The Asian Circle

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KHTravels are working with The Asian Circle on a mission to support vulnerable women in India and South Asia. We are honoured to be assisting with their social media campaign raising awareness of the fantastic work that they carry out daily. Please help spread the word and follow them on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram!

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The Asian Circle is working together with Oxfam in the tribal Adivasi communities in North East India to challenge the social acceptance of sexual and domestic violence against women. Oxfam is helping the government, police and judiciary to apply the laws that protect women. This includes setting up support centres in police stations to provide shelter, legal advice, counselling and launching a state-wide campaign to raise awareness of and change attitudes towards violence against women.

Around the world, 35% of women and girls suffer physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a day dedicated to raise public awareness about this and other appalling statistics and that is what we’re doing!

The Asian Circle Summer Party 

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By popular demand, The Asian Circle are holding their 2nd Summer Party. They are delighted to be hosting the multiple award-winning Comedian and Columnist Shazia Mirza and other guest speakers. We would like to invite our fellow travellers, volunteers and friends to come and enjoy a fun-packed evening including a complimentary drink, canapes, prizes, guest speakers and an opportunity for you to network with some fantastic ladies. ‘The Asian Circle’s Summer Party’ is being held at the Bangalore Express. A special 20% discount has been arranged allowing you to enjoy the Asian culinary delights of Yogesh Datta the UK’s top Indian chef at a great price.

If you are interested in attending the party please get in touch for ticket details.

All ticket donations will go towards the Asian Circle current project supporting vulnerable women in South Asia.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

Luxury at its very finest in India. It was our second time in Mumbai, and although we had visited before, this time we were lucky enough to spend two nights at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

On arrival we were greeted with the warmest smiles, and of course we couldn’t possibly lift a finger! Our two backpacks, two suitcases and hand luggage were all swept away from us as we were guided into reception where we were seated and didn’t even need to check ourselves in! Welcomed with a lavender necklace, lychee juice, and a good luck ritual, our passports were collected and that was all that needed to be done! The best check-in we have ever experienced.

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We had the cheapest room in the hotel yet it was still beautiful with a bouquet of roses, heart shaped balloons and a chocolate cake waiting for us on arrival. It was very traditional but with all the mod cons you needed and would expect. We loved having enough space to be able to unpack comfortably, and walk around the room … or in our case, dance! The bathroom was super luxurious and bathing was pure heaven having not had one for so long! Would you believe there’s an option to order a custom made bath with chosen oils and scents by the Taj Hotel with the price ranging from 1200 – 5500 ruppees! This was just a little over the top for us and the classic shower gel under the tap worked wonders enough!

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The hotel is so grand, and whether you’re a guest there or not it is definitely worth visiting to have a little explore and grab some great photos. A little tip is that the Sea Lounge has an event every evening called sundowners where drinks are buy one get one free between 18:30 and 20:30, no reservation is necessary but it is on a first come first serve basis and you’re also given a selection of snacks free of charge which is always a bonus!

Again with the restaurants you don’t have to be a guest to dine. On our first night we ate at Masala Kraft and were given the best table in the house next to the live chefs. However the downside was that roti was the only thing they cooked there with everything else made in the kitchen. The meal was faultless and we thoroughly enjoyed the ambience this restaurant offered. We also booked a table at Souk, a middle eastern restaurant for our second night, which is perched on the top floor of the Taj tower and offers a great view of the Gateway to India … unfortunately for us this was the best bit. The service was slow, the food was average and very overpriced. We would recommend just going up for a drink instead to enjoy the view.

Breakfast was probably our best meal with an array of different tastes, smells and colours, we really didn’t know where to start. Eggs to order, smoked salmon, freshly baked cakes, croissants and of course plenty of Indian delicacies. Make sure you go down on an empty stomach and this is more than enough to see you through until dinner. One morning we were even seated privately in the champagne room, we don’t know why, but we certainly didn’t object!

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An exclusive for hotel guests only is full use of the pool facility, such a luxurious setting in the city heat, taking a dip in the cold pool couldn’t be more perfect. It was lovely to take some time out and relax, especially before heading to Our Home Community Orphanage!

We had a fantastic stay at the Taj, yes it was expensive, but it was worth every penny. However, it’s one of those once in a lifetime opportunities. We feel like we’ve seen and experienced it now, and it was amazing but we wouldn’t stay again. When you walk through the entrance it’s like you shut India out, a welcome break you may think, but we like to be in the thick of it when we’re staying in a new country. We want to feel like we’re in India, hear the traffic, the cows and get dusty feet! The Taj Palace Hotel could quite honestly have been anywhere in the world and we wouldn’t have known. Two days was the perfect amount of time for us to relax and take a break before setting off on our next Indian adventure!

Marvellous Mountains

3After an eventful time in Delhi next up were the Northern regions of India. A few weeks with cool breezes, mountain views, and peaceful evenings was exactly what we needed.

The plan was to head to Mount Abu, Shimla and finally Punjab to visit K’s family. Mount Abu is a hill station in Rajasthan, and being honest wasn’t actually on our agenda. K’s mum had always wanted to visit, so we decided to stop off for a few nights. We must admit it turned out to be fantastic, and we’re so glad we didn’t skip it! We stayed at the “Babbar Den” home in the hills which offered a great service, friendly staff, and also an awesome cave suite!

Mount Abu wasn’t short of attractions, if you’re looking for something unusual to do we would suggest the Dilwara Jain Temple. Known as one of the finest Jain temples around the world for its extraordinary architecture and marvellous marble stone carvings, this was without a doubt one of the more interesting travelling experiences we’ve had!

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On our first evening we witnessed of the most beautiful sunsets ever, sitting at the top of Aravali Hills with a perfectly clear view and not a cloud in the sky, the welcome chill gave it an enchanting feeling. As we watched the night arrive, sunset point soon filled with tourists, locals and couples, all there for the same thing. We met a young local magician who was entertaining the crowds trying to earn money for his family. We got chatting and ended up taking him for dinner and despite the obvious language barrier he was really grateful and very sweet. We bumped into him again the next day and went on a pedalo ride in the town centre lake, it was great fun and something else we would recommend whilst in Mount Abu. Unlike a most of India, it has a really peaceful feel as the sun shines down onto Nakki lake.

The shopping in Mount Abu was also great, lots of novelty souvenirs, cheap silver and good quality clothes. You also have the opportunity to dress up as a local and have a photo-shoot in the town, which we didn’t do but it did attract a lot of attention! There are plenty of restaurant choices offering traditional Rajasthan dishes or western food, and also lots of great ice cream places! With so much to do whilst you are here we recommend hiring a cheap driver for the day to make sure you don’t miss anything.

5Leaving Mount Abu we travelled to Shimla which is famous for Indian tourists as their holiday destination for the cool breeze. Located in the Himalayas it was actually very nippy, but unfortunately we didn’t get to see any snow. It’s an incredibly scenic part of India, filled with monkeys and all sorts of other wildlife. There are plenty of tourist attractions which are great for families including pony rides, different games and balloons to buy. It almost had a Brighton type feel to it, without the sea, with children running about having fun, parents relaxing and gorgeous views.

6First on our agenda was visiting the ancient Jakhoo Temple and at a height of 2,455m above sea level it offers a panoramic view of the Shivalik Ranges and the town of Sanjauli. It is a moderate climb up a footpath, just ensure you have plenty of water if it is a hot day! There are many cheeky monkeys around looking for opportunities to nab your belongings, so keep them safe, a top tip is to take your sunglasses off your head. H made this mistake and encountered a huge monkey jumping on her for them! The temple is home world’s tallest statue of Lord Hanuman, good luck fitting it all in a single photo!

A little way from  Shimla, we stopped to take a cable car ride through one of the many valleys in the mountains. This was a first for both of us, and certainly something to tick off the bucket list! We would be lying to say we wasn’t a tad scared, but we felt like we were on top of the world. We also took a guided tour of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study also known as Viceregal Lodge, a building made of beautiful architecture, it is located on stunning grounds that you can explore whilst enjoying the view of Shimla. There is a lot of history associated with the building so be prepared to take in a lot of information! The tour guides were great though and catered for whatever language you spoke which is always useful and you will also get some great photos here.

Some of our best times in India were spent in the mountains, including Munnar, taking a step away from the chaotic cities and seeing some of the natural beauty India has to offer. We highly recommend visiting Shimla and Mount Abu if you’re travelling India, and look out for our little magician by the lake!

 

Delhi Belly

2Following on from one of the most incredible experiences in Agra, Delhi was next on the list. We decided buses were no longer an option with K’s mum, once was enough! We hired a car from our hostel in Agra to Delhi where we had booked to stay at Smyle Inn, right in the centre of New Delhi and bang in the middle of Main Bazaar road. The car dropped us at the end of a tiny little alleyway and we made our way through with all of our luggage, passing outside urinals, sleeping dogs, spitting men, whilst attempting to not get run over by motorbikes. When we reached Smyle Inn it was a pleasant surprise and in fact we visited Delhi three times and opted to stay here each time. A very warm welcome, clean rooms equipped with everything you need; wifi, free breakfast, a great location (despite the alley) and most importantly, cheap! This place was perfect for us.

Delhi 3First up was a visit to the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, more for K’s mum being a traditional Sikh, but it turned out we all really enjoyed it. Upon entering we passed an elderly man with a kind face and he was completely amazed when H greeted him with “Sat sri akaal mamaji” one of those moments that will always stick out! The temple was peaceful and we were able to completely relax, dipping our feet in the holy water and people watching the locals doing the same. A delicious meal was served of dahl, chapatti and kheer to finish. We had an unexpectedly good time here, in fact, better than when we visited the Golden Temple, but we’ve not got to that yet.

Delhi 2Something on H’s bucket list was to see a Bollywood show in India, and that we did. We booked tickets to see Zangoora, the BIGGEST Bollywood stage show ever and we were not disappointed! We took the metro and surprisingly it was a good idea. Definitely worth a try and much quicker than tuk tuks if you are travelling longer distances, however we must emphasise one thing; DO NOT travel during rush hour. Imagine being on the central line in London and multiply the people by a hundred! It was unbearable. The show was located in its own little magical world at the Kingdom of Dreams, it’s what you imagine India to be like. Filled with colour, food, bhangra and more, minus all of the bad bits! We loved walking round and exploring this unexpected place. Zangoora was in Hindi but luckily K’s mum was on hand to translate when needed. It was a fabulous show that we all immensely enjoyed. We couldn’t help but be immersed into Indian culture with the music and dancing and we jumped to our feet at the end when the finale was to Jai Ho. The show finished late so we decided to get a tuctuc back to main bazaar and eat local… which was a mistake. Nothing was open and we were content to just go to bed, but K’s mum was insistent that we ate and found a back street veggie place. Now don’t get us wrong, the food was good but little did we know we were all about to encounter the dreaded Delhi Belly!

H woke up after a few hours spewing her guts up and K and his mum came down with it a few days later. Trust us when we say it was beyond awful, we ended up having to go the hospital as K just couldn’t shift it! But anyway, what’s the point in going to Delhi if you’re not going to experience chronic food poising?! All part of the experience!

K and his mum had a day out visiting Qutb Minar and the Lotus Temple which was a strangely relaxing experience (something you don’t often get in India) whilst H was unwell in bed. The striking flower shaped building which is deceptively large is a place of worship which is open to any religion. It is simply a place for prayer which holds no judgements, a rarity when it comes to religion.

1The following day we went to The India Gate war memorial, it is very similar to the Gateway to India in Mumbai but not on the edge of the sea, and as well as being a good Instagram opportunity there is a lot of history behind the famous arch.

Other places we visited whilst in Delhi were Connaught Place, great for little eateries and shopping and we also found a Nandos! Saket Mall had a fantastic Hard Rock Cafe which we couldn’t get enough of, we really lived it up in Delhi trying all of the cultural food. The Jama Masjid temple (yes another temple) was a less peaceful experience than what greeted us at the Lotus Temple. We had a bit of a bad experience here with H, being completely covered up and respectable but still treated unfairly, told to pay a fee no one else was and asked not to take photos whilst everyone was taking photos of her! Unfortunately, this ruined what was meant to be one of Delhi’s top sights, but you just learn to move on from these experiences whilst travelling, it’s all part of it. One place we didn’t get a chance to visit was Rashtrapati Bhavan the presidential residence. We’ve heard how beautiful it was and just simply didn’t get time.

DelhiAfter one long visit to Delhi, and two shorter stop overs we became really fond of it, even the little alley leading to our hotel from main bazaar road started to feel like home. We learnt where to hold our nose and close our eyes and all was fine. Main Bazaar was also great for a bargain, with lots of traditional Indian gifts, cool clothes and very cheap silver, we did lots of shopping here for family gifts as India was our last stop before returning home.

As mentioned before the main cities in India get a lot of stick, and we can understand why, Delhi is absolutely crazy. You have to completely immerse yourself otherwise you will get lost along the way. It’s absolutely filthy, poor, filled with street kids begging in the middle of traffic and people who want to rip you off. However, if you are able to let go and take things with a pinch of salt, it is incredible. We guarantee you will enjoy it and learn so much about the culture and yourself. There is nowhere else in the world that is such an assault to the senses as Delhi, and that’s what makes it so special. We felt something that is pulling us back, drawing us in, and we can’t wait to dive in head first again!

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A tale of two Taj’s

So after exploring the less obvious areas of India, we finally got round to doing the mainstream routes starting with Mumbai and Agra.

Mumbai

mumbaArriving in Mumbai we were back in another bustling city full of extreme heat, overcrowding and pollution and you know what? We absolutely loved it!

However, things did not get off to the best start as accommodation was hard to come by, especially for a backpacker! Paying almost up to £13 a bed in a hostel and £20 for a private room, Mumbai was one of India’s most expensive regions for accommodation but you did not exactly get what you paid for.

FullSizeRenderOn our first night after another long and uncomfortable journey, we were excited for a shower and a comfortable bed. The shower was decent enough (standard dripping taps and stained towels) we rolled into bed and drifted off. Before long we were tossing and turning and itching bites all over our body, we have had more than our fair share of mosquito bites in our time and were almost immune to them by now but these were different. After waking up in the middle of the night to check for gnats we turned the light on and found tens of lumps all over our bodies from bed bugs!

With no one at reception we laid the stained towels down and tried to sleep through the bites and come the morning K had a lump in his eye the size of a golf ball. We reported the issue to reception who were very apologetic and allowed us to change rooms. This was thankfully our first and last case of bed bugs from our travels and it was not an experience we wished to suffer through again!

IMG_3755Mumbai itself was a beautiful city, full of British architecture and incredible buildings, we walked from Central Station, past the Asiatic Society Library and military base and visited the ‘Prince of Wales Museum’, or to the locals Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalay (definitely worth a visit to see the stunning grounds), before eventually reaching the Gateway of India. A major tourist attraction, the gateway was crammed with people and security but it was still a fantastic place to be. The usual fluttering of senses tingled you to your core as you immersed yourself into India’s culture. You look from the street stalls, families living on the streets and animals roaming the roads and then lift your head to the great Gateway of India. Extraordinary.

A stone’s throw away is The Taj Hotel, a lavish and grand hotel which epitomises exactly what India does so right. In spite of the extreme poverty, dangers and various flaws, India enables itself to offer the very highest of standards to those willing to pay for it. K’s mother came to visit us in India and met us in Mumbai in an emotional and long awaited re-acquaintance between mother and son. We decided to go for Tea at the Taj and were not disappointed.

IMG_3758As soon as the air con hits you and the doors close, you are in an entirely different place. A world of designer brands, gold and silver service greets you in such a way that even the most luxurious of Western brands would struggle to match. The walls are lined with marble and gold as you pass through the corridors before finding the grand staircase leading to the restaurant. The Taj Hotel really is all it’s made up to be and if you ever wish to try the finer things India has to offer then this is the place to be.

Mumbai is the perfect example of the wealth contrast and how extreme the casting is from rich to poor in India, going from the Taj Hotel, to the slums of the city…

IMG_3757Normally when you see a film set in another country you’re often told they are not an accurate representation or things are exaggerated. We took a slums tour in Mumbai with the fantastic “Mystical Mumbai Tours” (A great trustworthy tour operator… hard to find in India!) and actually visited the exact locations of Slumdog Millionaire where it looked like the movie was filmed yesterday. The word slum is thrown around a lot these days but this area in Mumbai was on another level. There were mountains of rubbish, children roaming riot, unbathed and underfed, animals around every corner and yet everything seemed to work. The alleys were so small, if you took a wrong turn you’d had no choice but to continue walking as there was simply not enough room to turn around. If you’re claustrophobic, then this place definitely isn’t for you!

slumsDespite the millions of people living in severe poverty the whole place just seemed to click. Everybody knew everyone and each had a role to play in this community. It’s not until you climb onto the roof of one of the seemingly collapsing buildings that you realise just how big the slums are. They go on for as far as the eye can see with each person trying to break through financial barriers in the home of Bollywood.

The main cities of India seem to get a lot of stick from tourists, but we threw ourselves right in and fell in love with Mumbai. Yes, it was sweaty, dirty and busy, but there was another side that we adored. The buildings, the people, the buzz, the food, and learning all about the culture.

Agra

JaipurTravelling with K’s mum we decided to show her a bit of the backpacker lifestyle we had now been living for so long and took her on a rickety old bus journey through the night to get to Agra. Flying round the bends at over 100mph, we must admit she handled it very well!

We spent a few nights in Gujurat, Rajasthan and Jaipur and we would love to tell you every detail but if we did that this would be more of a book and less of a blog. Watch out for the hardback version of KHTravels coming soon!

Agra is famous for one thing and one thing only. We had been looking forward to seeing this monument ever since we stepped onto that first plane when leaving Heathrow and now we were almost there. Stories have been told and a million and one pictures have been taken but until you’re there, until you see the sun rise over it and until you feel the marble beneath your feet you never really understand just how incredible it is. The Taj Mahal.

Hannah and Kieran TajArriving early for sunrise, our hostel was a short walk away from one of the new seven wonders of the world. The number of self-proclaimed tour guides almost outnumber the tourists but this is one of those places where you do your research beforehand and you just come to absorb the beauty. The whole place is huge, as you walk through gates and first set eyes on the marble marvel you gain a sense of accomplishment, like you’ve really done something and you’ve now seen something you’ll remember forever. In reality you’ve done nothing but open your eyes but this magnificent structure has stood strong for almost four centuries and still looks as awe provoking as ever.

The Indian sun is one of the most beautiful sights in the world, it sounds strange to hear that because the sun is the same anywhere in the world, but it really is different here. Rising over the dusty plains and shining through the pollution, it symbolises hope. That another day is here and anything is possible. Combine that with the wonders of the Taj Mahal and you create something that lasts a lifetime and goes beyond words.