Hong Kong Nostalgia Day

Looking down on Hong Kong and across the harbor to Kowloon from the top of Victoria Peak

This trip marks our ninth visit to Hong Kong. Shopping was the name of the game back in the day, but our visit this time is all about seeing what’s new and what’s stayed the same. After a day of rest yesterday, today we headed out to see some of the places we loved to visit in the past, and also eat at some of our favorite Hong Kong restaurants.

Our first stop though was the customer service booth at the Tsim Sha Tsui subway station, just a short walk from our hotel, to purchase the convenient, multi-use Octopus cards which are good for the subway, buses, trams, ferries and other forms of transportation around Hong Kong. Seniors over 65 receive a 50% discount on the Octopus Card, a big savings for us. We paid a $50HK deposit for each card that will be returned when we turn back in the cards at the end of our stay. Every time we use the card it not only shows the cost, but how much we have remaining (we bought $20HK worth of fares). Cards can be reloaded as necessary at machines in all subway stations.

Man Mo Temple sits in front of a typical Hong Kong background: high-rise apartments

From Tsim Sha Tsui we rode over to Central and walked to Man Mo Temple on Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan. The temple was built in 1847, and is dedicated to the worship of several Chinese gods. There were many people worshiping at different altars in the temple when we visited, lighting incense, praying, and leaving gifts of tangerines at the altars. Candles were also burning throughout the temple and visitors are warned to be careful around the open flames. One of thing we have always enjoyed experiencing at the temple are the huge coils of slow-burning incense that hang from the ceiling. Although we understood little of what was happening in the temple, it was still a place of great beauty and reverence and we stayed a while to take it all in.

One of several altars inside the temple.
Rows of lanterns filled one section of the temple.

Leaving Man Mo Temple we wove our way down through Central’s narrow streets and lanes to our next stop: Tai Cheong Bakery, where we purchased a few of what are considered the best egg custard tarts on the island. Delicious is not an adequate enough word when it comes to describing these tarts – they are luscious.

Tai Cheong Bakery’s custard egg tarts are simply luscious. They’ve been a favorite in Hong Kong since 1954.
At Yat Lok restaurant there’s always a line outside.

Then it was on to lunch at Yat Lok restaurant. This little whole-in-the-wall restaurant serves one thing only: roast goose. But not just any roast goose – their preparation has earned them a Michelin star several years in a row. As expected, there was a line outside the restaurant when we arrived, but there was immediately a call for two people and Brett and I were actually the only couple so we skipped the line went right in! We each enjoyed a bowl of noodles in tasty broth topped with goose along with a BIG glass of lemon iced tea. The cost for this absolutely delicious, Michelin-rated lunch? Just $10US each.

Noodles with roast goose – simple and beyond delicious.
Yat Lok’s 2019 Michelin star – they’ve earned a star for the past four years.

With our bellies full and happy, we next walked over to the Peak Tram for a ride up to the top of Victoria Peak, not only to take in the view and but also to have dessert at the historic Peak Lookout Cafe (formerly the Peak Cafe), one of our favorite places to dine. The line to board the tram was long, but it moved fairly quickly and before we knew it we were heading up the through the high-rise apartments that cover the side of the Peak. The Peak, as always, was very crowded at the top, but we found the Lookout restaurant and were seated outside where we enjoyed a delightful cool breeze and a view of Repulse Bay and Stanley. After our dessert we walked over to take in the view of the harbor and Kowloon before getting in line to head back down to Central.

The Peak Tram climbs through rows of high-rise apartments that cover the side of Victoria Peak.
The view from the tram near the end of the line.
The historic Peak Lookout Cafe was originally a temporary resting place for sedan chair carriers and then later transformed into a permanent shelter. It began catering meals in 1947 and was known as the Peak Cafe for many years, one of our favorite places to dine.
The tram to take us back down arrives at the end of the line. When we got to the bottom, the line of people waiting to go up was almost twice as long as it was when we went up.

After returning to Central we caught a bus to the Star Ferry terminal to get back to Tsim Sha Tsui. After our arrival on the Kowloon side, we headed to Watson’s Drugstore to pick up a bottle of water and a small bottle of White Flower Embrocation, a Chinese medicinal ointment that can be used for many ailments. We then headed into the massive Ocean Terminal mall to have an early dinner at one of our favorite Hong Kong restaurants, Paul Ryan’s Chicago Grill. Ryan’s serves All-American food (burgers, steaks, etc.) and Brett and I ate at least one meal there on every trip to Hong Kong. This time he and I shared a big Reuben sandwich, which after everything else we’d eaten earlier in the day was more than enough. We were thrilled to be given Ryan’s keychains once again as we left the restaurant, a favorite tradition from our past visits (and we actually still have some of those keychains from 30+ years ago!).

A visit to Hong Kong is not complete without a ride on the Star Ferry, in operation since 1888.
Dan Ryan’s Chicago Grill makes a very delicious Reuben sandwich!
Dan Ryan’s keychains and White Flower Embrocation – the perfect Hong Kong souvenirs for us!

We walked over five miles today (nearly 15,000 steps for me – yikes!), but we had a wonderful, nostalgic time and ate some amazing food. Tomorrow though will be all about something new – we’re going out to Hong Kong Disneyland for the day!

Out of India, On to Hong Kong

These workers were making and hanging garlands of marigolds around the hotel for the wedding.

There was lots of activity going on at our hotel yesterday as we prepared to check out – a BIG wedding ceremony would be taking place in the evening, and workers were all over the hotel and grounds getting decorations and all in place. Also, peacocks could be seen roaming the grounds. It was apparent the wedding was going to be quite a lavish affair.

We were treated like royalty during our entire stay at the Jai Mahal hotel.
Heading out for our last day in India with our travel partners Amy and Phil, and our wonderful guide, Luke (real name Lokendra).

We learned yesterday morning too that the hotel, the Taj Jai Mahal, was at one time an actual palace owned by the local ruling family! In fact, the royal family still owns the property and the Taj hotel group leases it (and renovated it) to use as a hotel.

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Our first stop of the morning was the Jaipur City Palace, owned and currently lived in by members of the local royal family (the same family that owns the Jai Mahal property). A few of the buildings in the palace have been opened to the public, and a few operated as museums. The palace was yet another hidden gem – the outside wall gave no indication of the eye-popping splendor inside.

The largest sundial in the world inside the Jantar Mantar. The observation tower at the top was used by astronomers only once or twice a year.

The second stop of the day, Jantar Mantar, the Jaipur observatory, was another surprise, and one of the most fascinating places we visited on our tour of India. Completed in 1734, the observatory was built by the Rajput king Sawal Jai Singh II, who had deep interests in astronomy, mathematics and astrology. The observatory houses the largest sundial in the world, still accurate to two seconds, and the entire observatory is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beyond the sundial the observatory also houses several other astronomical and astrological structures, including twelve individual astrological instruments that were used to calculate individual horoscopes. Horoscopes remain important in Hindu culture – for example, according to Luke, each person has 36 astrological attributes based on the date, time and place of birth, and for a good Hindu marriage match a couple should share at least 18 of the attributes. Our little group hired a local astronomer to walk us through the observatory and explain it all. I found it fascinating, particularly the continuing accuracy of all the instruments considering they were built from stone and marble and without the help of technology nearly 300 years ago.

The a.m. side of the sundial.
Walking through some of the twelve astrological instruments.

Our next stop of the day was lunch at a nearby hotel, where our group enjoyed butter chicken and lots of naan bread for our last meal together. After lunch we had planned to go visit the monkey temple complex, but Jaipur traffic got the better of us and we instead ended up going to the airport to check in for our flights. Phil and Amy were continuing on with Luke to visit Udiapur and Mumbai, while Brett and I were flying back to Delhi where we’d catch our late-night flight to Hong Kong.

Checking our bags at the Delhi airport. Travel days are never fun, and this one was another that tried our patience.

Getting out of India turned out to be a lot more difficult and unpleasant than it had been getting in to the country. We had to pay overweight fees equaling $95 in Jaipur even though Luke tried to get them waived, but the airline would not budge. Also, our flight from Jaipur ended up departing nearly an hour late, and we learned on arrival in Delhi that although Indians are great about politely forming and standing in a queue before departure, it was no holds barred when it was time to get off the plane! We eventually were able to get off the plane, collect our suitcases and head up to check in for our flight to Hong Kong.

I don’t think we’ve ever been so glad that we had a long layover like the one we had in Delhi because airport security put us (and many others) through the wringer and with less time we would have missed our flight. I’ve never experienced anything like what we went through there and never hope to again. We followed the usual rules for taking out our laptops and tablets, etc. – there were no signs to tell us exactly what to do but we watched what others were doing and followed their example. After sending my backpack and other items through the x-ray, I walked through the scanner and was pulled aside for an additional check. I showed the female security guard my neck wallet that I use for my passport and credit cards and she took EVERYTHING out and went through each one of my credit cards and pieces of ID before returning them to me – crazy! Then I went to get my backpack and other things but for some reason security thought I had a knife in my purse (!) so I first had to empty that completely, and the “knife” turned out to be my keychain, made from the handle of an antique silver spoon. Then the security guys didn’t like what they saw in my backpack (I have no idea what they thought they saw), and they scanned it three times, ending up with taking everything out of my backpack and going through it all – jewelry, toiletries, medications, etc. Everything was left in a jumble in one of the plastic security bins for me to sort out. The guards were quite surly too, but eventually I got all my stuff together although it took a while to repack everything so that it all fit again into my backpack and purse. Needless to say, Brett got the same treatment. We left security feeling frazzled and beaten down only to discover we had a near 15-minute walk to our gate. We learned today via Luke that not only was yesterday a holiday in Delhi, but the city had received a threat from Al Qaeda right around the time we were going through security, so no one was taking any chances. Still, it was a miserable experience.

Our flight finally took off around midnight, an hour late, but we had a comfortable flight (although little sleep) and still managed to arrive on time in Hong Kong at 6:30 this morning. We collected our bags, got through immigration and then searched for an ATM to get some HK$ before heading to our hotel. Brett was completely exhausted and drained at that point, and not only did he miscalculate and withdraw way too much money, he also left (and lost) his debit card in the machine! So, the first thing he had to take care of after our hotel check-in was to contact our bank and freeze his card (he won’t be able to get a new one either until when we’re in Japan). Thank goodness I still have my card or we’d be in serious trouble right now.

For what we paid to have our laundry done in our hotel, it deserved being delivered in more than a wicker basket!

Once we got that issue taken care of, our next step was to get our clothes sorted and sent to the laundry. There had been no time to get laundry done the last few days in India, and both Brett and I were running out of clean clothes. We were shocked though by the laundry bill that came back for five days worth of clothing for two people: $230 dollars (US, not Hong Kong)! That definitely was an unexpected expense, but we were in a tight spot as far as needing clean clothes. Lesson learned though – Hong Kong these days is EXPENSIVE.

A view from our room of the Hong Kong harbor and skyline.

Our hotel room is lovely and comfortable though, and we have a drop-dead view of the harbor and the Hong Kong skyline which is what we wanted here. We slept for around five hours today our of pure exhaustion, and had dinner this evening at the hotel coffee shop. Afterwards we went out and walked around for a bit to try to get ourselves oriented. Everything had looked very, very different and unrecognizable this morning coming in to town, but once we started walking around we recognized many familiar streets and shops and now know right where we are and how to get around. The city is gearing up for the biggest holiday of the year, the Lunar New Year (February 5) and fabulous decorations are already everywhere.

We only have four full days in Hong Kong and want to make the most of them. Tomorrow’s plan is to head over to the Hong Kong side of the harbor and ride the tram up to the Peak, and then hopefully eat roast goose for lunch as well as pick up some tasty egg custard tarts before riding the Star Ferry back to Kowloon. After that, who knows? It’s good to be back though.

In and Around Jaipur: Day 2

Off we go!

I can now cross riding an elephant off of my bucket list. Not that it was ever on my bucket list, but it’s been accomplished.

A row of elephants heads up to the Amer Fort at the top of the hill.

Elephants are one of two ways to get up the front of the hill to the Amer Fort outside of Jaipur – the other is walking, and it’s a very l-o-n-g walk (cars can go around the back, but it’s a traffic nightmare there). However, the elephants are only available in the morning, and under the law they are only allowed to make four round trips up and back. The ride up takes about 15-20 minutes, and rather than feeling bumpy it was more of a rolling ride, from side to side, or in our case because we were sitting to the side, front to back. Our elephant was a rescue, and was 32 years old – if you said “good morning” she would call back! A few times thought it felt as if I was going to be tossed right off over the wall and down the cliff, very scary if you’re afraid of heights like I am. But in the end I survived, had a good ride, and have another story to tell my grandchildren.

The Amer Fort

The Amer fort was another site where the outside walls gave no indication of the splendors inside. Built in 1592 the fort contains the Amber Palace, which is divided into three parts, and filled with beautiful carvings and paintings. The palace itself is divided into three sections: one for the maharaja, one for his primary wife, and one for the maharaja’s concubines and dancing women.

The changing room for the Turkish bath in the palace, made from marble. This was one area shared by men and women (although not at the same time).
An example of the decoration in the Glass Palace, created from marble and mirrored glass.
Small, full mirrors were set where the walls met allowing you to see the splendor of entire room (or get a picture of yourself).
Paintings in the concubine and dancing women’s section of the palace were not as opulent, but still vibrant and beautiful.

Our elephants arrived in the huge grand courtyard outside the maharaja’s and men’s section of the fort. From there we entered an ornately painted gateway into the primary wife’s palace, which was made from white marble and opulently decorated. One section of her palace was known as the “Glass Palace” because all the walls and ceilings are decorated with mirrored glass, either as full mirrors or small bits of mosaic tile. The rooms were exquisitely beautiful, and it was easy to imagine how they must have sparkled from the lights at night. The third section of the palace, although not as opulent as the primary wife’s quarters, still contained beautiful paintings, and the women who lived in this section apparently each had their own room.

There were vendors and hawkers everywhere around the palace. This man was selling curried lentils and rice which he prepared with fresh tomatoes, onions and lime juice.

We left the palace and fort and walked about halfway down the hill where a jeep picked us up to take us the rest of the way down to our van. We then set off on a long drive through the countryside to our lunch destination: Samode palace, former home of members of the local royal family. The area seemed mostly dry and dusty (the hills reminded me of the ones in eastern San Diego county), but as we got nearer to the palace more and more green fields appeared, filled with rice, wheat or leafy green vegetables. We learned the royal family still owns a great deal of farm land in the area.

Women in colorful saris gather to gossip in the old village outside of the royal palace.

The palace was like a little hidden gem in the countryside, accessed through an old village. A few members of the royal family still live in the palace, but these days it operates as a boutique hotel and a popular wedding site. It is also sometimes used as a setting in Bollywood films. The palace’s restaurant is renowned and we enjoyed a wonderful buffet lunch in a dining room dripping with giant chandeliers and decorated in gold. Afterwards we toured the palace grounds and were able to watch a bit as they were transformed for a wedding taking place that evening.

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The palace was a long drive outside of Jaipur, but we made good time on our way back and headed for our last stop of the day: A Rajasthani textile center. We were again met with cool drinks, and shown a variety of beautiful rugs, much more varied than the ones we had seen the other day. The prices were also better as well. Amy and Phil bought another small rug, but I was more interested in seeing the textiles upstairs.

My beautiful Rajasthani wool jacket!

I had seen a lovely reversible cotton quilted jacket in Delhi and was told it was from Rajasthan, so that’s what I hoped to find and purchase. The center did have the jackets, in a wonderful variety of colors, but when I tried them on I was less than impressed – they turned out to be one of those things that looked good on others but not on me. None of the scarves I looked at interested me either. And then one of the workers walked out with a beautiful black and cream long wool jacket and said, “try this one.” It went on easily and fit well, and I actually gasped when I saw myself – it “sparked joy.” Brett, Amy, Phil, and Luke all gasped as well when I walked out, and I knew then the jacket was The One. Amy liked it so much that she bought another one for herself in a beautiful red wool design. After we had purchased our jackets we learned that the wool fabric for each one is one-of-a kind so each jacket is an “original.”

The back of the jacket

And then it was back to our hotel to relax and get ready for our last day in India. After checking out from our wonderful hotel this morning we will be visiting a monument and the “monkey temple” complex, a Hindu pilgrimage site, followed by lunch. Afterwards we will all head over to the Jaipur airport for our return to Delhi (Amy and Phil will be flying with Luke to Mumbai) where we’ll catch our late-night flight to Hong Kong.

I almost cannot believe our wonderful tour will be ending today – it’s been the experience of a lifetime!

In and Around Jaipur: Day 1

A wall covered in the terra-cotta that gives Jaipur its nickname.

Known as the “Pink City,” Jaipur is located west of Delhi, in the state of Rajasthan. Rajasthan means “land of kings” and is one of the princely Hindu states of India, the home of maharajas. The pink nickname comes from the prominent use of reddish terra-cotta that is used on many of the buildings and walls throughout the city. We arrived in Jaipur yesterday afternoon after more than five-hour drive from Agra, through the fascinating (to me, anyway) Indian countryside. Thankfully we didn’t face much traffic along the way although the road was again somewhat bumpy.

Although Jaipur is a large city (more than three million people live here), cows still wander freely through the streets . . .
, , , even in the more upscale parts of the city.

Along the way we had a rest stop for tea and coffee, but Luke wanted to make one other stop at the famous Chand Baori stepwell. He had briefly shown us a picture of the stepwell, but none of us could figure out what it or even what a stepwell was – from the picture it looked like some sort of modern Indian engineering marvel. Luke had yet to disappoint us though so we agreed to make the stop.

This view of the Chand Baori is similar to the photo that Luke showed us. We had no idea what it was – it looked very modern.
One side of the Chand Baori stepwell was covered with pavilions and rooms, built for royalty when they visited the well.
The stepwell site contained many old Hindu carvings. If even a small part of Hindu iconography is damaged it can no longer be used for veneration or worship. This is the main reason the Mughal invaders destroyed or damaged Hindu and Jain temples in India, so they could use them for themselves..

The stepwell turned out to be an engineering marvel alright, but it was built in the 8th century and consists of eight stories of narrow steps around three sides that lead down to a large deep, permanent pool of water. Anyone wanting or needing water would go up and down the steps along the sides (usually women, with a jug on their head). The well was also considered a sacred spot – there is a small temple at the well, and a larger ancient Hindu temple across the street. The location also served as a social gathering place for locals in the area during the intense summer heat as the temperature near the bottom was several degrees cooler than at the top. The elaborate buildings on the one side were constructed as a place for Rajasthani royalty to rest and stay cool. There were also rooms at the top along the sides where visitors or merchants passing through could stop and spend the night. The Chand Baori stepwell has appeared in several films, both Bollywood and otherwise, including The Number One Best Marigold Hotel.

There’s always a basket or bowl of hot fresh, garlic naan on the table whenever we and our travel partners have lunch.

Upon our arrival in the city we stopped off for lunch at a restaurant famous for curried mutton, a local speciality. Along with the mutton we enjoyed tasty dishes from yet another wonderful buffet (my buffet favorites have become rice with dal, and eggplant masala) and a couple of buckets of our group’s favorite meal accompaniment: fresh, hot garlic naan bread. We left the restaurant with full stomachs and headed over to the luxurious Taj Jai Mahal Hotel, our “home” for the next two nights. Each hotel we’ve stayed at on our tour has been better than the last, and the Jai Mahal, our final hotel, is the most amazing – there aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. Easy Tours offers a higher level of service above ours, but for the life of me I can’t imagine what that level would or could get that we don’t.

Our wing of the Taj Jai Mahal Hotel
Our beautiful room at the Jai Mahal. We can watch traditional Indian dance and music from our window every evening.

Throughout our time in India, we had heard over and over, “save your shopping for Jaipur. Rajasthan has the best things.” Jaipur and the surrounding area is known for both jewelry (gold, silver and precious stones) and textiles, so after checking in to the hotel and getting our luggage settled, we climbed back into the van once more and headed over to our first Rajasthani shopping adventure: a jewelry center. At the center we were given a short demonstration of how stones are cut and polished, and then we were taken into an immense show room, with silver jewelry on the right, gold on the left. Brett and I headed for the silver side of the room, and Amy and Phil for the gold side. About forty minutes later Amy and Phil walked out without buying anything, but I left the room with a silver bangle, a pair of silver earrings, a one-of-a-kind necklace . . . and a beautiful silver gemstone ring, a surprise gift from Brett! The fun part of the shopping turned out to be that we never had to bargain to get to the prices we wanted – a first price would be offered, and then we would just stand there while the jeweler started bringing down the price on his own, eventually getting to where we were willing to buy. In the end we got everything for less than we had thought we’d pay.

So not a hand model, but this is the ring Brett got for me: two TINY diamonds on either side of a row containing a sapphire, emerald and ruby stone. I don’t wear a lot of jewelry, so this was a perfect choice for me – I love it (and him)!

We skipped dinner in the evening and went to bed early in order to rest up for the next day’s activities: a visit to a fort, an elephant ride, lunch at a royal palace, and some textile shopping.

A Day in Agra

The main reason we came to Agra!

Delhi was cosmopolitan, modern India; Agra was the India where cows walk through the streets. And, while the roads of Agra are filled with cars, trucks and tuktuks, there are also plenty of carts being pulled by donkey and oxen out on the roads as well. I loved every second of it.

Humayun’s tomb seen through the morning haze. The architecture was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

We were up early yesterday for a last breakfast at our Delhi hotel, then checked out of our room and started off the day with a visit to Humayun’s tomb before departing for Agra. Humayan was one of the great Mughal (Muslim) rulers of India, and the great-grandfather of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal. Humayan’s tomb was commissioned by his widow after his death in 1568, and built of red sandstone. Nearly 100 years later the much larger Taj Mahal was constructed using the basic design of Humayun’s tomb as a model. Today Humayun’s Tomb is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and also is sometimes used as a setting in Bollywood films.

A view out the window as we drove through Agra.
Cows everywhere.

The weather yesterday morning was very hazy, a combination of leftover fog and smoke coming from farmers burning their fields in the areas surrounding Delhi. The haze unfortunately continued all the way to Agra. The drive took about two and half hours, mostly through countryside. Even though we made good time down a nearly empty new super highway, the ride was very bumpy and bone jarring at times.

The Agra Fort
The entrance gate to the fort. The exterior was made from red sandstone.

We reached Agra in the early afternoon, stopping first at the Agra Fort, the site where Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son who had become angry over the amount of money his father had spent building the Taj Mahal. From the outside, the fort looked like nothing more than a big, hulking red fortification complete with a moat of two layers: the upper held tigers, and the lower level was filled with water and crocodiles! The inside of the fort told another story though. The living quarters where Shah Jahan, his first wife and two daughters were imprisoned were actually quite sumptuous, built of white marble and decorated with beautiful inlay work and gold. Shah Jahan’s quarters looked out over the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Detail from an inner courtyard in the fort. Dancers performed here, and women watched from the balcony upstairs.
Shah Jahan’s quarters were made of carved and inlaid white marble. The living room has a fountain in the center even though it is located on an upper floor of the fort.
Even though he could not visit the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan could look out at it in the distance.

Following our tour of the fort we went to lunch at a restaurant named Bon Barbecue, where we enjoyed a large meal of grilled chicken, fish, shrimp and vegetables as well as various tasty side dishes, heated over braziers at our table. Luke warned us that we would be so full when we finished that we wouldn’t need or want dinner and he was right (in our case, anyway)! After lunch we checked into our hotel, the beautiful ITC Mughal, located just a short distance down the road from the Taj Mahal.

Beautiful fountains and gardens surrounded the ITC Mughal hotel.
Our room at the hotel had the biggest bed we have ever seen!

Finally it was time to visit the Taj Mahal, the most famous site in India. The best way to describe our visit was not only did it not disappoint, it was in fact much more splendid and beautiful than we ever imagined it would be, in every way. The grounds were beautiful, and we were able to climb up to the mausoleum area and walk around the perfectly symmetrical building, and take in the detail of the marble and the inlay. We stayed up there quite a while, soaking it all in before heading back down and slowly walking back to meet Luke. By the way, the crowds at the Taj Mahal were immense, but very well-behaved. No one pushed, shoved, cut in line, etc. No one got in the way of anyone else’s picture, and we came away thinking just of what we had seen and not of the massive amounts of people there.

The view as we came through the main gate of the Taj Mahal.
The building of the Taj Mahal is perfectly symmetrical and each side is identical. Inlaid Arabic calligraphy surrounds arches on each of its side.
When I stopped to take a picture of the Taj Mahal on our way back to the main gate, an old Muslim man came up to me and told me to go over to the water, that I would get a better picture. He was right – I would have missed the reflection otherwise.
Just as we were getting ready to go back out the main gate I saw these five women sitting together as they waited for their families. I asked if I could take their picture, and although they couldn’t figure out why, they agreed. It was my favorite picture of the day!

Our last stop of the day was a small factory where marble inlay work is still done by the family that worked on the Taj Mahal over four centuries ago. The designs and skill involved were quite incredible. We had hoped to buy a small statue (five inches or less) of Ganesh, the Hindu god of prosperity and happiness, but unfortunately there was every god available but Ganesh (he’s very popular), so we didn’t get anything. Our travel partners however purchased a marble plaque with the Taj Mahal inlaid in mother-of pearl, and the sky made from lapis lazuli – absolutely exquisite.

Artisans cutting tiny pieces of precious and semi-precious stones to be inlaid into marble. These workers come from the same family line of artisans who did the inlay on the Taj Mahal.
Detailed inlaid work for a table top. The stones used include lapis lazuli, turquoise, malachite, mother-of-pearl, tiger’s eye, carnelian and gold.
This statue of Ganesh, although beautiful, was a bit too large for us to carry around.

Then it was on to our hotel where Brett and I collapsed into bed and fell asleep in moments, exhausted but happy. We had walked over four miles, and taken nearly 11,500 steps (actually way more for me as I take more steps than he does to cover the same distance) – it was quite a day!

Delhi: Day 2

A spectacular Hindu temple, a Gandhi memorial, a mosque, a wild rickshaw ride, Indian food in a historic hotel, and some shopping filled our final day of touring in Delhi.

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We were originally scheduled to visit Delhi’s Red Fort, but as we will be seeing forts in both Agra and Jaipur, our guide instead took us to visit the truly incredible Swamidarayan Akshardam temple, the largest Hindu temple in the world. It is a very new temple: construction began in 2001 and finished in 2005 using over 7,000 skilled artisans. The intricacy and quality of the carving seen throughout the temple and grounds was nothing short of breathtaking – I don’t think any of us stopped gasping as we walked around and through the complex. The carvings also gave us an idea of how beautiful the original carvings of the Qutb Minat complex must have been in the past. (We were not allowed to bring cameras or cell phones on to the temple property; the photos above come from the Touching Hearts blog.)

The memorial and eternal flame at Gandhi’s cremation site.

Following our visit to the temple we made a short trip to view the memorial at the site where Gandhi was cremated. We did not walk down to the memorial (none of us felt like taking off our shoes) but viewed the simple black platform which is adorned daily with fresh floral wreaths, and an eternal flame, from a path above the memorial. Our visit was short, but inspired a lively discussion among us about Gandhi and his impact and how he would be viewed today.

The minaret of the Jama Masjid mosque. Worshippers are beginning to arrive for the Friday services.
Off we go! Check out the exterior electrical wiring – crazy!

Then it was on to Old Delhi to view the Jama Masjid mosque, the largest in Delhi, inaugurated in 1656 by Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Majal. We were not able to go in because it was Friday and people were arriving for services. Instead, our van dropped us off and we climbed into rickshaws for a wild but fascinating ride through the everyday traffic around the perimeter of the mosque and through the Chandni Chowk bazaar and neighborhood. The Muslim call to prayer began just after our rickshaw set off, and with the horns honking as we wove between trucks, tuktuks, and cars, we got an exciting but brief authentic Indian experience (the rickshaws are used by everyone; they’re not just for tourists).

The rickshaws have to compete for space with cars, tuktuks, motor scooters, cars and trucks but are able to easily weave through the traffic. Shops along the road sold just about anything you could think of.

I should point out now that the traffic we encountered today throughout Delhi was just plain awful. At times it felt like we were getting a tour of Delhi traffic jams more than anything else, and yet our long waits and the van’s inching along were also authentic Indian experiences – no one else was going any faster.

Walking through the Maidens Hotel was like being transported back to the time of the British Raj.
The original bar from when the hotel was built. They have updated things enough to allow a flat screen TV so customers can watch cricket matches.

Our lunch today was at the elegant Maidens Hotel, built in 1902 by J. Maiden, during the height of the British Raj. In the early 20th century it was considered the premier hotel in Delhi, and stepping into the hotel today was like stepping back in history. I was thrilled to finally find samosas on the menu and enjoyed those along with some lamb rogan josh (lamb curry) and garlic naan bread.

We were given a short demonstration on how Kashmir rugs are created and woven. The art is being lost as fewer and fewer young people choose to take up the long process of making the rugs.
A few of the beautiful Kashmir rugs we were shown today.

The final stop of the day was an artist’s atelier showcasing handmade Kashmir wool and silk rugs, jewelry, and other Kashmir textiles. We were served Kashmir tea (delicious!) and cookies and then given a demonstration on how the rugs were made. Next we were shown many different styles and sizes of rugs, each one unique and a work of art. Except for the fact that we are currently homeless, Brett and I saw one rug that we would have eagerly snapped up (free shipping to the U.S. was included in the price), but our travel partners did purchase an exceptionally beautiful rug for their home. I didn’t leave empty-handed though: Brett bought me a lovely pashmina shawl from the textile gallery and I’m very, very happy with that!

A last sunset in Delhi.

We were also supposed to visit Humayan’s tomb today, but the traffic really messed with the schedule, so we will go there first thing in the morning before setting off for Agra. We’ve had a wonderful time in Delhi, and will miss our fabulous hotel, but can’t see what awaits us next!

Delhi: Day 1

Delhi shopping areas were always bustling and full of people. The signs say ‘no parking,’ but cars were sometimes parked three deep!

Our visit yesterday afternoon to the Gandhi Smriti was, as our guide Luke explained, a “garnish,” not part of the official tour. That started today, and what a day it was!

Besides our guide, we now also have an assigned driver, Raj. He and Luke met us this morning at 9:30 a.m. and off we went.

Traffic rules and signs in Delhi appear to be more like suggestions than anything else (‘halting’ in American English is ‘waiting’).

Let me just say now that Delhi traffic is everything you imagine it would be: congested and crazy, and we weren’t even out during the rush hour! Horns honking, buses, cars, motorcycles, scooters, and tuktuks going every which way, merging from every direction . . . it was nuts. And, to keep things really interesting, from time to time people actually stepped out into it to cross the street, weaving their way between the moving cars. Raj turned out to be a master driver though and got our minivan to each of our destinations without any mishaps.

The breathtaking Qutb Minaret

Our first stop of the day was the Qutb Complex, site of the Qutb Minar, a giant minaret. Originally built as a Hindu and Jain temple in the 4th century, it became a Muslim temple when the Mughals ruled India in the 14th century. The Mughals defaced the old Hindu and Jain temples and took them over, adding their own embellishments and carvings. The minaret, nearly 240 feet tall and consisting of five stories, was begun in the 14th century. Also located in the site is the Iron Pillar of Delhi. Cast of solid iron, the 1500 year-old pillar has never rusted, with the reason remaining a mystery.  The entire complex was fascinating, especially the detailed carvings on walls and columns.

The Mughals reused columns from the Hindu temple when they built their mosque. Each one of the columns has a unique carved design.
The Iron Pillar of Delhi has sat outside for over 1500 years and has never rusted.
Beautiful Arabic calligraphy carvings adorn many of the structures in the Qutb complex.
The Canopy can be seen through the arch of the India Gate.

After we left we headed over to the India Gate, built as a World War I memorial for British and Indian soldiers. Designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens, who designed the main government buildings in Delhi, construction of the India arch began in 1921 and was dedicated 10 years later. Located behind the arch is The Canopy, built as a tribute to King George V following his death.

The holy water pool at the Sikh temple
10,000 people are fed for no charge at the Sikh temple every day

Our third stop of the day was my favorite, the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib Sikh temple. This could have been a simple visit to a religious site, and while we did tour the main sanctuary and the grounds, our guide also took us through the huge temple kitchen area to see volunteers preparing free meals for over 10,000 visitors! Temple volunteers do this every day, 365 days a year. All the food is donated, all the work is done by temple volunteers. The people who come to eat come from all walks of life, socio-economic levels and nations – to eat at the temple is a blessing; to work and serve the food is also a blessing (many people also donate money on special occasions or anniversaries to help purchase food for the meals). It was an extremely moving experience to see so many people working and dining together.

This group of men are making thousands of chapati, Indian flatbread
The kitchen’s enormous copper cooking kettles
Volunteers washing and cutting eggplants to be cooked for the day’s meal.

After we left the temple we had a lovely buffet lunch together at a hotel. The selection of food was amazing and it was all good. Well, that is until I bit into a hot chili pepper thinking it was a green bean. YOWZA! It took quite a while for my mouth to stop burning – I’ve never eaten anything that hot in my life.

A 4th century stone carving of a young Prince Gautama Siddartha, who later became the Buddha.
A large wooden carving of Garuda, the god Vishnu’s mount.
An early 19th century Tanjore painting of the young Vishnu. The 3-D effect was created using gilded silver and gold, and the painting is filled with semi- and precious stones. For example, the border under Vishnu is created from gold and rubies.

Our last stop of the day was the Indian National Museum. The number of displays was staggering, but I especially enjoyed the Indian miniature paintings and the later Tanjore paintings, embellished with silver, gold and precious and semi-precious gems. It was something to examine a painting and realize that those glittery things were not just shiny paint but actually rubies or other precious stones!

Luke snuck in a selfie when we were at the Qutb Minat!

Tomorrow is another big day of touring. Our guide, Luke, is quite special – he always wants to make sure we see the “real” India and not just the famous sites, hence our tour today of the temple kitchen. He told us today he has another surprise stop arranged for us tomorrow. We learned today that besides leading tours, Luke is also a lawyer and owns and runs a large farm outside of Delhi. The tours, he said though, are his “bread and butter.”

The Ghandi Smriti

The lobby of the Taj Diplomatic Enclave hotel.

We moved over to the Taj Diplomatic Enclave hotel early yesterday afternoon, our “home” in Delhi for the next three days. Check in was a little hectic as a huge international conference was taking place, and the lobby was filled with high-ranking military officers from all over the world (which was the reason we were at the Maurya last night – all rooms were booked at the Taj). The Taj is as elegant as the Maurya, maybe more so, and we were greeted personally by the manager, and after being shown to our room a waiter showed up with fresh coffee and cookies to help us get settled.

Our room at the Taj – pure luxury!
Amy and Phil, tour partners for the next week.

A little while later we met the other couple on our tour, Amy and Phil (from California) and hit it right off with them – they are going to be great travel partners! They will be continuing on with Easy Tours after Jaipur to visit another two cities, including Mumbai, before leaving India. We also met our tour guide, Luke, who has been with Easy Tours for 14 years. He suggested that since we had a free afternoon we go out to lunch and then visit the Gandhi Smriti (memorial) where Gandhi spent his last days and where he was assassinated and died.

Tandoori chicken at Lutyen’s, served with mint chutney. I have yet to meet a chutney I don’t love.

We headed over for lunch to Lutyen’s restaurant, home of the best tandoori chicken in Delhi, and named after the architect who designed all the government buildings in 1912, during the height of the British Raj. On the way to the restaurat we passed by many embassies (including the U.S. embassy) and other famous government buildings, and also caught a glimpse of the Delhi Gate, where British royalty and viceroys were feted (and which we will visit today). Along with the very delicious tandoori chicken we also enjoyed fresh garlic naan, rice and dal (lentils), a fabulous and filling lunch!

Gandhi’s room at Birla House, where he lived for the last 144 days of his life. He was a true minimalist. The room was left as it was when he died.
The display case holds the extent of Gandhi’s personal possessions: glasses, watch, walking stick and eating utensils.

Gandhi spent the last 144 days of his life at Birla House, living simply and minimally in one room. On January 30, 1948, at around 5:00 p.m. in the evening, he walked through the double doors of the house with his nieces and down the path to the Birla Gardens for his evening prayer meeting. Shortly after stepping into the garden he was greeted by a Hindu terrorist, Godse, who then shot Gandhi three times at close range. Gandhi’s last words were “oh God” and he died instantly.

Gandhi left Birla House for the last time through the open doors.
The simple footsteps mark his last walk to the garden.
The memorial in the garden marks the spot where Gandhi was shot and died. It is often carpeted with flowers.

The memorial was very simple and very moving. The doors that Gandhi walked through are left open as they were the day he died. Footsteps mark his last walk down the path, and a memorial stone marks where he died. The room he lived in has been left as it was that day, and his few possessions are collected in a display case in the room. There are also displays in the house and outside highlighting Gandhi’s work for Indian independence and for non-violence and peace.

A small section of the Taj hotel’s breakfast buffet – choices included Indian, Western and Chinese main courses made to order, as well as a huge selection of fabulous pastries, cereals, juices and other delights.

Today our official tour begins with visits to several sites around the city, including the India Gate and Viceroy’s palace, a Sikh temple, and Gandhi’s cremation site. We started our day off though with a sumptuous breakfast at the buffet provided by the hotel where there was almost too much to choose from.

The short tour yesterday along with lunch was a wonderful introduction to Delhi and a great way for us to become acquainted with our travel partners and our guide. Besides viewing the famous sites today, we’re also looking forward to seeing more of the city as we drive through it, and learning more about Delhi’s history from Luke.

Our Passage To India

Morning in Delhi, from the rooftop of the Maurya hotel. We move over to the Taj Diplomatic Enclave, the large building on the far right, later this morning.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step – Lao Tzu

In our case, the journey of 7,161 miles began with two big suitcases, two stuffed backpacks, and a resignation that getting to our destination was going to involve over 36 hours of sitting for long stretches on crowded planes and in airports.

Actually, our trip over to Delhi from Portland, although long, turned out to be nowhere near as miserable as our flight from Montevideo to Paris was. That trip was truly awful; this journey was merely long.

We flew from Portland to Vancouver, B.C. on Alaska Air, with a short layover in Seattle. Both flights, although bumpy because of the weather, were quick and easy. Once we got to Vancouver though we began our long layover with a long walk from our gate to Immigration followed by a long wait in line there as there were only three immigration officials handling incoming passengers from two flights. Thankfully once we got up to the official we were whisked through in moments. We got our suitcases at baggage claim and headed up to check our bags through to Delhi (another l-o-n-g walk) only to discover the China Airlines’ station didn’t open for another three hours. There was nowhere to wait except for the food court, so that’s where we sat, along with several others who were also waiting to check in for their flights.

One thing we learned that evening was that Indians apparently know when and how to make a queue. China Airlines opened check-in for our flight at 9:00 p.m. but when I strolled by the station at 8:40 I discovered there was already a long line snaking through the airport with people ready to check in and check their baggage (we could not check in online because we had to physically show our Indian visa). Brett and I quickly got ourselves in line, a good thing because the people ahead of us had a LOT of luggage to check and the process took a while. A family of three or four seemed to be traveling with six to seven large suitcases, which we assumed were filled with not only clothing but gifts for family in India. We noticed one family who began checking bags when the stations opened that was still checking bags when we got to the head of the line 45 minutes later, and was still going after we finished – I don’t even want to think about what their additional baggage fees were. The whole making-a-queue process started again about 20 minutes before it was time to board each of our flights – it was interesting to observe both the process and that people did not attempt to jump the line, nor did anyone push or shove. Everyone just got in line early, ready to go.

We had not been able to reserve seats for the first leg of our journey, Vancouver to Taipei, and discovered at check-in that we had been assigned seats at the very back of the plane – ugh. We asked if any upgrades were available, but although premium economy was sold out and first class was way out of our price range, we were moved to exit row seats at no extra charge! It was lovely having all that leg room on the long flight, and I slept for nearly seven hours, a new record for me. Brett didn’t get as much sleep because the man seated next to him was quite big (tall) and his arms kept bumping Brett all night.

The transition in Taipei was fairly easy (lots of walking again, and of course yet another security check). No upgrades this time, but our seats were OK and the flight offered a wonderful selection of movies which helped make the time pass quickly. Before we knew it we were landing in Delhi. Immigration was again a snap thanks to our eVisas, but the wait for our luggage was something else, long enough that I was beginning to worry before our bags finally showed up. Brett and I calculated though that there were probably well over 500 pieces of luggage coming off of our flight, with ours merely two small blips in sea of hundreds of suitcases.

We were presented with a personal silk-covered folder which contained all of our tour information.
A portion of the lobby in the luxurious Maurya Hotel.

We were met by our tour company at the airport and whisked to our hotel for the night, the Maurya (we move however to the Taj Diplomatic Enclave tonight). We were surprised by the extent of the security required to enter the hotel, but after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, Indian hotels do not take any chances these days. Once in the hotel we were presented with a beautiful silk folder that contained information about our tour, our personal itinerary, and all other information we might need as well as a beautiful journal to keep during our tour. As we went over everything with the tour company representative it very quickly became apparent that we are going to be well taken care of while we are here.

The Maurya’s rooftop restaurant
I chose masala dosa for breakfast: thin rice pancakes with a spicy potato filling served with coconut and tomato chutneys. Delicious!

Brett and I showered and were in bed by 6:30 pm last night and slept for nearly 12 hours. Breakfast was included in the price of our room, with our choice of two restaurants. This morning we headed for the buffet in the rooftop restaurant, where I had a traditional Indian breakfast while Brett stuck to pancakes and sausages.

Looking out from the restaurant at an abandoned forest in Delhi – it is filled with monkeys and other wildlife. What looks like smog is mostly what’s left of an overnight fog.

Lunch and dinner today will be over at the equally luxurious Taj Diplomatic Enclave hotel, and then our tour begins tomorrow. There were originally eight people booked for our group, but two families had to cancel at the last moment (one family couldn’t get visas for some reason, and the other family had a major medical issue arise) so it will just be us and another couple – almost a personal tour.

I am still pinching myself that we’re here – the long journey was worth it. India has been my dream destination since I was young, and we finally made it!

Sunday Morning 1/6/2019 On the Road Again

The suitcases look stuffed, but still weigh less than 44 pounds! No discount flights for a while though so we’re in good shape.

Our suitcases are packed, the house is clean, and in a very short while WenYu, YaYu, Brett and I will be heading out the door of our Portland Airbnb. Meiling returned to Eugene yesterday afternoon, but this morning we’ll take YaYu over to her friend’s house, and then the remaining three of us will head to the airport to drop off the rental car and check in for our flights. WenYu departs about 45 minutes ahead of us, on a non-stop back to Boston. We’re both flying the same airline though, so we’ll be able to hang out with WenYu until she boards.

We have had a wonderful month in Portland even though we arrived with bad colds and dental issues, almost everyone picked up a stomach bug for a while, and the weather was hard to take at times. We enjoyed extended quality time with the girls, had a marvelous Christmas, ate lots of tasty food, and reconnected with friends. Brett and I are already looking forward to being back here during the summer. We’re not sure if anyone will be joining us although WenYu said she will come to Portland if she can’t find work in Boston. YaYu is talking about spending the summer back on Kaua’i as she can make so much more money there. She would stay with a friend, and have to find a job there, so we’ll see if she can get it all worked out.

As always before any travel day, I have butterflies in my stomach from both anticipation and nerves. I’m so excited about visiting India, a long-time dream for me, but also worried again about the very long flight over, jet lag, and all the luggage wrangling (or our luggage getting lost). And, I dread saying goodbye to the YaYu and WenYu.

I wrote some of this yesterday, but this morning I am:

  • Reading: I finished Ian Rankin’s House of Lies on Friday and I’ve picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered again. I started it when we were in Florence, but set it aside when I couldn’t concentrate.
  • Listening to: Everyone is sort of moving around quietly this morning, eating breakfast or tucking last-minute items into their suitcases. There were some very strong winds (sounded like a freight train roaring past at times) and heavy rain last night but it’s very quiet outside this morning (although still gloomy).
  • Watching: I watched several episodes of “Weeds” with YaYu this past week, and also watched most of the episodes from the new Marie Kondo show on Netflix about tidying. Other than being a bit younger than I thought, she is just how I imagined she would be – delightful! I especially love it when she hugs Americans because hugging is definitely something not done in Japan! She throws herself into it though.
  • Cooking/baking: I baked up the last of some frozen almond and chocolate croissants we bought at Trader Joe’s for our breakfast this morning, but obviously no other cooking or baking will be happening today. It will be two weeks before I step into a kitchen again.

    Gifts for our Airbnb hosts – everything is lightweight and easy to pack
  • Happy I accomplished this past week: Brett and I went to Made in Oregon at the mall and bought small gifts for our upcoming Airbnb hosts: each will receive a Portland tea towel, small jar of Oregon-made jam, and a small package of roasted hazelnuts. The store also sold small reusable tote bags for less than any paper gift bag we could have found (49¢ each) so that’s what the gifts will go into. Getting packed again was a big accomplishment after a month of pretty much not looking at or thinking about our suitcases. Both Brett and I took some things out of them this past month, but we each got a new piece of clothing for Christmas and I also bought three new (lightweight but warm) tops the other day at J. Jill so had to make room for those. We still have a lot of cold/cool weather still to come in India and when we get to Japan.
  • Looking forward to next week: Being in India! By this time next week, if all goes well, we will have toured Delhi, seen the Taj Mahal at both sunset and sunrise, and will be in Jaipur. I am also very much looking forward to eating Indian food. I am not looking forward to the long flight over to India – we’ll be spending nearly 20 hours in the air (two flights), the longest stretch of flying in the entire adventure.
  • Thinking of good things that happened: We had a great birthday celebration with the girls on Friday evening. We went out for pizza then came back to the house for cake and presents – we gave each of the girls some more cash (their favorite present these days). I also had wonderful reunions and catch-ups with three long-time friends this past week – I’m was so happy we were able to get together.

    There is nothing better than getting together with old friends to catch-up! Joan (upper photo) and I have known each other for 25 years; Elaine (lower left) for 14 years: and Sylvia for 16. Sylvia will arrive in Hong Kong the day after we do, and we’ve already planned a meet-up there! I also got together for coffee with friends Judy (16 years) and Pat (18 years) earlier in our stay, but forgot to take photos!
  • Thinking of frugal things we did: We sent lots of leftover food back to Eugene with Meiling and ate the rest so nothing was thrown away. There was nothing left to eat this morning except for the croissants. I got everyone else’s miles transferred over to my Hawaiian miles account, and now have enough to at least get YaYu over to Kaua’i if she decides that’s what she wants to do this summer. I shopped the sale rack at J. Jill and received an additional 40% off the marked down sale prices on the tops I bought. The price for all three ended up being just slightly over the starting price for one of them (my motto with J. Jill is never, ever pay full price for anything – everything eventually goes on sale).
  • Grateful for: I am so thankful for the time we have had with our daughters this past month. I’ve loved cooking, eating, shopping, and playing games with them, and also seeing them reconnect with their Portland friends. Best of all has been hearing them interact with each other every day – it’s been like listening in on a super fun slumber party. Brett and I have also appreciated their thoughts and input about what and where we should settle after we’ve finished traveling later this year.

    Black cards are fill-in-the-blank, and white cards are answers submitted by players in Cards Against Humanity. The goal is either to either have the sentence make sense or make it as silly as possible. This pair is actually quite tame compared to some of the options!
  • Bonus question: Do you like to play board games? The girls love them but I don’t care for games all that much. Other than Scrabble, Yahtzee, and a couple of others I’m not much of a game player because I can get too competitive. However, Meiling brought her set of Cards Against Humanity (“a party game for horrible people”) from Eugene this past week and we all played on New Year’s Eve. Oh. My. Goodness. It is a very risqué and un-PC game, and nothing I ever thought we could do with our daughters, but we all had so much fun and practically laughed our heads off the entire time (we tended to go with silly answers). In fact, we were having such a good time that we didn’t even notice when midnight rolled around and the new year started! Brett and I plan to buy our own set of cards when we get back to Portland next summer and then figure out who won’t be offended when we ask them to play (which would be pretty much all of our friends).

I hope everyone had a very good start to the new year, and had a good week. I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to write again – we are arriving in Delhi a day ahead of our tour in hopes of getting a head start on combatting jet lag, and the tour will be keeping us busy every day after that. We are ready though!