Goa & Hampi

Nick and I spent 4 days and 3 nights in Goa. Our guidebook described the beaches we visited; Palolem, Agonda and Patnem as hippie backpacker chill outs with cheap bungalows, drugs, and silent (headphone) dance parties. That is the definition of what Nick and I try to avoid, however everyone talks about Goa and we figured we should go.

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Agonda, Goa

We arrived in April and to our pleasant surprise it was dead. Visiting during off-season we enjoyed abandoned towns, quiet beaches and spending time doing absolutely nothing. We hadn’t realized it had been months since we just stopped and relaxed, and it was needed. We met up with our friends form Angola and spent our time eating mediocre tourist food, playing Uno, setting off fireworks, swimming in the ocean and just hanging out.

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After taking a sleeper bus to Hampi it reaffirmed our love for India’s rail transit. In the 2 months we’ve spent in India we will have spent 6 overnights on trains. The system is cheap (subsidized), efficient, and comfortable. We’ve met so many wonderful people on the trains and at the stations. Nick and I have a blast arriving to a city and figuring out the train, tuktuk, Uber, plane and bus systems.

Visiting India during the off-season has been wonderful, however the heat was hard. It’s been on average 105-110 degrees and we haven’t had ac in 3 weeks. We wake up in the middle of night sweating; try taking a cold shower, only to find that the water is turned off. It feels like my clothes are consistently damp, however the perks of the off-season outweigh the heat by a hundred fold.

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Hampi

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We spent time in Hampi exploring the ancient ruins dating from the 11th – 13th century. In the 16th century, this now World Heritage Site was once a thriving capital home to 500,000 individuals. My favorite artifact was a large granite Ganesh, while nick liked the elephant stables in the Zenana Enclosure. We saw many young females with shaved heads and learned that it’s common when traveling to Hampi to offer your hair to the temples. The town was quant, empty, meatless and alcohols free. Every morning locals painted the street in front of their home with cow feces and water to welcome guests. We were told that Hindus believe cows resemble their mothers as their provide nourishment to their fields, thus cow fertilizer is sacred.

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Stone Chariot

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Elephant Stables
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“Take my family’s photo.”

 

The ruins were thought provoking but what I thought made Hampi magical was its landscape. A sea of round granite boulders with beautiful cracks engulfed yellow planes with palm trees. It resembled a scene from Jurassic park. Nick and I spent 2 days bouldering, as it is world famous for its problems. However, since we seem to have lost most of our climbing strength and the blistering sun made it difficult, we didn’t spend too much time on the rocks. It is obvious why travelers (climbers specifically) could spend months in Hampi.

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Bouldering in Hampi
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Crashing on crash pads

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We met our friends from Angola again and it had been nice seeing familiar faces throughout India. We rented bicycles and were told to bike 3 km along the river to spend the afternoon swimming in waterfalls. Needless to say, the next few hours we wandered around banana plantations, got lost in the desert, cooled off in a lagoon (thankfully no crocodiles were spotted) and we reached the falls only to find rocks. It seemed like the bike rental shop and all of the locals along the way forgot to mention the water dries up during the spring. After flipping over the handlebars of my bike and scrapping up my hands we ended the evening with some Uno before taking a sleeper train to Bangaluru.

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Goan Eats:

The Cafe – set veg breakfast, amazing.

New world – expensive organic/veg restaurant, we enjoyed a delectable paneer steak

Little world – cheap tourist food

Feni (cashew liquor) – try the local cashew nuts, cachew fruit or alcohol made from the fruit

Hospet (Hosapete) Eats:

Udupi Sri Krishna Bhavan (across from the bus stand) – impeccable. The set dosa cost 45 R (70 cents) or try some idlis (spongy round fermented rice cake) and vada (fried dough) for breakfast.

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Breakfast Idly and Vada
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Breakfast Puri
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Half eaten set dosa with coriander coconut chutney

Hampi Eats:

Mango Tree – the special thali is huge (130 R)

Laughing Buddha – great hangout overlooking the river

Camel Trek

From Pushkar, Nick and I took a bus to Ajmer, a train to Phulera, and another train to Jaisalmer. Although 18 hours of transit and feeling ill we made the best of our situation and made a friend at 2 am in the station. As we approached our destination, we peered from the window of the train and watched as a massive fort emerge from the sand. It resembled a life-sized sand castle sitting in the middle of the desert, overlooking a gold city below. The inside of the fort was extravagant, however different from the many other forts we’ve visited in Rajasthan. Built in 1156, it holds 3,000 residents and resembled more of an ancient city with crumbling infrastructure than a well preserved historic site.

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Jaisalmer Fort
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The Gold City
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Homes inside of the fort

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Outside of the fort, Nick and I enjoyed good views and, of course, impeccable food. The streets were more quant in Jaisalmer, however as always, honking motorbikes and cows eating trash roamed the lanes. The desert heat was extreme as temperatures reached 110 F and observing nomadic life in the desert was unfathomable.

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Haveli

The next morning, Nick and I began our camel trek. You may be thinking, a little hypocritical, I often write in my posts to do research before riding elephants. Nick and I have looked into riding camels and with Sahara Travels in Jaisalmer the camels are very well cared for.

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Goat escape in a desert village
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Our guide, Napu, Nick, and I rode our camels in a line for a few hours and visited a desert village. The camels had 1 hump and were taller and more slender than the camels we rode in Mongolia. However, this made sense due to their environment. When the sun became too strong, we relaxed under a tree, what seemed like the only shade for miles. A nearby goat herder joined us, and he and our guide must have had a deal as he gave us fresh milk for chai and in exchange we all drank tea and ate lunch together. Providing fresh milk for our tea entailed taking my empty water bottle, squirting milk into it from 3 goats utters and pouring it into our chai.

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Goat herder, providing us fresh milk for chai

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Over lunch, Nick and I had some touching conversations with our guide. As I was reading, Untouchable, I had many questions about India’s caste system, Hinduism, and woman’s role in society. Napu told us that in the villages, the caste system is still very much alive. It determines your job, friends and who you’ll be arranged to marry. Speaking in perfect English, we were shocked to learn that he never attended school. He could not read or write and this seemed to trouble him. Some of the other boys in his village were able to get an education (none of the females) but he began guiding camel trips at the early age of 14 (he is now 20). He had never left Jaisalmer and said that sometimes when he sleeps, he prays that he wasn’t born in India. We asked him why and he said, “Because Indians follow and change isn’t happening quick enough.” He heard that in China, years ago, they had a similar caste system and arranged marriages and that gave him hope because if a China had changed, India too could change. Nick and I often find individuals that work in tourism have it tough as they idealize Western culture, however are stuck in the confinements of their own.

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After lunch and some deep discussions, Napu let us “drive” our own camels, although they knew exactly where they were going. We spent the next few hours riding along and enjoying the sandy landscape. A dog that had been following us the entire trek was running ahead of us, laying in shade, then catching back up to us. We were told he was a “wild” dog but had recently began following treks. As we passed through a village, 3 dogs attacked the dog following us and had him pinned to the ground. They were going to kill him. When he finally got away there was blood all over his neck and head. Again, they tried to attack but Napu chased them away on his camel (this was a sight!) The dog was persistent and followed us in the heat and hot sand to the dunes where we camped for the evening. When I tried to give the dog water he was extremely uncomfortable, as he had probably zero positive human interaction. However, he soon let me poor water into his mouth.

That evening, we enjoyed sleeping under the full moon on the sand dunes among the dung beetles and mosquitos. We were only 55 miles from Pakistan but all we could see was desert. I woke up several times just to take in the view, and unconsciously check on the dog. The dog got attached again as he obviously was in another dog’s territory. After that, he slept next to Nick and I. I was so concerned for this dog that it seemed silly. Sure, have compassion for all sentient beings and if you can prevent a death, obviously do so. However, I don’t think I was as fixated on this particular dog, rather what the dog represented.

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Sleeping beauty

I felt as if this dog represented all of the street kids in India. I have the ability to give some food and water, enough to survive for x amount of time, however by doing so I habituating a behavior. I am ultimately making the matter worse only to feel like I’ve helped. There are so many people that need help, support and compassion and I don’t have enough for everyone. I felt conflicted. The next morning, I gave the dog a little more water and he patiently waited our group to pack up before eating the scraps we left behind. He had enough energy to hunt a small desert antelope, however was unsuccessful. We rode the camels for a few hours back to Napu’s village where we said goodbye to our guide and the dog.

Nick and I would have loved to do a longer trek, however since we had to buy our train tickets in advance (as they fill up quickly) we were on a constant schedule. India is a large diverse country and 2 months is not nearly enough time to explore it.

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Local Recommendations:

Chandan Shree Restaurant – serves spicy Rajasthani, Punjabi, South Indian, Gujarati and Bengali dishes.

Hotel Fort View – cheap and clean rooms (250 R) with friendly staff and zero pressure to book a camel trek.

Sahara Tours – great camel treks, cheaper than other companies in town, ask for Napu.

Try breakfast from a street cart across from Sahara Tours. It’s similar to a large papadam covered in curry with fresh red onion.

Bhang Shop – This government authorized shop sells a variety of bhang lassis, juices, cookies and candies. It also appeared on Anthony Boudain’s tv show and there are photos plastered on the walls to prove it.

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Touring the Gobi

There are a variety of ways to explore Mongolia, therefore Nick and I have decided to do a combination. We started with a structured tour through our hostel exploring southern, central and northern Mongolia, then will trek with a non-English speaking Khazak guide through the west, and last, camp and navigate the central on our own. We began with a 16 day tour as this made economical sense and was much easier! We did not have worry about driving 10 hours a day on barely existing dirt roads, getting lost or vehicle malfunctions.

We left Ulaan Batar and headed toward the middle Gobi. Within minutes of leaving the city we got a glimpse of the true Mongolia. We saw thousands of “free range” camels, horses, goats and sheep wandering around and sleeping on the dirt path of a road. We had no idea that this would become a daily norm. We stopped for traditional handmade noodles a family restaurant (all restaurants are family restaurants it appears) then headed to the white stupa.

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The white stupa (Tsagaan Suvarga) are white limestone rock formations approximately 30 m tall. This is a spiritual area for locals and reminded Nick and I of the Utah desert. Although a “tourist stop” we quickly learned that the meaning of this is the opposite of that in China. While at the white stupa we saw 2 other individuals and no one else hours prior to or after leaving the area.

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After, we arrived at a family ger where we had salted camel milk tea and fermented camel milk. Little did we know that throughout our trip we’d be consuming mostly camel, yak, horse, goat, and cow dairy products. We spent the evening watching the moon rise and listening to baby camels cry for their moms’ to return from the pastures.

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On the second day, we ate breakfast while listening to the goats fart, then headed to the south gobi. We hiked in Yol Valley, a protected area since 1965. This beautiful gorge is one of the few places you can see ibex in the wild. There is a small museum at the entrance where there is some interesting if not well done taxidermy of Snow Leopards, Gazelle, Ibex, Eagles and Lynx. This is the first place where we saw westerners traveling on their own via motorcycle. We walked to our ger camp and then explored the surrounding mountains. This was such a peaceful evening in the foothills of the middle beauty overlooking the emptiness of the desert. We ended the night drinking vodka with our wonderful driver Nasa (when you can’t communicate, drink).

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The following day we left mid morning for the sand dunes of the Gobi. The “roads” to Khongor Eels (Khongor Sand Dunes) are quite bumpy and anyone with back issues should beware! Legend says that a queen was exiled to the mountains where she was given a huge rock mirror, then a warrior named Khongor (pronounced Hunger) rescued her, she shattered the mirror creating the sand dunes. After a 30 minute hike we reached the top for sunset, however unfortunately it was rainy and cloudy (although the locals say rain is good luck).  We returned the next morning for sunrise and slightly nicer weather and the view at the top was breathtaking. We ran along the untouched ridge and could hear the static electricity from the sand sliding, making the sound of a plane mid flight. The view of the sun breaking through the clouds and the perfectly sculpted dunes will stay with me forever.

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The family we stayed with while next to the dunes were extremely welcoming. Upon arrival we were greeted with snuff tobacco, salted camel milk tea, cheese curd and tobacco (to hand roll cigarettes). Their ger was decorated with photos of family, the Dalai Lama, and Naadam Festival. We met the family cat and learned how to make hand made noodles. While stretching behind our ger, a little girl named Bouyna came over to join me. Although we couldn’t communicate we had a blast and spent several hours together. It’s funny how easy it is to connect with children, there are no unspoken barriers that need to be broken. While I played with Bouyna, Nick played volleyball and Mongolian wrestled her two older brothers.  The family took us on a camel ride which was a new experience, but definitely made us feel like tourists.

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The next morning (as mentioned above) we returned to the dunes for a beautiful sunrise and then drove toward the flaming cliffs. On the way we stopped in a small village for lunch, although in the states this town would seem abandoned, it was alive and well. We checked out the local school and (Nick) enjoyed steamed and fried Mongolian dumplings. The flaming cliffs are one of the largest tourist attractions and we encountered a total of about 10 other tourists. The flaming cliffs are known for the  world’s first discovery of dinosaur eggs in the early 1920s. Over 100 dinosaur skeletons were unearthed from this location. We stayed at a family ger nearby and watched camels drink from the watering hole, modern herders use their motorcycle to move camels to the pasture and we checked out the local Gobi trees. That night we gazed at the Milky Way while listening to the guard dogs bark all night.

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Although we did not spend time with this family, the man of the ger camp showed us how he distilled goat milk to make alcohol. It is a home made distillery that distills any fermented milk. After tasting some milk alcohol, we left camp and hit the windy dirt road. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful river (although looking back, semi-polluted) to swim, bath and wash clothes. Our driver cooked us tradition Mongolian barbecue which consisted of heating rocks in a fire then placing them in a pot of onions, potatoes, carrots, water, goat meat, salt, and pepper. The pot begins to boil and you place it over the fire or burner for another hour. This was a delicious meal and enjoyed in the openness of Mongolia’s plains.

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Next, we headed to the Ongi Khiid Monestary which was destroyed in the 30’s by the communists. Only the foundations of a once elaborate Buddhist complex remains. After a short drive, we arrived to the family ger, where Nick promptly lost 2 games of “the finger game” and had to drink two full bowls of fermented mares’ milk. We were called outside and Nick helped herd the goats, then we both helped with the milking. What a cool freakin’ experience! Although we only collected a bucket of milk each, while the family woman collected 5, we were covered in goat milk and smiles. We enjoyed a red sunset with a view of horses that seemed to last forever. There are few places in the world where in every direction you look, you have an unobstructed view of the horizon.

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