India 2010-Part 3

Monday, January 25

We had a leisurely morning in Khajaraho , no rush to get ready. After breakfast we walked around the beautiful grounds and gardens of the Lalit Temple View Hotel.  It occurs to us that labor is really cheap; many people work at keeping the grounds looking nice, using their hands only, no tools, to remove objectionable grass and weeds.  On to the airport at noon for our flight to Varanasi.  We are happy the flight is on time and going, since it has been cancelled the past 2 days due to fog.
Varanasi is a bigger city of 2.8 million. The traffic is amazing with cars, bikes, motorcycles, rickshaws, tuk tuks, pedestrians, and cattle, all seemingly milling about the roads with no fixed destination. We are staying at the Taj Gateway Hotel. It is an old, large hotel with a very nice lobby and rooms. Late this afternoon our guide, Jai, came to get us at the hotel and with Raj, our driver, we drove toward the Ganges River. We got out of the car and walked a few blocks through the old market area, absolutely packed with people.
We walked down the steps of the main Ghat to board a row boat which took us to the ghat where they were cremating about 20 people, each on a separate pyre. The sight, smell and sound was a bit overwhelming. After lighting a candle, making a wish (prayer) and floating it on the River, (being careful not to touch the water) we went back to the main Ghat to see and sit beside the 7 Hindu priests conducting a prayer (“Aarti”) to Mother River, with incense, fire and fans.
It was loud, colorful and long; quite a sight. Back to the hotel for a late dinner, mentally and emotionally exhausted from what we had just experienced.
Tuesday, January 26
Today is Republic Day in India. It is one of their really big holidays, celebrating the independence of India from the British. For us, 4th of July would be the closest approximation. It is also a day of extraordinary security precautions at all Hindu temples and public places for fear of terrorist acts by Pakistani Muslim Fundamentalists. We arise early to go back to the Dashashwamedh Ghat to take a row boat the other direction, where we see Hindus worshipping and bathing in the river.  The weather is cool and foggy. We disembark, walk along the river bank, buy tea (chai) from a vendor, drink it from little clay cups, and then head back.
Numbers of people line the banks washing clothes in the river and beating them on the rocks along the side. They work very hard. We walked through alleys of the Old City with little shrines tucked in every few yards.
Barbara felt a little sick seeing even more poverty and awful living conditions. We walked on to see the Varanasi Golden Temple from outside its walls. Security is everywhere because of the holiday and Muslim bombings in the past. We had to check absolutely everything but our clothes and leave Jai to watch it before going near the Golden Temple.
Jai, who is a lawyer by education but makes his living as a guide, wanted to show us the University, so we drove through the campus on our way back to the hotel for a shower and breakfast. Early this afternoon Jai escorted us to the close-by city of Sarnath. This is where Buddha delivered his first sermon, under the Bo Tree. Sarnath is as sacred to Buddhists, who are now a small minority in India, as Varanasi is to the Hindus. It is surprising that so much has survived the various sackings it has undergone throughout the past 20 or 30 centuries. We walked around the ruins and through the Museum, which was very impressive, with its artifacts of Buddhism, some quite beautiful, dating back some 2,000 to 3,000 years. The Ashoka Pillar with 4 lions is the national emblem of India.
Going off itinerary, Jai asked if we would like to visit a true Indian neighborhood, and we readily agreed. He took us to a little village where a number of the people specialize in the making of the little clay cups like we used for our tea at the Varanasi Ghat. The family we went to visit (Jai was well known to them) was very nice, and the kids enjoyed seeing their pictures on Barbara’s camera. The older lady invited us into her house. The kitchen had no light and the fuel for cooking was cow dung. The floors were dirt. There was a wooden shelf with a black and white television set and a DVD player. There were several small sleeping rooms.
Next stop was Bharat Mata-Mother India. It was inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi and features a huge, floor mounted, marble relief map of the whole Indian sub-continent and bordering areas. Then on to a “quick” stop at Silk Ways to purchase a table cloth and 4 pillow covers. Back to the hotel. We really enjoyed Jai. He was friendly, spoke very good English, was very knowledgeable about many things and we felt that he really enjoyed working with us. He told us a lot about his own life and his family, which we found very interesting.
Wednesday, January 27
No alarm clock was set for this morning. We slept until 6:30. News reports show the worst fog in Delhi in 7 years. We worried about our flight there to connect with our road drive to Agra this afternoon. Seeing the Taj Mahal is an absolute must. We walked around the hotel grounds in the morning and then got a call from our local AK representative that our flight was not cancelled, but delayed an hour. Yipppeee! AK rep. Amid met us once again at the Delhi Airport and sent us on to Agra with our new driver, Badel. It seemed to take forever to get out of Delhi traffic, partly because our driver was not as aggressive in traffic as our prior drivers had been, and we think he got lost a couple of times. Then we stopped half way so he could take a break. We finally arrived at our Agra hotel, the Oberoi Armavilas, about 11:00 p.m. What a place! Everything about it is fantastic. We are on the 4th floor with what should be a perfect view of the Taj Mahal when we get up tomorrow morning.
Thursday, January 28
Dense fog greeted us once more this morning. We can only see a faint outline of the Taj.  After a very good breakfast, we now can see it from our balcony. Such a sight!
The Hotel provided a golf cart and our Agra guide, Gupta, came to the Hotel and took us over to the Taj which is very close to the Hotel. As we walked through the main entry way and the Taj came into view, Barbara’s eyes filled with tears.  She was overwhelmed with its beauty and the fact that she was actually seeing it in person. The Taj was built by Shah Jahan in honor of his most beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal.  Begun in 1631, it took 20,000 artisans and laborers to complete it by 1653.
After a thorough tour, and many pictures, we went on to Agra Fort, another amazing structure, but made of red sandstone instead of white marble.  At the end of Shah Jahan’s life, he was imprisoned in this tower by his son, Aurangzeb.  From here he could see his Taj Mahal.
Gupta is very good: knowledgeable, personable and helpful with the photography.  He could not believe that we knew John Shors.  His book, “Beneath the Marble Sky”, is very popular here.
We stopped during the afternoon at a very nice store where the 24th generation descendants of the Persian artisans brought to India by Shah Jahan to decorate the Taj Mahal, still ply their trade. We watched their meticulous labor for a while and then bought a marble table top inlaid with semi-precious stones. Then, back to the Oberoi for a late lunch and a short rest.
Early afternoon found us once again at the Taj Mahal basking in and reflecting the lovely late afternoon sunlight. The white marble and inlaid precious stones reflect the changing colors of the sky from sunrise to sunset.  The ever-changing shadows are beautiful. The engineering and craftsmanship are amazing.
We return for “music” and “dancing” (not by us) by the pool at the hotel. We enjoyed dinner at the Hotel to the accompaniment of Sitar and Tabla music.

Wrens Leaving the Nest

Our little house wrens left their nest this morning.

wren-4

We were on our deck with our second cup of coffee this morning on the first cool, sunny and dry morning that we have had here for a long time.  We could hear the high school marching band practicing and reminisced about the years we enjoyed working with music and athletic booster clubs when our children were in school.  Those were wonderful years, but now we’re enjoying these “empty nest” years as well.  At about 9:00 a.m. a little wren poked its head out of the hole in its swinging home which dangles from a tree near our house, looked around for a few seconds,  and took off for the nearest perch, which happened to be our deck.  Camera time.

wren-1 wren-2

We watched as numbers 2, 3 and 4 quickly followed the little leader.  By 9:15 all 4 had appeared at their door and flown from the safety of their nest to the nearby cover of our woods.  It was a delightful 15 minutes.  We have had wrens nesting here for many years but never before have we witnessed the “fledging”.

May I have just one more meal before I leave home?

wren-3

The first flights of the little wrens reminded us that our lives are full of ”fledgings” this year:  a granddaughter heading off to college for her first year; three granddaughters and a grandson starting high school; a grandson and a granddaughter starting kindergarten; and a brand new grandchild scheduled to see the light of day for the first time in two weeks.  So many wings being tried for the first time this year.

India 2010-Part 2

A few days ago I told about  planning our trip to India and traveling there.     In Part 2 I will summarize our experiences during the first few days of our tour of northern India.

Wednesday, January 20

We arrived in New Delhi at 1:00 a.m. (12:30 p.m. on the 19th in Iowa), 51 hours after leaving our house. The AK representative, Amid, was there to meet us and take us to the Radisson. He was such a welcome sight and so helpful. This was supposed to be our day to tour Delhi, but because of the delays of our flights, we have postponed our Delhi sightseeing to the end of our trip.  After a very nice buffet breakfast at the Radisson, Amid and a driver took us to the airport to get our flight to Khajaraho. Our flight (on Jet Airways) was delayed, then cancelled due to fog. This fog is following us everywhere. We were rushed to the Kingfisher Airlines counter to get the last 2 seats on a flight leaving in 2 minutes. We sped through security, through the gates and onto a transporter to our plane.  Then we sat while the airport closed for one hour due to the fog. We were served lunch, and then waited some more. Finally, the plane took off for Khajaraho, with an intermediate stop in Varanasi. After arriving in Khajaraho 2 hours late, we were met by Ashok (the local AK representative) and Laksman (the driver) and taken to the Lalit Temple View Hotel. We were then met by our Khajaraho guide who took us on a tour of the Western and Eastern Temples. What a spectacular sight!

khajaraho-temple-1

Eighty five temples (twenty two remain) were built during the reign of the Chandella kings between 950-1050 AD.  The Indo-Aryan architecture is adorned with erotic carvings capturing life in all forms.

khajaraho-temple-2
Thursday, January 21 
We rose early again, but what a treat because after we got ready for the day, we opened our draperies and saw the Western Temples glowing in the morning sunshine above the pool at our hotel (hence the name, “Lalit Temple View Hotel”). We grabbed our coats and camera and went outside to enjoy the beautiful morning with no fog. Hurray!!
lalit-hotel

Breakfast at the Hotel, then off with the car to drive to Bandhavgarh National Tiger Preserve. This was a real eye-opening (6 hour) road trip. The roads are awful, and the driving was crazy, but our driver seemed very good. Town after town and village after village lining the “road”, nothing but people who just barely subsist. We saw many people carrying wood on their heads to use for cooking or heating. No running water; no electricity, village pumps for water. Children going to school, mostly in bright, neat uniforms. Most men seemingly doing nothing. Women working very hard and all dressed in colorful wraps (saris) and scarves. Cattle everywhere, some being herded, most wandering freely, including in the middle of the road and along all the streets. Everyone is thin and all the boys and men have nice haircuts. We have never seen so many bicycles and motorcycles, many with up to 4 persons on board.

street-scene-1

We arrived at the Tiger’s Den at Bandhavgarh in time for lunch and to drop our stuff in our room. On to our first game drive. We did not see a tiger, but we did see lots of spotted deer, several sambhar, wild boars, barking deer, common langurs, rhesus macaques and one jungle cat. We also saw several birds including this  Stork-billed Kingfisher. Back for dinner and off to bed.

stork-billed-kingfisher
Friday, January 22
They brought coffee (Nescafe) and cookies to our room at 5:30 a.m. so we could be ready for our morning drive at 6:15. We did not see a tiger this morning, but it was nice to see the area. It is very cold here for this time of year, frost appearing on the ground. Back to the Den for a late breakfast. Out again for the afternoon drive at 2:15 p.m. Yeahhh!!! A Tiger. He is a 3-year old male lying in grass in the shade of a small tree. The lighting is not good for photography, but at least we got to see him. He rolled over, yawned, and went back to sleep. He was much bigger than we expected. We also saw more birds including many peacocks, the national bird of India, and a monitor lizard hibernating in the crevice of a tree. It has been a very successful day. 
peacock
Saturday, January 23
We were up early after Barbara’s first night of sleeping all the way through. Coffee and cookies arrived promptly at 5:30 and we were out on our morning game drive by 6:15, but no tigers this morning. The other vehicle from our camp saw one up close and got great photos. The afternoon drive was quite uneventful until the last minute when Jagat heard of a tiger spotting. Lots of jeeps were there watching the same tiger as the day before, named Kahula. He walked toward us following the elephants. He stopped laid down, rolled around and then settled down. WOW!!! A good day, after all. 
tiger
Sunday, January 24
Instead of going on another game drive, we went to the Red Fort. It was such a nice morning and there was only one other vehicle there. We could see, at a great distance down on the plain, a tigress with 3 cubs, behind some trees along Route A. It was a little hazy but we could see a long way in every direction. We visited a temple with a priest. Saw a few Malabar Hornbills.
malabar-hornbill

Back for breakfast and an early lunch before driving back to Khajaraho through all the town and villages.  Near Satna we saw a parade of Jain priests and followers walking on (clogging) the road. Each priest was totally naked, in keeping with Jain tradition, and accompanied by a group of 20 or so followers, many wearing white robes. We learned from our AK representative on the trip that the Jain priests never ride in or on anything, but walk wherever they go. He thought they might be heading for some seminar or similar gathering. Finally back in Khajaraho, we checked in at the Lalit Temple View Hotel again and then walked down town for supper at a local restaurant, the “Raj”.  In India, we drank only bottled water, with no ice, so it was a very pleasant surprise to discover the local “Kingfisher” beer which is quite good and was usually cold. Even though Khajaraho is a relatively small village, the streets, as always, were crowded with walkers, bikers, cows and water buffalo, but we never felt uncomfortable except in trying to avoid stepping in chuck-holes and cow pies in the quite dark street. On our walk back to the hotel we were impressed by how dark India towns are at night. Most of the lighting that was on consisted of kerosene lamps or gas lanterns. Our flashlight is a necessity.

Himalayan Snowcock above Island Lake, Ruby Mountains

I went to Elko, Nevada, on July 29th, 2010, determined to see a Himalayan Snowcock, which hopefully would be # 684 on my list of North American birds.  Upon our arrival late afternoon on the 29th my wife and I hiked the well-marked trail from the parking lot at the end of Lamoille Canyon to the near side of Island Lake.  This was not a good idea. 

island-lake

Because it was late in the day, from the lakeside, there was neither sight nor sound of a Himalayan Snowcock.  The scenery, however, was breathtaking.  This is one of the nicest, most scenic mountain hiking trails I have ever trod.  The mountains, waterfalls, streams, mountain flowers, birds and little four-footed creatures were all lovely in their own special ways.  The sunset view descending the canyon was stunning.

waterfall flower-4a

flower-1        

The next morning, July 30th,  my wife and I hiked the trail again, but more slowly than the evening before.  It took us about an hour and a half from the parking lot to Island Lake.  Initially we experienced the same results as the evening before: no Snowcocks.   We began to wonder if we had arrived too late in the day, again.  It was then about 8:00 a.m. 

We decided to go up higher by hiking around the right side of the lake.  As we were doing this we met a returning birder who told us that he had seen and heard the Snowcocks that morning, high on the cirque above the lake.  We continued onward and upward, scrambling breathlessly over a couple of  ridges without trails, until we arrived at the edge of what we later learned from a couple of young local hikers is called the “Hanging Garden”.  We stopped at the edge of that “bog”, because it was too wet to cross.  We could at this point clearly hear Snowcocks calling high up on the cirque, in what seemed to be several different locations. 

island-lake-cirque

We began the painstaking process of scanning my telescope across the upper reaches of the cirque from whence we believed the calls were concentrated.  Soon, to my great excitement,  a Snowcock came into view in my scope, and both I and my wife were able to observe it very well for several minutes as it slowly pecked its way along the thin and sparse line of vegetation on the steep slope above the blackish part of the vertical wall of the cirque.   My wife, the photographer, was able to see the Snowcock in the scope but she was not able to find it through her camera lens, so we did not get a picture.  We did spot a Mountain Goat, and she was barely able to photograph it.

mountain-goat-small-1

I was informed that Black Rosy-finches (which would be a life bird) were nesting in the heights above Island Lake, but I was not fortunate enough to find any.  Nor did I spot a Calliope Hummingbird, the other potential life bird that has been seen occasionally in the Canyon.

We enjoyed our banana, cheese and bagel repaste back in the shade at the edge of the lake, birded the area a bit, and then hiked (slowly) back down to the parking area.  We were very happy to have seen our primary target, which can be found nowhere in North America but in the Ruby Mountains.  The Black Rosy-finches and Calliope Hummingbirds will wait for another day in another place. 

A word about the hike:  it is not terribly steep, but if you aren’t in good shape, take it slow.  We are (well, ok, I am) not very physically fit for a trek like this, but we managed to do it twice in two days with no permanent adverse consequences.  The hike to the lake is about 2 miles, and the extension that we took the second day is probably another half mile or so.  At about 10,000 feet, the air is noticeably thin and we needed to pause for breath every now and then on the way up.