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Let the Travelling commence...again- India bound!

Leaving Jersey, Poland and the first days of India- Delhi, Agra and Bundi

sunny 30 °C

I left home in July 2010 on the trip of a lifetime to Africa, Australia, SE Asia, North/Central America and Europe. During this time I kept a diary every single day and used this to make this very blog but due to me finally running out of patience and not finding the time it finished at the end of Laos back in February 2012. I surprised everyone by coming home in June and had a great 4 months on my beautiful island of Jersey working behind the bar at The Boat House, spending time with my family, walking my dog Max, drinking with friends and having two amazing girls, Amy and Anya, make it quite a memorable and worthwhile ‘stopver’.

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Initially the plan was to come home and stay a siginificant amount of time but, as is always the case with me, travelling got the upper hand and I had a plan in my head well before touching down in Jersey Airport with the first flights booked within a couple of weeks.

Not feelin there enough customisation with Travellerspoint I since began using wordpress as my blog site with its own domain name (www.escapingtherock). Due to a lack of viewers compared to here I am now going to use both simultaneously and see how it goes.

The second leg of my 27 month (and counting) trip began on 31st October 2012; Halloween. In stark contrast to how I left last time (big party, evening flight) I spent my final night seeing the people that meant the most and was at the airport at 9am ready, alongside best friend Amy and my Mum for the two biggest goodbyes- not knowing how long I will be gone makes it quite unnerving but should be seeing Amy in Cambodia in February.#

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My slightly delayed British Airways 737 to London Gatwick took off at 10.31am and following a train/walk/bus was the other side of the capital at Standsted by 2pm. Knowing my rucksack was roughly a kilo too much for the stringent Ryanair weight allowance I had a slight rearrange (wore heaviest clothes and put small, heaving objects in pockets), checked in and sat down at Wetherspoon’s for a Steak & Ale Pie with Mash potatoes and vegetables- one last British meal! Even though was near back of the queue at the gate due to being a single traveller I still had a ‘roomy’ aisle seat for the journey across Europe to Bydgoszcz, Poland where my friend Daria was waiting. Through the chilly air and into her baby blue Fiat Panda (lol) we eventually made it to Joanna’s in Torun after getting lost (no map!). We met some other friends in the ancient centre and visited a bar in the main square (freezing even in jeans and a jumper) for a couple of beers before seeing the view from the other side of the Wisla river and a further hour to her rustic house almost in the middle of nowhere. Despite its humble exterior the warmth and comfort inside was lovely so was huddled up in bed very quickly, passing out with the light on as so tired.

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Following being woken up by two huge German Shepards, Alf and Leon, I ate as much homemade bread, mushroom slices, cheese, meat and mayo as I could before washing it down with warm beetroot, tea and a few shots of homemade spirit with Daria’s dad Wojtek (limited English so communicated with facial expressions and hand gestures- think we got on). We played with the dogs outside (fetch with a big log each!) then drove to town to participate in All Saint’s Day which involved joining many thousands of people to the city’s cemeteries and placing candles on relatives graves alongside other family members.

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Me and Joanna followed Daria about, introduced ourselves to people and watched the surreal get together and chit chat of people that barely see each other, maybe just this one day a year in a cold graveyard! After a pizza in one of the only open restaurants in the old town (National Holiday) we went home to take our time packing and relaxing then polished off 2.5 bottles of wine and the rest of the spirit from earlier as no point in sleeping when at 2am we needed to leave.

Her dad was panicking as running late (shock horror) so sped through the dark country roads to the station for the 03.22 train to Warsaw then a suburban train onward to Chopin International Airport arriving at the still early 7.30am. Annoyingly our Aeroflot plane was the only one without a check in desk for two more hours so tried getting comfortable (found wifi). Once checked in all the way to Delhi and past stringent army security I spent my remaining Polish Zloty on snacks/juice/water/coffee, had to show passport yet again and finally was at the gate. This particular airline doesn’t have the best track record but you would never have guessed from the prompt departure, nice attendants, free food and drink and landing early into a snow covered Russia in one piece.

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I would of preferred to of been late as Moscow’s airport was boring and sparse plus we had to walk from Terminal D to F seeing all the expensive shops, ‘smoking areas’ (not enclosed so everywhere smelt) and ugly/miserable locals. The 3 hours passed quickly with internet/skype and people watching (Daria took up a whole row sleeping) then it was a never ending shuttle in the dark to our Airbus A330. Once taken off I began a brand new journal, ate a Salmon meal and attempted to sleep, but my body wouldn’t even give me an hour (find is to difficult on transport unless lying down).

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Staring at the inflight map we flew over Kazakstan and the Afghan capital Kabul then in the cloudless sky could see Lahore and the Pakistan border lit up so clearly. At 3.30am on November 3rd (+5.5 hours GMT) we touched down in INDIA, sat impatiently by the gate for a seeminlgy never ending amount of time, picked a fast moving immigration queue and had possibly the slowest man in the world officially stamping us in reminding me that yes, I am back in Asia.

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With bags already on the carousel we waited for the hotel driver to arrive outside Delhi Airport in a little white van. On the 'anything goes' highway he filled up on LPG (had to exit the vehicle when this was happening- why?) and took us to the dusty, backpacker friendly area of Paharganj. In a quite rough looking alleyway was Hostel New King where the night manager put us in a not bad 3rd storey ensuite room. As already 5am we showered and went straight to bed.

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In no mood for the 11am alarm to see Daria’s friend we continued to mid afternoon when had to hand passports in downstairs and chat to arrogant owner Robin who clearly loved himself and knew thought he knew everything there was to know about India. If hadn’t spent time in Africa and some parts of other Asian cities it would of been one hell of a shock when stepped into the bustling road full of street children, rickshaws, dogs, cows, cars, people, food stuffs and smog (no real sun). Three separate people told us different directions to New Delhi Train Station so already figured out that not a soul can tell the truth unless it helps them somehow either by us passing a friends shop or ’government’ agency or just for kicks.

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Once there I was expecting harassment left, right and centre so was welcome relief to only have to say no to one persistent tout- “I know where I’m going!!”. In the Tourist Information Bureau we sat in the fast moving line till it was our turn to hand over the pre written forms for each individual journey (age, sex, passport number, nationality as well as each train number and class). Except for Jaipur to Delhi being full (can easily get a bus) we only had to change one sleeper train to a different time with the 7 others good to go and all for only £30 (bargain); helps being prepared. Pleased and hungry we ate at Club India rooftop overlooking the main bazaar for a first taste of local food and meat (banana lassi, chicken masala and butter roti for 230 rupees) and stupidly attempted getting to the Red Fort for a ‘sound and light show’ on a cycle rickshaw ridden by a man literally less than half my size and weight feeling bad the whole time as so much effort put in for relatively little reward; good experience and didn't see any other white's about but still.

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The place seemed to be shut and in an unsafe area so briefly saw the fairground (stares from all corners) and returned to our area asap. We needed little persuading upon seeing a sign for beer inside a hotel and looked over photos from Jersey on my camera as sipped an 80 rupee big Black label (still cheapest seen or heard of so far) while using my Rough Guide to make some sort of plan for the city; mix of Indians and westerners. Inside Imperial Cinemas (very nearly walked by as just as dull and lifeless as many buildings) at 10pm we sat on the balcony for about 40 minutes in old style chairs (I broke one) seeing a terrible Bollywood film that contained soft core dance scenes, funny violence, exaggerated emotions, over the top action scenes and a ridiculous plot on a flickering screen with some loud members of the audience shouting occasionally- awesome. We got fried potato street food, watched a lonely cow eating rubbish (first of many would see in the Indian urban environment) and chilled in the room having my feet soaked in the bathroom from bad drainage.

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Early next morning we met German Johannes, ate breakfast at a street cafe and tried getting to Red Fort but due to elections taking place could only take a rickshaw some of the way and the modern metro system the rest- crazy ticket desks, warning signs and bag checks but cheapest way.

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We walked along Old Delhi’s lively Chandi Chowk (both our SLR’s out going snap happy) and debated whether or not to go inside the fort due to so many people trying to take our photo or not leaving us alone as a Sunday.

I unwisely made the decision to go in even though the smog dulled the monument (highest level possible for 5 days in a row) and we pay 20 times more than they do and still have to be in the same fucking line through security! Except for the three of us (in particular Daria) being by far the most popular object (paparazzi) there wasn’t anything outstanding to see and ultimately I would regret wasting my time.

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By the metro we had 20 rupee Thalli (Indian bread and dip) with some enthusiastic young guys, avoided eye contact with the many homeless and vendors and somehow got in a female only carriage which wasn’t noticed until Johannes had vacated (needed to go to church). Embarrassed, I kept head down (being 50% taller this has little effect) and simply waited for our stop so could make a quick exit.

Out onto the quiet, wide Rajpath in the increasing humidity we visited the massive Secretariat Buildings and took a peek through the black iron gate to the elephant shaped hedges and Rashtrapati Bhaven Palace complete with army guards. Following the Rough Guide map we zigzagged towards the house Mahatma Ghandi was assassinated in (saw many dogs in a terrible state of health lying by side of the road- not nice but a fact of life here) and spent some time seeing how he lived, reading the stories and his quotes, and enjoying the relative peace and quiet.

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A man who said he met me in my hotel (yeah, right) and apparently wanted nothing picked us up in a rickshaw only to try taking us to some shops and in the end tried to demanding some form of payment as he stopped by the imposing India Gate- argh! Daria bought a multi bubble blower and insisted on using it even though it bought increasing amounts of attention to us by the famous landmark so just went with it and used them in photos to interesting effect.

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Away from the crowds we moved on to the National Gallery of Modern Art (some girls tried drawing on me in Henna without me realising) which I was intially very reluctant to see. Upon seeing the various works from famous local artists and sculptures in the quiet multi level complex my mind changed as was so different to the generic European versions seen in the past.

Getting very disorientated and going in wrong direction on way to Purana Qila meant only having 20 minutes in the medieval ruins but as close to sunset the light and emptyness was nice. We took a rickshaw to the commercial and generally not very appealling Connaught Place so instead of loking for somewhere to eat chose to walk the smog filled streets after dark (many vehicles with no lights on) to the relative safety of Paharganj for a good rooftop meal at Everst Kitchen. Commenting on each others photos (would become a daily ritual) and filling ourselves up we were in the room before 9pm where I called home, repacked and caught up on bits and pieces.

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Waking up late and worried about disturbing Daria (she's not a morning person in the slightest) I gave up on the idea to see the worlds tallest stone minaret and city gardens with the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, Sikh Temple, the only thing we had time to visit. Covering my head and leaving shoes behind we joined in prayer and went around the man made pool in the shadow of the golden dome (felt like a sanctuary and Sikh's very kind) then rushed to Nizamuddin Station via the hotel. Once the poorly signed cloak room was located at the furthernmost platform we attempted to see Humayuan's Tomb in a tuk tuk but the effort was in vain as was closed for security reasons- utterly pointless journey and so stressful in the heat amongst the ruthless traffic.

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Having eaten and got stared at as usual we were on platform 7 well on time for the 3pm train to Agra. Our first experience of Indian trains was positive as we sat down in AC3 Class having enough room and feeling comfortable enough to use my laptop on the journey. At Cantonment Station we took a set price car the 7km to Flying Elephant hostel (no hassling is good), relaxed and ate at Joney's Place for excellent Malai Kofta (potato balls in a thick sauce) as the rootop establishments were devoid of a view to the Taj because of the haze. A bottle of vodka was bought for 500 rupee (£6) and partially drank to make sure we slept quickly as an early start awaited us.

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Although all prepared for the Taj Mahal and at the ticket office at 6am (750 rupees compared to 20 the locals have to pay- obscene) the gates didnt actually open till after sunrise. By some amazing coincidence Kiwi Machelle was there the same day as me (knew beforehand) so had an awkward chat as passed the time and met her Intrepid tour group. Our worst fears were confirmed when the world's most beautiful building was barely visible due to the pollution in the air but as it slowly improved the blue jacket was put on for amusing photos.

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We spent a long trying out varying angles, changing the light and waiting for people to move out the way till satisfied we had enough shots; can't imagine the throngs of people in high season. Was something else just walking about the mausoleum immersing myself in its grandeur.

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Past pigs/cows eating piles of rubbish, tiny children running around in barely any clothes, sick donkeys/dogs and dilapidated buildings we moved from the east to south gate for a western/ indian mixture of food then rested and wondered to the river bank for a different, unpaying perspective of the building; now clear as day!

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In the afternoon us, Johannes and his recently landed girlfriend visited Agra Fort which was the polar opposite to its Delhi equivalent. The walls were well preserved, there was acres of space to move around, no one was bothering you for a photo and the architecture was mixed in colour/material and style; wasn't initially going to go.

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Playing it far too safe we chose to leave our big bags in the hotel 20 minutes away despite being next to Agra Fort Station we needed to be at so required an unecessary round trip in a speedy tuk tuk narrowly avoiding anything that happened to be in our way. My feeling that something was due to go wrong was confirmed when we approached 'our' Sleeper Class coach on the Haldighati Express train only to not see our names on the list outside the door. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck as knew the problem before peering over the ticket- the ticket guy had changed our ticket not to a train the same evening but the following evening which we really should of noticed.

It was water under the bridge so I had to figure out a way out this pickle and was in no way ready to waste 24 hours in this horrible city. Eventually I got a good enough answer from the 3rd man we spoke to behind a glass window and that was to cancel the originals and book an unreserved seat for the 00.45 at practically the same cost. The issue with this is that it meant 5 hours in one of the worst public areas I have had the luxury to spend time in. Once Machelle's party had left for Varanasi (will make it there one day) we huddled up with our backs in the corner near the entrance and convenience stalls to wait it out. For the most part the homeless and deranged kept a safe distance away (familes there also making it feel normal) but for a brief period when just weird young men about I was concerned. All was good and to put a smile on our faces we were unaware of the first class waiting room round the corner that all the other westerners were comfortably in. By now the fact the Dwarka Express was 45 minutes late didnt bother me (6 or 7 hours means nothing) and the conductor on board got us beds together (for a price of course) signalling a good end to the ordeal...but that wasn't the end of it.

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The train fiasco that began in Agra continued when we awoke at 6.30am at what I thought was a just another town on the way south. Intrigued to our wherabouts, still warm in my sleeping bag, I peered out the window when we began to move and to my horror saw that it was Kota Junction! The sole reason for this error was us believing that a late train would therefore arrive late as surely only in western countries do transport 'catch up' lost time- fail! The thought went through my head to grab everything and jump so luckily i'm not quite that stupid. I raced to the conductor to find out it was nearly 3 hours till the next stop (damn express service) meaning we had this time to think the worst and wonder if ever going to get to reach our destination- Daria looked very down indeed. The clear air and blue sky over Nagda gave me a good feeling and so when saw the Ranthambore Express on the other platform knew we had dodged a bullet which the helpful ticket guys confirmed- bingo! To make it even better we were seated in second class where the windows are open and cabin airy so could look out onto the fields and villages beyond. As had no reservation we spent some time on the floor by the open door feeling the rush of wind in our faces where I felt like a traveller for first time in a long time (finding it hard to get to grips with leaving home). The overnice locals clearly thought the floor was no place for white people so insisted on taking their seats denying us of this sense of escape- ironic.

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Finally, 6 hours late, we got out at Kota, went through the industrial city in a rickshaw, bypassed touts and sat on a half full local bus for one final hour to my gamble; Bundi (came across it randomly on a blog). A very welcoming family greeted us at Shivam Tourist Guest House where I found out Obama had won the US election through the grandfather. In a spacious, pleasant room I took out absolutely everything from my bags and spread it about then used wifi until heard my stomach growling at me...it was dinner time!

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Being low season we were the only customers in the monkey cage of Tom & Jerry’s (big problem here) sharing a pricey 150 rupee Kingfisher beer and having Butter Masala with naan (still not spicy even though asked for it..argh) till American/Canadian Karen joined us to chat about Nepal and exchange her unwanted currency with me. In no mood to do anything we spent the whole evening relaxing and purposely didn’t set any alarm for the morning.

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It was lunchtime when we surfaced and sat upstairs for a double-decker cheese & tomato sandwich, porridge with honey/banana and coffee for about £1.20 (I know- not very Indian but for brunch you can’t beat western food and they did it very well indeed for a price significantly lower than the stand alone restaurants). Armed with the SLR’s and all our lenses (5 between us) the streets presented themselves with countless opportunities to capture the architecture/vehicles/animals/Diwali decorations and most importantly people of this beautiful place; some say hello, women smile and even in the market where we stood out like a sore thumb I somehow didn’t feel too much like an outsider (utterly different to the big cities).

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Not having any direction in mind we went on a main through road for a view of the many cubic buildings that make up the town as well as the majestic sandstone Palace and Fort that take over the entire hill above our hotel.Inevitably about a dozen children, all super excited, came for photos, and pens we didn’t have.

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When it all got a bit too much we continued on, waved at the truckers who kept beeping their horns and briefly sat by the lake to witness the almost perfect reflections. Going in the other direction past our place we made the most of the soft afternoon light, saw a cheeky monkey grab some fruit off a stand (moment women turned- clever mammal) and ate a couple of bowls of delicious street food- cold potato with spice/onion and a cooked parantha. Once stocked up on essentials and reviewed our haul for the day we sat amongst the other guests at sunset and I wisely gambled on a Rajasthan Pizza for dinner (cabbage, paprika, onion garlic, tomatoes and many other bits inside a crispy bread base) before journal and altering smog out of Taj Mahal photos.

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About 8.30am a knock on the door signalled the arrival of my good friend Lisa from Australia (met in Laos) so after mutually agreeing to continue/start sleeping (12 hours on a slow train here) we all convened upstairs to catch up; girls got on well and smoked like chimneys which is not good for me if trekking the Himalayas end of the month. At 1pm in the family’s living room/reception area we watched their 3 year old play with her grandmother till Tim was ready to let us into his precious black rickshaw for an 80 minute drive westwards along very bumpy and pot holed roads passing increasingly rural scenes, decorated trucks and colourful clothes (35mm best as fast moving). We watched a herd of buffalos emerge from a river, tried Kachori (chickpea interior and many flavours) and, over a rock platform that could of easily been in Africa/Australia, stood atop spectacular falls.

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Down some convenient stairs we made the most of being alone and went for a swim in the refreshing water with me rather enjoying the girl’s attempts to get out ‘gracefully’. On the way home Tim stopped at the Indian equivalent of a truck stop and a takeaway joint; old man cooking chai by his hut on side of the road and us perched on a village bench by an array of fried snacks only to be surrounded the moment I opened my mouth.

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Not wanting to miss out I gave driving the rickshaw a go after Daria but to see required crouching awkwardly (too big) and knees firmly against the nuts and bolts feeling every bump- another profession I can forget about me think.Once some fuses were brought for the lights to work (no stress as shops everywhere- so different to home) we bid farewell to our driver and gave him a well deserved tip. Staying put in our hotel (makes sense and just added to overall bill) we each tried different curries and told stories of drunken antics over some beers alongside Kiwi Rachel, who was moving home from London to help with her dad’s shoe business (smoked some of her mild weed through a pipe as a nightcap); thousands of tiny stupid bugs about concentrating on the overpowering light causing a nuisance.

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Still unable to wake up at the time I wanted frustrated me as we had to take all our belongings into Lisa’s room quite early but my now usual brunch put me at ease. With Rachel (3 girls and me..woohoo...I think) we did exactly what we hoped not to do and that was go out in the heat of the day. We ignored potential guides, saw Chhitra Sala and its wonderful garden/carvings, trudged up to the top of the hill and carefully, past the many dozens of monkeys, entered the ruined but extensive fort.

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The place was an army exercise dream as not a sole in sight, many places overgrown, walls and buildings just left to fall apart and covered a vast area; great to see but some care needs to be taken if going to be around for future generations. The Palace was intricately detailed, contained many murals and statues (one locked room had paintings dating from 1780), had panoramas out onto Bundi and the landscape beyond, and the sandstone architecture was magnificent but half of it was inaccessible, most of it smelt like urine, the guards were assholes (tried claiming we hadn’t all paid when he saw his colleague check the tickets!) and it didn’t quite live up to its immense exterior facade.

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Thirsty and hungry we couldn’t resist 90 rupee Thali at the Friendly Cafe (pretty much only street level cafe around) that took an excruciating 40 minutes to arrive but was made up for it when became clear it was all you can eat. Lisa found an ATM then by Azad Market at the Ranji-Ki-Baori step well we were told it was closed- still had a few minutes but at least they let us see inside (thanks very much).

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After seeing a cow try to enter a hotel (haha) we tried some Indian red wine (watered down and at 900 rupees very expensive) and polished off some vodka with brightly coloured mixers as they closed up the hotel for the night. We gave ourselves an hour to sort ourselves out and at 1am stood outside for our prearranged transport to arrive- except two army guys and a police jeep didn’t see another sole. As I looked after the bags Daria and Lisa woke brothers Stampy and Mantu who called upon their clearly drunk friend as a backup. Unable to do anything else we just laughed when he inadvertently parked at a garage to not get petrol, left engine running somewhere else and waved his arms in the air singing on a dark stretch of asphalt managing to be at Bundi Station mere minutes before scheduled departure; he came in with us and introduced us to his rickshaw buddies (had to have a picture with the crazy bastard).

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Unlike the last episode we had no issues with this Express train and even had the lower, middle and upper bunks together despite booking separately so when bags seemingly put away safely the lights were off and I drifted off- didn't want to leave and is my favourite place visited in India by far.

Posted by antony25 28.03.2013 03:03 Archived in India

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