that I was tired of paying. But we got a lot of photos of other places we stopped. It was a fun road trip. Just beware, “private tour” means “let me stop at all my friends’ places so they can talk you into buying things you don’t need and can’t afford”. Spoiler: I bought a lot of things I didn’t need and couldn’t afford. Oh, well, how many times do you get to go to India?

Our Airbnb was about 10-15 km outside the city, a bit farther than expected, but Udaipur was a bit cheaper than Jodhpur. Our hosts called Uber for us and it only cost about 160 rupees to get into the center of town (about $2.50). We spent our first day mostly walking around the city:

We hear about water shortages and problems with clean drinking water around the world but still, until you’re faced with the reality of it it’s hard to connect. It’s easy to take things for granted when you’ve always been able to shower or run the sink water to wash dishes or get a drink. Even in Beijing I don’t think about it too much. You can’t drink the tap water there but it’s easy to have bottled water delivered and we use the water for everything else. But many places in India still rely on wells and old-fashioned water pumps. Several times I would see people on a street corner using the communal water pump to fill buckets and carry them home for daily use. In Udaipur, people would swim, bathe, and wash their clothes in the lake. It’s a sobering sight.

The next morning I slept in and was awakened to this wedding procession. We had a small balcony we could watch from and it was really cool to see. My favorite part though, was this random camel that was walking around. We saw he had a pen across the street from our apartment but the gate was open and he just seemed to roam around the neighborhood. He gets his own slideshow:

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Afterwards, we got a cab to see Fateh Sagar lake nearby, then went into Udaipur and found Gulab Bagh park.  I had just noticed there was a park on Google maps and we had time to kill so we thought we’d check it out, but weren’t sure what to expect. It was huge, with a gorgeous rose garden-there were dozens of different varieties, along with other flowers.

My favorite encounter of the day, however, was with this cow. She was enormous! We were pretty used to cows at this point and didn’t pay much attention to her as we passed. A little ways down the street we stopped to window shop at this jewelry store. I noticed they did ear piercing and was debating whether to try it when Jess jumped up on the doorstep and told me to look out. I turned around and found myself face to face with this:

I wasn’t too concerned as the cows all seemed pretty harmless. I just jumped up on the doorstep to get out of the way, thinking she’d pass us and mosey on down the road. Instead she swung her head around and headbutted me on the hip. We ran into the jewelry shop and I tried to close the door as she seemed to be following us in. The shopkeeper was sitting just inside and got up, laughing at us, to get a jar from the corner. Apparently his wife makes homemade treats for the cows on the street. This girl was just stopping by for her afternoon snack when we got in her way! The shopkeeper was friendly though so we ended up looking around and I got my ear pierced after all, figuring that clearly the cow was a sign from some Hindu deity that I was supposed to.

That evening we found this quiet rooftop bar with a great view of the lake to watch the sunset.

We decided to check out Bagore Ki Haveli the next day, a former palace turned into a museum. It was a bit run-down and mostly deserted, which was nice as we got to explore and take photos on our own without a lot of crowds. I liked the second floor women’s quarters, with all the hangings, stained glass windows, mosaics, jewelry boxes and artifacts. They also have a collection of different styles of turbans, including one that weighed more than 30 kilos!

The elephant was clearly not an ordinary sight, even for locals. They seemed as excited as me and Jess. A crowd was all around her taking pictures, a lady next to me offered her a handful of hay, the coconut water vendor was feeding her coconuts, one guy pumped some water from a pump near the street so she could drink and splash and spray water around. It was so fun to see!

Our last day in Udaipur we got up early and took the boat tour of Lake Pichola, which stops at the island palace of Jag Mandir. There are actually two islands with palaces in the middle of the lake, but the Lake Palace has been converted to a hotel and is open only to guests, so Jag Mandir is the only one open to the public. It was a lovely and peaceful way to spend a morning. A bit of trivia-Jag Mandir and other parts of Udaipur were the setting for the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy. The whole town is plastered in original movie posters advertising nightly viewings of the movie at seemingly every bar and restaurant. We thought we’d try to see it while we were there, but after checking at a few different places, finally realized they quit showing the movie a while ago and kept the posters up for bragging rights.

That afternoon we got on our train back to Delhi around 5pm, which meant arriving around 5am, which is basically the middle of the night. We quickly determined that middle of the night in Delhi is not where we wanted to be. Nothing would be open for hours and even if there had been somewhere to go we had no money, so we decided our best bet would be to take our last 1000 rupees and take the airport express subway to Indira Ghandi International to wait for our flight. At 12:05 am the next day. That’s eighteen hours in the airport if you’re counting.

We got off the subway (the subway station is connected to the airport and has its own shops and food places), got some coffee, and then just found a spot on the floor to sit and read and nap for a few hours. Around noon we tried to go into the airport but they wouldn’t let us in until 6 hours before our flight. The guard directed us to a passenger lounge to wait but when we went in we saw a sign behind the desk that looked like it said 100 rupees per person for three hours. We had a lot of hours left and barely enough money to cover snacks and drinks for the day, so we went and sat outside for a while, then went back to nap in the subway. Note: it was actually a very nice subway station, and we were not the only ones doing this. Although we were definitely the only foreign women which certainly got us some stares. At one point this well-dressed older man stopped near us. Jess was asleep under a scarf and I was reading my book. He looked down at us all concerned and asked “Is there a problem?”. No, no problem, we said, just waiting till our flight later. “Why don’t you go to a hotel?” In truth, we couldn’t afford it but we just told him we had just arrived in Delhi that morning. “Okay, but you know, it looks a bit…odd.” Yes, yes, we do, thanks.

I’m sure he was being helpful and we mostly just found it funny at that point. I hadn’t gotten paid yet before we left Beijing so I had roughly USD $200 in cash when we arrived in India, and that only because of a payday loan courtesy of my parents-by the way, thanks again Mom and Dad 🙂  My school is fairly…flexible with payments. My contract states I get paid on the 15th of each month but in reality I’ve gotten paid anywhere between the 6th and the 22nd before. Normally we get paid before holidays though, which is what I had been counting on. I got paid after we arrived in India but it was pointless because my Chinese debit card only works in China so I couldn’t access it. I thought I could outsmart the system and transferred money from my Chinese bank to Paypal, so I could then withdraw it to my US debit card and use that to get cash. Paypal however, decided to hold my money hostage for the better part of two weeks because they suck, so the transfer didn’t go through until the day I arrived back in Beijing. Jess was not much better off than me, so by the end of our trip we could not stop laughing at ourselves and how broke we were. Jess actually turned down coffee (which as anyone who knows her could tell you, she desperately needs) because it was too expensive. The coffee in question was 100 rupees, or about 10RMB. Coffee in Beijing is between 25-40RMB so that was actually extremely cheap, we just couldn’t afford it. (I convert everything to RMB since that’s how I get paid so I no longer think in dollars, but the coffee would have been about USD $1.50.) Most of the really expensive souvenirs we wanted were in actuality $4-$30. The Ranakpur temples we couldn’t afford to enter cost about $3 per person. We sat on a bench outside them and laughed at ourselves for about 20 minutes when we realized that.

The kicker was when, after an afternoon of pacing from place to place, we finally decided to “splurge” on the passenger lounge (which was also about USD $1.50) and just eat chips till we got on the plane. After some back and forth with the woman at the desk, we realized that the 100 rupees per 3 hours sign we had seen earlier actually applied to parking; the lounge was in fact, free. Yep, we spent 12 hours on the floor of the subway station before we figured that out, people. In our defense, we were already sleep-deprived. Anyway, we managed to survive until our midnight flight back to Guangzhou, where we had a 5 hour layover but were fortunately able to access our Chinese money at last.

I tell this story for all the people wondering how I have money to travel. Guys, I don’t have money; I have priorities. Somehow it just works out.

India (2 of 3): The Blue City of Jodhpur

Jodhpur was beautiful and fascinating-hands down my favorite city we visited! I did my very best to narrow down my photographs but I still wound up with 150, so, yeah, good luck.

We left Delhi around 9pm Monday night, after our Taj Mahal trip, and that in itself was an experience. I booked tickets online but the only thing I had was a text message confirming them. We assumed we would go to the train station and pick up our actual tickets, like we do at the airport or Chinese train stations. We went through insane traffic and arrived at total chaos. There was basically no…anything. We tried approaching the only thing that looked like an office and the guy glanced at my text message and just sort of gestured us into the station. There were no lines, no security checks, just people everywhere, standing around, sitting on the platforms, laying on blankets, eating dinner, waiting for trains. We tried asking a few more people who looked like employees but all they really did was shrug and confirm that we left from platform 3. So we went to platform 3 about 10 minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, and just…walked on. No one checked anything. We found our sleeper bunks and got settled-they were actually pretty comfortable. The train set off and we played gin rummy for a while. Eventually a conductor came around and checked Jess’s passport against his list, ignored mine, and continued on his way. It was a definite change from what I’m used to!

We arrived in Jodhpur around 8am the next morning. I didn’t think we’d be able to check in to our Airbnb that early but we went over to see if we could just leave our backpacks. The host, Sanjay, was really accommodating though, showed us to our rooms to get cleaned up, and got us some tea and coffee while we planned out our day. We wandered around the alleys for a while taking in the sights, then in the afternoon, Sanjay arranged a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the Mandore Gardens.

The Mandore Gardens were beautiful but it was also a hard place to visit because it was packed with so many beggars, many of them children, injured or disabled. Some of them were very insistent. It’s difficult to walk by but we’ve read over and over that giving money just exacerbates the problem in the end. There’s no way of knowing where the money goes in the end, if they’re allowed to keep it; even if so, if kids make enough money on the streets there’s no incentive to go to school. So we ignored it as best we could. Our driver walked around with us pointing out some of the sights, and was a bit of a deterrent as well.

It was also hard to see so many stray dogs. There are dogs absolutely everywhere, just roaming the streets, and some of them are clearly ill or injured. Others are seemingly well-taken care of though, just allowed to roam. None of them seemed mean or anything, they were just hanging out in the streets. People seemed to look out for them as much as possible though; we’d see women leaving leftovers out by their front doors in the morning, or men whistling them over to share some extra chips or street food snacks. We also saw so many other animals-goats, pigs, lots and lots of cows…

I had read that Jodhpur had a medieval step well but had no idea where it was, so were excited to stumble onto it just down the street from our Airbnb! The structure is so intricate. It’s not as old as some, only about 300 years, but still impressive. There’s a more detailed history and some really cool pictures here:

Wednesday, Sanjay arranged for the same driver to take us sightseeing. We started at Mehrangarh Fort, which was really fascinating

Afterwards we drove a little ways down the road to the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Garden, which was beautiful and peaceful. We spent about an hour hiking and only saw one other guy on the trail the whole time we were there.

Our next stop was Jaswant Thada temple, which was lovely:

We stopped by the royal palace on our way back to the guesthouse but were pretty exhausted by that point and on a strict budget so we didn’t pay to go in, just enjoyed the grounds and relaxed in the shade with some ice cream.

Our last day we mostly spent exploring the city on foot and taking pictures. We went up to the top of the hill behind the fort where the old city is, the original blue city, and walked around for a couple hours just enjoying all the color. Blue was an indicator of the Brahmin class of priests in the Indian caste system, but now the color has spread to many buildings in Jodhpur. Most of them are concentrated in this older area though, and it’s gorgeous.

We later walked around the central town square with its famous clock tower and enjoyed the night market. There is a fantastic spice store here, actually there are several, but the best is Mohanlal Verhomal : I had heard about it a while ago and been looking forward to it. It’s a chef’s dream come true. The proprietress was great, very helpful, let us smell and taste and look around for a while. Everything was very good quality and price-I definitely splurged here. They also ship all over the world, so check out the link!

We spent our last night taking in the sunset from the rooftop patio of our guesthouse, Mehran View, and trying to capture an evening shot of Mehrangarh Fort behind it. I had trouble getting my camera settings to work in the dark, but our host was also a photographer so he helped me get some nice photos.

It was so hard to leave this place. I know I forgot to add a lot of things but I’m going to have to edit this later because it’s almost midnight and sadly, oh, so sadly (I could cry), I have to go back to work tomorrow morning…

India (1 of 3): Delhi and Agra

I’ll be posting my India trip in a series of three posts, one for each city. I’m trying to get caught up this weekend before I get back to work, but I don’t know if I can-I have over 1200 images to sort through! Here’s the first part-our arrival in Delhi and day trip to Agra.

What a trip! India is so many things-exotic and exhilarating, overwhelming, heartbreaking, beautiful. I can’t capture everything words but I’ll try. And, as promised, I have lots, and lots, of pictures.

When Jess and I booked our flights back in October we were going for super cheap since we also had to book our December trips around that time. Which meant we left Beijing around 11pm on a Saturday, arrived in Guangzhou, China around 2am, then had a five hour layover before our flight to Delhi, where we arrived around noon on Sunday. It took forever to get through immigration and get to our hotel but we got there around 3. Next issue: we knew we didn’t want to stay in Delhi, so I booked our trip to see the Taj Mahal in Agra the day after we arrived, then we were going to leave for Jodhpur. However, we really wanted to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal. (Okay, I really wanted to see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal and didn’t really give Jess a choice.) However, Agra is a 3 hour drive from Delhi, so to ensure we arrived in time, the tour operator had to pick us up from our hotel at 2:30 am. Not fun. So we walked around a bit and got dinner across the street from the hotel, then came back and crashed so we could at least get a little sleep before leaving.

In hindsight, I would have booked another flight or train to Agra and spent a couple nights there instead of staying in Delhi and making a day trip. But we still enjoyed the tour a lot and our guides were great. Our driver, Prem, picked us up promptly at 2:30 am (did I mention A. M.?) and let us doze in the backseat most of the way. He stopped about halfway through at a small, lively roadside stand and introduced us to masala tea, to which I became instantly addicted. It’s similar to what we call chai, but so much better. When we reached Agra, we stopped to pick up our tour guide, Subhash, and then drove straight to the Taj Mahal. We got there at the perfect time. Subhash got us our tickets and showed us which line to wait in. There were several, including one specifically for foreign women. (There’s a security check at the entry and there’s always a separate line for women, even at the airport, for the body scanners.) We were the first in line, before the gates even opened at 6:30.

I can’t even describe how surreal it felt to be at the Taj Mahal. It’s been at the top of my list of places to go for years. It’s magnificent in its own right, but I’ve always been captivated by the story behind it as well. It was built as a grand mausoleum in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, by her husband Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor of India from 1628-1658. When Shah Jahan eventually grew ill, their son, Aurangzeb, declared himself emperor and imprisoned his father in Agra Fort until he died; he was then buried next to Mumtaz Mahal. Although they are buried beneath the structure, there are two sarcophagi representing them in the central chamber. Everything is carved of white marble in intricate designs and inlaid with semi-precious stones.

By the time we left, around 8:30, the whole place was packed with people. I’m so glad we got to see it early while it was still relatively quiet. After we left, we went to a local hotel for their breakfast buffet, then to Agra Fort.

After leaving we drove through Agra and stopped at a few local shops. The first was a workshop where they carve stone in the same style and patterns as the Taj Mahal. Everything is still done by hand. I wish I’d had more money-everything was gorgeous!

Driving through town, we saw cows and water buffalo everywhere, some roaming free, some tied near homes or shops. We kept snapping pictures, little knowing we would see them everywhere else we went this trip! Our guides told us the water buffalo milk was especially popular for its high fat content, and Jess wanted to try it, so they made a special stop to procure some fresh milk at a roadside shop.


We dropped of Subhash, then Prem drove us back to Delhi. He stopped on the way back (on his own time, not part of the tour, which we thought was really nice) so that we could walk around and see the India Gate memorial and the park surrounding it, then drove past the Parliament buildings before dropping us at the hotel. It was a fantastic day!

India, Here We Come!

What on earth have I gotten myself into? This may be the most stressful trip I’ve ever taken. I have spent hours researching India and still am not remotely prepared to leave tomorrow!

I know I’ve kind of disappeared lately. I’ve been super busy with teaching, my side job, and homework for AI. Here’s a link to the site I’ve been working on though; I had to create a portfolio for my photography class. I’m taking a little break now-no classes until March 19th. I don’t know what I’m going to do with all that free time!

I’m sure I have more pictures but I can’t seem to get anything off my phone right now.We’ve been celebrating Chinese New Year’s with the kids; today we had a cooking class and made oodles of dumplings, and then watched a movie. Then I came home and started finalizing plans and I’m about to tear my hair out.

Jess and I got our Indian visas a couple weeks ago which involved completing a 5 page application and forking over $75 USD. They were approved within a couple days though and it’s an e-visa so all we had to do was print them off and carry them with us. Then after much deliberation we narrowed our itinerary down: 2 nights in Delhi, with a day trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra, 3 nights in Jodhpur, and 5 nights in Udaipur, then back to fly out of Delhi. The problem is that this is a busy season and everywhere is packed with Chinese tourists traveling for Spring Festival. So when I went to book train tickets tonight…they were gone. I ended up booking a private car to Agra for a sunrise tour. Which is going to be brutal because we’re basically sleeping in the Guangzhou airport during our layover tomorrow night, then the following night we’ll have to wake up at 2am to leave for our Agra tour, come back to Delhi around 3pm, then take a 9pm sleeper train to Jodhpur (the only one still available), arriving at 8am the next morning. Not looking forward to the jet lag… After that, I have no idea what we’re doing for the next two legs of the journey but we’ll just have to figure it out as we go because I’m to exhausted to deal with the world’s most frustrating railway website anymore tonight.

Since I’m not enrolled in a class for once, I’m leaving my computer behind. It will be the longest we’ve been apart in three years, sniff. The withdrawal is going to be bad. I’m trying to pack light so I’m just taking phone/camera/clothes in a backpack. I’m going to do some old-fashioned writing by hand but I’ll take notes and tons of pictures to blog when I get back. I’ll try to put some up on Facebook if I get a chance, so stay tuned!

Winter Wonderland

Switzerland was definitely a good choice of pre-Christmas getaway! Zürich was charming, with lots of old cobblestone streets and medieval history, but also very modern. The scenery is stunning, surrounded by Lake Zürich and the mountains. Everything was all decked out for Christmas and there was just the right amount of snow. Not to mention heaps of chocolate and cheese. What else do you really need?

I booked a private room in this Airbnb apartment which was really comfortable. The hosts were nice and it was easy to walk to the tram-stops and get around. It was in a quiet residential area but easy to get downtown. I thought I might have a bit of trouble with language but nearly everyone I encountered  switched to English when they realized I didn’t speak German. I also heard so many conversations in French, Italian, Spanish, and more. I’m so impressed with the way people from other countries grow up speaking multiple languages. I wish schools in the States emphasized this, and from a younger age.

One thing I really loved about the city, once I figured out the transportation system, was the trams. There are regular trains/subway lines that run in and out of the city, I took one to the central train station from the airport, but within the city there are above-ground trams that run along the streets. I saw virtually no traffic while I was there. It seemed like most people take the trams. There’s only a few minutes between them, and to get from the outskirts of the city where I stayed to the central area only took about 20 minutes.

I enjoyed exploring the Old Town of Zürich so much, along the waterfront and down all the winding cobblestone alleyways. It’s like a maze in some places. The weather was cold but not horribly so. It snowed for hours one day but it was really nice to be out walking in the fresh air.

I found the Fraumünster Church really interesting. It’s built on the site of an abbey started in 853. The king at the time granted the abbess power to hold markets, mint coins, and appoint the mayor; effectively she ruled the city. I don’t have pictures of them, but the choir windows were designed by Marc Chagall.

One day I booked a tour to Mt. Rigi, which was amazing. From the center of Zürich, we took a bus to the town of Weggis, a little over an hour away. From there, a cable car took us most of the way up the mountain, then we switched to the cogwheel train-the first mountain railway in Europe-for the rest of the way to the summit of Rigi Kulm. It was a cloudy, foggy day, impossible to see up or down from the top, but still a lot of fun. I climbed a little way up from the train station. People were running around, having snowball fights and sledding.

The views on the way up and down the mountain were breathtaking:

From the summit, the train runs back down the mountain to the town of Vitznau, where we took a boat across Lake Lucerne to the town of Lucerne. I was excited to finally see the Chapel Bridge:

I returned to Beijing on the 23rd and lost my battle with jet lag. It was exceptionally brutal this time. I can’t stop napping. But Jess and I had a nice Christmas here:

We went to see Loving Vincent after dinner, which was a truly incredible film. I loved the artwork, but the storyline was great as well. Otherwise, I got to spend some time video chatting with my family and relaxing around the house. So it’s been a nice holiday overall.

Last but not least, check out mine and Jess’s new blog: . You’ll find an explanation of the ducks, more of my travels, and also Jess’s trip to Japan!

Christmas Party!

I’m really behind (again) so first I’ll post some stuff from our Christmas party last week, then I’ll do another one with Switzerland.

I filled all the kids’ stockings before they came in Friday morning so they were all a little riled up with sugar. They got to be ‘Secret Santa’ and we let them have a snowman building contest with tissue paper. Then they shredded up all the paper and we had a big indoor ‘snowball’ fight. Even the parents joined in. They were so funny.

Carol and Lucy and I tried to teach them some Christmas songs. They did really well with ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’.

We also tried to teach them ‘We Wish You  Merry Christmas’. But Qing thought we said ‘Ni weishenme Merry Christmas’, (ni means you in Chinese, and weishenme means why) so she started singing it that way, and they all joined in. Basically, ‘why are you merry Christmas?, hahaha!  It made no sense but they thought it was so funny we just sang it that way!

My favorite story is The Grinch Who Stole Christmas so I read them the book, then we watched the cartoon. They were spellbound! (They look worried in this photo, but they really loved it).

Holiday Fun!

It has been a hectic, and festive, couple of weeks. I’m just going to tell it in pictures:

Tonight Jess and I went to see On Pointe’s original production of Mary Poppins at the International School of Beijing. It was so much fun. They turned Mary Poppins into a ballet but also had jazz and tap dancing. They used the original movie soundtrack with the leads lip syncing along in place. ISB has students from elementary through high school in one huge campus so there were all different ages. Some of the older students were really great. And all the little ones were adorable. Several kept missing cues and they’d just keep going, twirling and trying to keep up with the others.

Today’s performance of Mary Poppins

My plans with my kids for next week involve making Christmas cards, making Christmas presents, making Christmas cookies, watching Christmas movies, and then having a Christmas party on Friday before taking off on Saturday for Switzerland. Sometimes I do love this job!