Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sinhgad Fort

The DXG group and I took a trip to Sinhgad today as a team-building exercise. It was very fun and educational, and I got to see much more of the countryside around Pune. I rode in the car (along with Swapna and one other alternating DXG engineer depending on who wanted to ride a bike at the time). The rest of the DXG group rode bikes - here is the DXG-Pune Biker Gang riding off into the hills:

We stopped for breakfast at a little roadside restaurant. They served rice and chai.

Finally, after roughly 30km of driving over rough, twisty roads, we arrived. All the subsequent pictures are labeled relative to the numbers on this map (you can find an aerial photograph on Google Maps - note that it is turned 90 degrees - on this map, west is up).

Point #1 - the entrance - here is the group, trekking through the gate:

We climbed up and turned around for a quick photo:

...and then headed across the plateau. Just across the narrow point from the entrance gate (approximately at point #2 - the arrow shows the direction I was looking) we got this great view of another of the gates - down below, you can see close-up photos of it. I'm calling this the "west gate" - it has another name, but my Devanagari / Marathi skills are not up to deciphering it yet.

Moving back to the interior of the plateau (near Point 3 on the map) are the former stables. The natural water table that feeds the spring on the plateau has also put water in the stable:

Speaking of springs, here is one of the residents of the fort going to fetch water, pretty much as it has been done for thousands of years:

Also near this point, this shrine is found. Note the swastika on it - you can find this ancient symbol on the majority of the shrines and many households in the area:

Getting back to water, the fort is well-supplied by a natural spring. Probably something about the geography of the plateau causes water to soak into the ground and then bubble out at this comparatively low point.

Continuing our hike, we got to point #4 on the map. This is anther of the gates, and still very impressive:

Up high on the tower to the right in that picture there is an elephant gargoyle (not sure if it is "just" an elephant or if it is intended to represent Ganesha):

We posed again for a picture on top of that left tower:

We then continued to point #5 on the map, where I snapped this photo of the wall snaking along the western edge of the plateau (again, the arrow on the map shows the direction I was looking):

We continued along that edge of the fort, where I took this picture near point #6:

Here's the team coming up the hill toward point #7:

Point #7 on the map is the farthest point from the parking lot. We stopped for another group photo before moving along:

Walking across the middle of the plateau, we came to this monument to Tanaji Malusare, the Marathi hero who conquered the fort (occupied by Moghuls at the time) at the cost of his own life:

Finally, on the way down to the parking lot, the group stopped for a glass of lemonade hand-squeezed right in front of us (I'm getting on a plane tomorrow so I declined - did not want to risk anything just before a 14-hour ride with only an airplane lavatory for solace):

All-in-all, a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Thanks to the DXG-Pune team for a great team-building exercise!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Pune, India

I arrived in Pune yesterday morning after a rather pleasant flight on Jet Airways. They still serve meals on Indian domestic flights... I did not have much of a chance to photo or blog yesterday, but this morning I got up early and wandered around a bit. First, I went to the top of the hotel (Le Meridien), which has a rather nice terrace:

From there, I took some photos of Pune (unfortunately, it is hazier today than it was yesterday - yesterday I could see the foothills of the Western Ghats from here). Here is looking NW:

And here is looking S. Although it looks much hazier, this is a side effect of scattered light because you're looking much more toward the sun:

I finally managed to get a good photo of the Indian House Crow, Corvus Splendens, which is very common. Looks just like an American crow, except for the grey head:

I then took a walk from the hotel to the Sangam Bridge over the Mula Mutha river (you can see both on the map here, I walked from the hotel west to the bridge over the river):

I did pass a small shantytown on the way. Although there is still poverty in Pune, it seems much less prevalent than in the larger cities of Delhi and Agra. This may be an artifact of the part of town I am in (more the commercial center) or it may be because the economy in Pune is booming much more than in the north. Regardless, it is a sobering contrast to the luxurious hotel roof photographed above:

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Agra, India

One of my dreams has always been to see the Taj Mahal, which is located in Agra, India, about 200KM from Delhi. After checking and finding that the trains were all full, I found a tour operator who would take me by car. At 6:30 this morning, the car showed up - I shared my tour with a nice man named Henry from San Francisco - and this was our trusty steed for the next 14 hours:

On the one hand, the road trip took substantially longer than the train would have - it took 4:30 by road, and the train would have taken around 2:00. On the other hand, we got to see lots of things on the road that we would have missed on the train. Like, decorated autorickshaws:

And a variety of domesticated animals pulling things. Cows pulling carts:

Camels pulling carts:

We saw water buffalo pulling carts too but I did not get a good picture. Fairly frequently, you would see roadside shrines such as this:

After this journey, we arrived at our first destination - Agra Fort - the palace built for Moghul emperor Akbar in the 16th century. Here is the main entrance:

And here is the inner gate. Note the stone inlay work:

Akbar's Palace is very similar to yesterday's Red Fort palace:

...but the gardens are much better-preserved:

...and it has a lot more of the stone inlay left than Red Fort did:

This picture is from inside what is known as the "Chamber of the Winds" - so named because it has stone screening that the wind may enter in:

Also visible (dimly on a hazy day like we've been having) is the Taj Mahal:

We wrapped up at Agra Fort, and made our way to the Taj Mahal. On the way, we were given the "opportunity" to see stone inlay artisans at work:

I put "opportunity" in quotes, because this seems to be a very common theme in Indian travel operations - some sort of cooperative arrangement between the tour group operator and the artisan / store - we were given a fairly hard sell on marble inlay, which I (mostly, ahem) resisted.

Free of the shopkeeper's embrace, we made for the Taj Mahal. Picture really do not do it justice. Unlike other monuments, which usually seem smaller in real life, the Taj Mahal seems bigger in real life. Here is our first good view of the Taj:

And here is me with the Taj, snapped by our friendly tour guide:

In addition to the main mausoleum, there are a variety of well-decorated outbuildings. This is the main entrance:

Here's a shot of one of the Taj minarets, maybe to give you a sense of the scale of the thing (enormous):

Before going up on the marble platform where the main mausoleum is, they make you either remove your shoes or slip on booties - I chose the booties - very stylish:

Finally, after waiting through a moderately long line, we got there. As part of the multisensory experience, I had to simultaneously touch it while snapping a picture:

Pretty picture of the top spire of the Taj Mahal (on the left) along with one of the lesser spires:

On either side of the main masoleum are two smaller buildings in red sandstone. The west one was made into a mosque, but the east one remained a "guest dwelling area":

Even the lesser buildings are exquisitely decorated inside and out - here is inside one of the smaller domes:

The Yamuna River runs right behind the Taj Mahal:

A variety of bathers, washers, birds, and water buffalo were down there. The water buffalo was most photogenic:

While looking down there, I saw some intrepid groundskeepers mowing the lawn - with an ox-drawn mower!

The Taj Mahal, framed by some shrubberies:

You cannot drive up to the Taj Mahal. On our way there, we took normal bike rickshaws. On our way back, we took a horse-drawn rickshaw:

And so, pretty much exhausted, we grabbed some lunch and headed home. On the way, we saw an inner-city mob of monkeys:

...and stopped about 3/4 of the way back to Delhi for a bottle of water:

I am pretty much exhausted at this point. Lessons learned:
  1. Take the train if at all possible
  2. Even better, stay overnight in Agra and catch the Taj Majal at sunrise before so many people show up
  3. Don't be pressured into buying anything from a store the tour guide takes you to
  4. Despite that "tradition" it is still worth it to get a guide - they know all the shortcuts and can help you see things that you would otherwise miss. But get a personal guide rather than a huge group tour.
  5. Enjoy yourself, wherever you are and however you get there