Thursday, 20 December 2018

Jaipur, India: Rajasthan's Pink City!

After five hours on the road it was such a relief to reach the Indian Province of Rajasthan, home to its provincial city of Jaipur. Hailed as the 'Pink City,' I was on the last leg of my Golden Triangle tour. My driver had mentioned that Jaipur would offer some great shopping for handicrafts, oh I had my money at the ready to buy some cultural items for my pre-K materials.

The first place that I saw in Jaipur was the Jal Mahal, half-submerged in the Man Sagar Lake I secured my first glimpse of a very different palace. If truth be told I wasn't completely listening to the tour guide, the bizarreness in-front of me didn't need any backstory, out of the five stories a staggering four stay underneath water when the lake is at its fullest. The views over to the mountains, across Man Sagar Lake with the Jal Mahal in view sure gave me something to remember. Lined along the riverside walkway I saw many sellers, I couldn't help but buy everything in sight, from bangles to cute elephant embossed pencil-like cases. I had my upcoming language materials in mind and a good teaching friend of mine was considered for some gifts that we would both benefit from with our Montessori endeavours. With the Jal Mahal in the middle of a lake in the distance and my arms full of Jaipur made handicrafts, it was a time!

I was seriously looking for the 'pink' that gave Jaipur its name! Don't ever pester me, I had to dish some realness to the over-enthusiastic sellers at the riverside opposite the Jal Mahal. They wanted to make their coins but I stressed I wouldn't look at their stalls if they pestered me, it was simple as 1, 2, 3! Heading to a garment, ornament and jewellery showroom with much reluctance, I learnt about the unchanged art of printing cotton fabric with elaborate cultural patterns, I tried my own hand to emboss some fabric with an elephant stencil. Buying a lovely pink pashmina for the girls in my class, I half had one of my fellow foreign teaching friends in mind for that beauty. I tried on some sari fabric, secretly I wanted it but let's be real I'm not going to be making any wardrobe decisions like that in China! Jaipur, thanks but no thanks! I bought myself some semi-precious earrings because apart from holidays I don't treat myself ever! It was pushing on for lunch time, I wanted some food!

Situated in the heart of Jaipur's bustling centre, City Palace stood with its signature Jaipur 'pink' peach colouring and it looked gorgeous in the mid afternoon sun. I paid my entrance fee, entered without fuss to find simple directions that led me to the Chandra Mahal building, it had been the residence to the royal family of the time, what time period that was I didn't pay attention to that nugget of information, the stunning architecture and colour was the only knowledge I needed. Captured to the right stands the Diwan-I-Khas, I was amazed by the rich blend of pink peachy tones that mixed so well with the intricate details present that were adorned in brilliant white. I stood still with amazement, the whole palace complex transported me to another world, the fact I had reached to Jaipur in real-time was just something else! Jaipur presented itself well, it stood as a truly beautiful city from where I was. Yes, Rajasthan!

Venturing further into the Chandra Mall at Jaipur's City Palace allowed me to marvel at the rich displays within the Diwan-I-Am, exhibits and photos ranged from the times of the Maharaja and the Viceroy's hailing in India during the times of the British Raj. I saw a slice of many histories in one instance, keeping things at my own pace I didn't pay the tour groups any mind, soaking the culture up it was time to meet up with the tour guide before going to the Hawa Mahal. I was honestly beginning to get so confused with all the 'Mahal's' I had seen during my Golden Triangle tour! Throwing my money in all directions I bought a lovely Indian drum, I knew somewhere in my English Corner it would come in handy, aside from that purchase I was intoxicated by the vibe Jaipur possessed, it was nothing like the Delhi and that was just fine! The day was pressing onwards, Jaipur's colourful streets kept on giving me life, it wasn't going to be over yet! My third Indian City stayed!

Life in India for women is now slowly changing but during the time Jaipur's Hawa Mahal housed the royal Indian princesses it was another story, a story a million light years away from the likes of 2018. Translated from Hindi to 'Palace of Winds' the palace was engineered to give the palace-bound princesses a comfortable breeze during those scorching summer months, it was a lot to make sense that the princesses weren't allowed out of the palace walls. Nevertheless, I just adored the pink and red shades being served to me during that December afternoon. I was seeking the famous photo that depicts all of those windows, I waited patiently for that photo opportunity. Climbing some steep stone steps took some going, there was only seven or so but with no bannister and a towering view of the city in the next glance it was a tender few steps till I found the handrail! That view was sensational, those steps!

Sensational, yes! The view from the top of the Hawa Mahal gave me a Birdseye view of Jaipur's cityscape. I took all the views in, the landscape looked like some Arabian fairytale, the rooftops and mountains gave me everything that I needed from the view! After making my way back down to street level it was time to capture the one and only worthy photo of Jaipur's Hawa Mahal, well from my opinion anyway. Dodging the traffic had to be done but in actual fact I snatched a better photo directly underneath those famous windows. Checking into the hotel felt good, it had been such a busy two days with all the hours on the road and the different environments. The following day would bring the final drive back to Delhi before my Ganges day trip on the 19th of December 2018. Missing breakfast yet again during that trip because of the hotel I'll always state that breakfast is so important! Anyway, Jaipur gave me everything from its 'Pink City' palaces in Northern India's Rajasthan. Yes!

That Pink City!

Joseph Harrison 

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Agra, India: Taj Mahal, Agra Fort & Street Life...

Leaving the chaos of Delhi behind me I picked up my three day tour bound for Agra and Jaipur, my mission was to sit on the same bench at the Taj Mahal that Princess Diana did during her visit. The first day was a mission but well worth all the things that I saw, very much so indeed! Agra had two jewels in its crown, but the rest was a definitely an eye-opening experience. 

The drive from Delhi to Agra took about three or so hours, exiting the Yamuna Expressway meant the Taj Mahal grew nearer. After leaving the mayhem that was Delhi, the rolling fields gave me a different view before the unassuming Taj City of Agra. Seeing the road-side restaurant with their Hindi writing and colourful setups gave me even more of a curiousity to try more not-for-tourist foods. Picking up the guide, it was then only a short drive before reaching India's palatial icon. Tourists were out in their droves, with my one statement photo in mind I kept my cool, something told me the entry fee foreigners would be sky-high compared to the local price, that situation just isn't far! Nevertheless, I was merely steps away from one of the India's most famed pieces of Muslim architecture. Beware of the photographers, they get you working that pose in-front of the Taj, their motives were a no! Agra, don't play that! 

Being up-close and personal with the Taj Mahal's ivory white style made me fall in love with the love story behind its very existence. Crafted by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Janan to lay his beloved wife's body to rest. Mumtaz Mahal's death dealt such an impact on Shah's life, he felt his wife needed somewhere to rest that was just as beautiful as she was. Some shady business went down during a devastating looting, precious metals and jewels were stolen from the Taj Mahal's structure. I later learned that one of the visiting British Viceroy's of India felt so conflicted by the disrepair that the mausoleum stood in, he commanded a mass restoration project to commence that would restore the Taj to its former glory. Even though the immediate area surrounding the Mahal was crazy, I took in the beauty of Mumtaz's place with all of my attention. I was very impressed by what I saw from my visit to the Taj Mahal during that December mid-morning visit. Lady Di, I found your bench! 

I had heard about Delhi's Red Fort and those facts didn't impress me all that much, but as it stood I was very interested to see Agra Fort after my visit to the Taj Mahal. Intrinsically linked with the Taj, Agra's own fort was a stronghold for the Mughal rulers before the British relocated the capital to Delhi, the fort acted as the main headquarters for Shah Janan and his family. It was great to walk through the many compartments within the fort to be fronted by its grandeur, the marble designs gave a certain sense of luxury. It's Arabian opulence reminded me of Disney's Aladdin in the most basic sense with the references that animated film made to the main buildings. Agra Fort had so much of a back-story it was hard to keep up with the tour guides words but I remembered certain quarters were for Shah Janan's many wives, he had many children from those marriages and then some. Drama within those Agra Fort walls! Yes!

Mumtaz Mahal spent a lot of her life at the fort before her death, by the sounds it she spent most of the marriage pregnant? Many shady things went down through the years of the forts Mughal presence, I adored the open courtyard with such sensational marble designs. Marble, really? Shah Janan didn't seem impressed with some of the structure or looks, modifying those imperfections he obviously was a man with style in mind. Aside from the family goings on at the fort, it was really interesting to learn about yet another reference to the Mughal Empire because I had no previous idea they ruled before the British assumed power in 1803 by means and for gains I don't really want to go into any further. My day so far had been long, the drive from Delhi had been lengthy but the sights on offer made everything feel much better. The fort surprised me, it taught me a lot about the city of Agra because things suggested the Taj Mahal stood as the poster attraction for the city. OK!

With the days sightseeing over I was famished, having not had any breakfast that morning I was ready to run my mouth because the driver wanted to cop an attitude, not on my watch! I wasn't going to any restaurants for foreign tourists with air conditioning because I wanted to save my money and it wasn't even that warm! Checking into my room for the night I crossed the road to check out a normal looking road-side restaurant that stood next to a Chaiwala. Getting some hearty curry, roti and lassi for the win I noticed a large Indian family were dining at the same place, they looked well healed so I had chosen a good place that served good for an honest price. Taking my time it was great to watch the crazy flow of traffic pass me by, forming my opinions on Agra as a city that definitely benefited from its sights but the city looked rundown, not justifying the 'UNESCO World Heritage' status of the Taj Mahal. Life!  

Satisfied with my lunch, I grabbed some snacks and water at the shop next to the restaurant. I noticed that a few guys were sitting inside the small road-side shop, they were sipping their chai and talking about something in Hindi, my foreign presence didn't cause a stir because they seemed interested to ask questions after I said I was from England. The chai tasted great in its own terracotta cup, I noticed the local Indian folk really had a fascination with the previous ruling British Empire for they had nothing negative to say but all positives. Being a British territory for such a long time has left a high standard of English spoken in India, for me it wasn't difficult during that tea time to communicate basic things because of the remnants of empire. Agra showed me everything that I needed it to show me, the street life impressed me as it was unexpected and wasn't negative. Returning to my hotel, I took it easy before my five hour car journey to Rajasthan's Pink City of Jaipur. Agra, done! 

Totally Taj! 

Joseph Harrison 

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Delhi, India: Taxi, Taxi!

After arriving in Delhi I was ready for the first phase of my jam-packed Indian holiday, it wasn't much of a holiday because I had such a busy itinerary. Taking a taxi tour was something my parents did during their visit to the city, they recommended that I see some of DEL's finest sights by taxi. I booked up with my hotel before my arrival, ensuring things were sorted. Go, go!

I had literally arrived into Delhi the previous night to an utterly chaotic scene at the airport, after catching a few hours sleep and some breakfast it was time for my Delhi Taxi Tour. My hotel didn't feel like an oasis of calm until I ventured out in my taxi that morning, but it did not take long to be blinded by the maddening sights and sounds that took over instantly. China had nothing on India, it's Delhi capital city vibe made 北京 appear rather sleepy! Rickshaws weaved through the bustling traffic, safety didn't seem to be the theme on the streets, it was pure bedlam! I had no clue what the first stop of day was going to be, it was something already amazing to see the craziness of Delhi's bustling streets, people and vehicles of all kinds were making their way past at break-neck speed and without any caution applied! In that moment the taxi seemed like the safest place, sure my eyes were forced wide open by Delhi's madness!

Delhi's Jama Masjid turned out to be the first stop, stepping out of the taxi I had my belongings close to me, I couldn't judge what reception would greet me but it was all good. Entering the main courtyard gave me a wide screen view of the largest mosque in India, crafted by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656. Access inside the mosque wasn't permitted for non-Muslims, I respected that because the architecture from the mosques exterior was enough to marvel at. I hadn't banked on seeing India's largest mosque during my first berserk morning in Delhi. Chandni Chowk, the area that Jama Masjid fell into looked intriguing to me, at that early point I knew that I would be revisiting that corner of Old Delhi before my Air India flight for Birmingham on the 21st of December 2018! Learning fast that Delhi's history was rich, the Mughal rulers hailed from modern day Uzbekistan, something that I wasn't expecting to hear! How Chandni Chowk was so mad for a Sunday!

Raj Ghat was a no go, that Sunday chillness had finally surfaced as the remnants of the former British settlement of 'New' Delhi! No stresses that morning, it was all good! Things were kept all Mughal. Arriving at Humayun's Tomb was totally new for me, I was still learning about India's former rulers, I was being schooled for sure. The gardens surrounding Humayun's Tomb impressed me much, it was like a lush Indian summers garden. I made tracks around the visibly accessible parts but if truth be told I didn't really know where I was meant to be going, somewhere advertised peacock gardens but I didn't see those beautiful terrifying Asian birds. I was drawn back to the tomb of Isa Khan Niazi, a Pashtun noble in the courts of Sher Shah Suri. The garden in the round that had a simple yet very elaborate tomb planted in the centre gave me one amazing view, the vivid colours reflecting in the sun gave me everything.

I was so glad that I had brought enough money with me on the taxi tour, the thought of having to pay multiple entrance fees didn't make me feel good, as it stood the Jama Masjid was free to access and Humayun's Tomb only set me back a few hundred Rupees, all was well. The morning so far had been insightful, I had seen two Mughal inspired sights within what was known as 'Old' Delhi. As my taxi grew closer to the third stop I noticed the streets close in a little, things seemed more orderly and all the houses looked very ordinary and neat. Nearing the former compound that housed the British dignitaries during Indian's British Colonial rule sparked one of the main reasons why I had chosen to visit Delhi in the first place! Passing the Victorian styled Lodhi Gardens gave me a sense the days of the British Raj will always have a place in Delhi past, present and future. Delhi had shown me so much in such a short space of time, I was ready to see something about Mahatma Gandhi. Yes!

Having the opportunity to have visited Gandhi's House was a moment in my life that I will not ever forget, it was a serene places with a sobering wave of calm that acted as a warm blanket from the worlds troubles. Gandhi's House stood still, painted with a holy white shade gave things a sense of pureness, Gandhi stood as a figure of peace during his time and that vibe transcended within the perimeters of his former home. Captured to the left standing near to Gandhi's bedroom I found 'Gandhi's Steps', from the door he left on the morning his life was taken away from him I saw footprints in the footpath to symbolise his final movements. Rightly so, photography and etiquette was being monitored around the whole expanse of the gardens that surrounded the house, I stood further back enough to take that photo with caution and respect present in my mind. Yes, I felt at peace during my visit to Gandhi's House in New Delhi.

The simple yet thought-provoking exhibits that detailed Gandhi's final days really hit home that India had then lost its most influential person of the time, as Mahatma worked alongside the British to peacefully push independence for India from the British. I noticed that Gandhi didn't stand as a negative feature, he simply wanted what the Indian people wanted after the British Raj had lasted for over 89 years till India gained independence in 1947. A colourful series of puppet scenes showed the life events of Mahatma Gandhi's youth and through his other monumental life events that shaped his life, snippets of the British Raj cropped up and it was clear during Gandhi's time in South Africa had shown him that the British worked a certain way in their other Colonial outposts. Upon my exiting of Gandhi's House I felt calm and collected, the whole experience was so chilled and levelling I felt good. With Raj Ghat being closed that morning, the afternoon's offerings made up for that, DEL!

Lunch really needed to happen! Stopping first at what looked like an English precinct with restaurants didn't impress me, I hadn't gone all the way to India to be fronted with expensive food that wasn't worth the price or that didn't have any character! Making those feelings clear, the driver found a place called the 'Copper Chimney'. Ordering the Masala chicken with garlic naan bread and an ice cold lassi to drink was a winner! Onto the next place, that was meant to be the Lotus Temple but being without a phone that had any signal and the relaxed attitude of the driver with such a crowd growing didn't make me feel comfortable, I called that attraction off without hestiation! Heading for India Gate beckoned the final port of call for my Taxi Tour, throughout the morning I had seen some amazing places and the lunch was worth questioning, I wasn't dealing with that tomfoolery at the Lotus Temple for nobody DEL!

Leading up to India Gate, the Rajpath was rammed with people enjoying their Sunday afternoon. Lined with empty tiered seating I questioned why they sat where they did, finding out the Rajpath is used for processions and parades that include Indian Independence Day made perfect sense. The long wide design of the Rajpath oozed Britishness, the focal point being the 'All India War Memorial' grand with its rich stone shade I was thankful it towered above the building crowd that snaked all the way down the Rajpath. Finding an ice cream, I took in the sights during those moments, people hustled and then some with their goods for sale. Content with my snaps I went back to the taxi, concluding the tour we drove past the Indian Ministry of Defence. The immediate area confirmed why that area was defined as 'New' Delhi with its British Colonial style. After a long trip I felt fulfilled with that I had witnessed during my first full day in India, returning to my hotel it was nice to have a rest.

Taxi, Taxi!

Joseph Harrison 

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Flying High... China Southern Airlines!

Flying high once again, choosing China Southern Airlines wasn't my first choice but with low prices to my destination it had to be done. Jetting down to Guangzhou to meet my international flight to New Delhi was my objective, Guangdong's own scheduled airline allowed me to experience my first international Chinese airline from the 'middle kingdoms' vast mainland. 

Checking in for a flight isn't something that I do very often, I am all about self-service check-in and carry-on baggage these days. Finding the 'through' check-in counters baffled me, its usually all about one international section for most airlines, I wasn't going to pay that any mind. The check-in agent was baffled by my Beijing-Guangzhou-New Delhi itinerary, apparently holding a British passport meant I was going home? Apologises, I wasn't ready for England at that point. Breezing through customs like a midsummers night dream, security felt very invasive but my Chinese language skills have improved, that helped me a lot! Seeing my China Southern Airbus 321 connected to the rightful jet-bridge impressed me much, an on-time departure was in-sight! My flight time had already been changed twice before my day of departure, I had every right to be dubious about my Guangzhou bound flight! Boarding C?

Zooming down to a mild Guangzhou, my first flight of the day touched the skies above Beijing on-time, well after we taxied for an age because that's Beijing! It was standard service aboard that domestic China Southern flight, I had travelled with CZ domestically in China many times before that December 2018 moment. No direct flights to New Delhi were available with any other carrier aside from Air China, let me conveniently cut this sentence now. Touching down into Guangzhou on-time was a relief, I had less than two hours to disembark and to make it to the international concourse, I hadn't left China Customs at that point so I was hoping things wouldn't be crowded, disorderly or throw up any foolishness. Getting stamped out of the country was no problem, I didn't have to put my possessions through any security check either! I was fronted with a brand new shining duty free outlet, one that you would expect to see in any international airport. Guangzhou Baiyun Int'l impressed me! 

With CZ309 being prepared with enough time to go before our scheduled departure time, it was looking likely for my second on-time China Southern departure of the day. I was looking forward to seeing a China Southern aircraft that was bigger than an Airbus 321, it was time to experience their international service, something that influenced my China Southern choice. That Airbus 330-300 looked shiny and new, I was hoping that the interior of the aircraft would match the fuselage, things were looking positive. The cabin crew passed by the gate, adorned in a burgundy and blue uniform they looked pretty and presented themselves perfectly. The flight deck crew made themselves present to the gate before the cabin crew, they looked professional and ready for the flight over to India. Listening to many conversations, some of the other passengers had connected in CAN after arriving from another CZ flights.

Boarding took no time at all, the line was made orderly for a change, usually its a race to make it first to the economy boarding stanchions. I was surprised by the excellent English that was spoken by the ground staff, its hard to find such occurrences at Beijing's own international airport. I was distracted by the brand new cabin interior, everything looked relatively new and for that reason I felt at ease, it wasn't going to be a bad flight. Present at the front of the economy cabin was a China Southern sky marshal, usually in the United States they have marshals on transatlantic flights but I have read a few times that certain types of passengers have trouble respecting the crew as they carry out their duties. It was a relief to be finally en-route to New Delhi, the months had been counted down to that moment when my China Southern Airbus 330 hurtled down the runway at Guangzhou's Baiyun International Airport! Phew, I don't ever need to pick a certain flag carrier! 

During my flight experience with a certain Hong Kong airline I was introduced to some seriously shy cabin crew, securing a photo wasn't easy on that previous Manchester bound flight, surveying the situation I thought about asking during my time flying with China Southern. I made conversation with the crew mainly in Chinese, the cabin crew's English skills were much better on the international sector so I tried my best to speak Chinese to catch them by surprise. The crew that passed through my side of the cabin laughed when I said 'can I have a beer, please?' in Chinese. I think she was caught by surprise? I was able to get my beer, several actually after making friendly conversation with that crew member. She went onto asking me where I had learnt such good Chinese, I told her I have lived in China for three years and during that time I've been teaching English at an international kindergarten. C, I am learning! 

After two services of refreshments and our dinner served, the crew dimmed the cabin lights. The overall cabin service was good, the crew kept themselves to themselves within the galley out of service time. I stretched my legs a few times to get a drink, trying to make conversation was quite a challenge but when thinking about it, every airline has different crew who interact with their passengers in many different ways. With sparing amounts of conversation aside, I noticed the crew kept their appearance to a high standard throughout the flight, being less than six hours it wasn't such a long stretch for the crew compared to a longer hop that could have been from Guangzhou to the UK or Australia. From that experience using Chinese with the crew, I will definitely try my best to talk to them in their native language! I heard that China Southern have employed non-Chinese crew for their Australian flights? Yes, it's a great idea but I'd prefer to talk with a Chinese cabin crew. 

Embracing the culture of China Southern I chose a Chinese film, 'Walking Past The Future'. It was a raw and in-depth story about the struggles of a migrant family who were living in Shenzhen but they were actually from a poor part of Gansu Province. It was a lengthy picture showing the harsh struggles of the Chinese migrant workers that leave their hometowns for manufacturing hub such as Shenzhen, 'Walking Past The Future' portrayed the hardship a young migrant woman had to face to give her ageing parents some much needed support. Being a working legal foreigner in China made me feel that I stand in a very blessed position compared to the many realities like the film in-question featured. My meal during that New Delhi bound flight embraced the culture of my destination, I chose the chicken curry served with rice and some other tasty additions. I could have done with a drink served alongside my meal. C, I asked in Chinese!

After five hours and fifty minutes my China Southern aircraft touched down onto Indian soil, the long journey had concluded at Indira Gandhi International Airport within the scheduled time of arrival. Even though choosing China Southern was something that I had to do for my Indian adventure to be possible, the on-time departure of both my flights and the smooth transfer in Guangzhou surprised me! The crew were attentive and understood my Chinese, even though their conversation wasn't as free compared to the likes of Emirates or an American airline it was another cultural experience. The quality of the new aircraft on the second sector was new and the sky marshal kept us safe from any crazy passengers throughout that international India bound flight, also from Beijing to Guangzhou too! With cheap fares on many international flights from China, I definitely see another China Southern flight in the future. Do China Southern fly to Israel though? No, they don't yet!


Joseph Harrison