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Chicken Tikka McSala

sunny 48 °C

It's here in India...Chicken Tikka Masala, and all those years I thought it was an invention by the McIndia restaurants elsewhere in the world. I didn't try it though for two reasons. Firstly, the waiter at the restaurant I saw it in said the fish curry was much better and secondly, I knew if I had it here I would be forever comparing it back at home in a Gordon Ramsey style...some thing's are best left the way you know them!

Back to the trip though and back to Mumbai where I arrived feeling as fresh as ever by train at 4am, decided to walk to my hotel, had to run after being chased by a pack of wild dogs (it was probably just one three legged chap, but when you were as knackered as I was it felt like a pack of wolves) and ended up checking in to the place next door as turning up 4 hours before I was expected at my booked hotel resulted in both the computer and hotel receptionist going into shutdown.

Mumbai felt like what India is trying to become, a real mix of the old and new with its colonial architecture, cosmopolitan feel and get this...no tuk tuks! On paper a great idea, less noise, less traffic, less pollution. In the hot season in India.... terrible, let's just say walking down the street at this time of year here feels more like doing the front crawl...its a bit on the humid side to say the least, and sitting in one of the many replacement non-air conditioned taxis was more like spending time in a sauna... I'm not sure wearing just a pair of speedos in this situation would have gone down too well though! I spent three days in the city seeing the sites, eating the local food despite the locals best efforts...a quick side story on what this country can be like sometimes and why you ideally need patience by the bucket load ....to set the scene I had already eaten at this restaurant about 5 hours earlier and spoke to the same people:

Me: Hello, I'm back can I eat again
Restaurateur: The winning blank look in an international blankest look competition
Me: I'd like some food, is there a table
Restaurateur: Still as blank as an empty sheet of paper
Me: Ermmmm
Restaurateur: Sir, we do have beer yes
Me: Ermm good, but I'd like dinner
Restaurateur: Ah food, come on in.

and last but far from least, watching an IPL cricket match...no train delay was going to stop me this time, surely the game hadn't sold out!

It had....I tried everything, buying the ticket online, going to the ground, going to a separate ticket office, playing the 'I've come all this way for the sole purpose of seeing this game' card but in the end it was luck, and possibly pity that a local heard this unkempt and increasingly agitated and as a result sweaty tourist saying that he couldn't get a ticket and offered him a spare! I could have kissed the guy if I didn't think it would have scared him off so instead I paid him for the ticket, promised to see him later and took a quick snap just to show how happy I was!

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What a game and what an atmosphere! (Despite the small child next to me who must have eaten a life times supply of blue smarties before the game... hyperactive would be an understatement) The view I had was first class and Mumbai ran out winners against their arch rivals the Chennai super kings. Love cricket or loath it, seeing a game in India is a must do experience and in this case was a great way to cap off visiting Mumbai.

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The next morning I left Mumbai, dreams of Bollywood fame and fortune on ice (the talent scouts must have been on holiday), to head north into the deserts of Rajasthan. If I thought it was hot here, I was in for a rude awakening. Another train journey awaited but this time by the relative luxury of first class....I was soon to find out though that all this meant was you slept in a lockable cabin rather than in the open carriage, no one really wants to talk to you as they are far too important being first class passengers and all that, the tea sellers tend to leave you alone.....and its absolutely freezing! It would appear that the higher class you are, the colder it gets. I'm more than happy to 'slum' it if it means I don't have to go to hospital after a train journey for frostbite. I thought we were going to have to light the wealthy chap who I was sharing withs wad of rupees to make a fire for warmth.

This train experience heightened the feeling of walking into a blast furnace on arrival to Jodhpur in Rajasthan, a barmy 45 degrees centigrade. I only had the day in Jodhpur, which is also known as the blue city due to the colour of most of the buildings...Dulux must have had a great deal on peacock blue back when this lot were in decorating mode. I spent the day at the fort that looms over the city, with a Canadian guy Arthur and his Taiwanese sidekick who reduced his homesickness at lunch time by ordering pizza, ice cream and chow mein...not a bad selection for an Indian restaurant on the edges of the desert. Arthur and I kept it local and on the recommendation of the chef/owner/only member of staff went for a local delicacy...desert pickle. I'll be polite and say it wasn't very nice...it had pickle and it had the desert, who doesn't like a fair bit of grit in their meal. At least the Taiwanese guy was happy with his pizza/naan bread with some cheese and tomato on top. The city itself was excellent, a maze of market lined streets with plenty of character, but no time to dwell, I had a train to catch... Canadian friend in tow...the destination Jaisalmer, the desert city of India in the middle of a heatwave....

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We borded the train that evening and were greeted by the unusual sight of empty seats everywhere...such a sight wouldn't cause much concern where they are used to it, like a Mansfield Town home game, but this is India, home of the sold out train. To make matters more confusing the staff then proceeded to close all of the windows except where we were sat. This cued me to say 'this lot must be mad, we'll roast in here'...having checked this was the right train (about 10 times with various clipboard holding people) we managed to doze off only to wake up and realise why those windows should have been shut.....dust and sand everywhere, the beds, our bags, even in my beard. It would appear only the tourists are mad enough to visit at this time of year!

We arrived into Jaisalmer, and having shook the dust off and had the standard late night tuk tuk 'debate' when he changed the price on arrival at the hotel, were welcomed by our host Aladdin. Unfortunately though he informed us that there was no air conditioning and unfortunately this Aladdin wasn't accompanied by a genie in a bottle....the main wish being could you turn the Indian thermostat down a notch or two, followed closely by a request for some Marmite on toast (its been 4 months, the withdrawal symptoms are kicking in!). Jaisalmer was like a scene from a film, it had another worldly feel with its desert setting. At 48 degrees though this place was too hot to just sit around and slowly boil, so we took the 'sensible' option and booked a 2 day camel safari...with a choice of two recommended agencies, trotters or sahara we plumped for the latter - I didn't fancy a Dell Boy and Rodney esque experience in these conditions, let alone surviving on peckham spring water for 2 days, plus the sahara place was owned by this chap...

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More impressions time...this time Lawrence of Rajasthan, as we headed by camel deep into the desert. My cover only broken each time I opened my mouth to exclaim in a good old midland accent that it was a bit on the warm side and these camels aren't as comfortable as they look. We spent the night in the desert, and aside from the odd wild dog fight and a sandstorm at 2am slept reasonably well for two westerners in the desert. The rest of the day was spent back at Aladdin's place, before a night train for me to Amritsar (via Delhi) and Arthur back to Jodhpur.

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Just like in Germany they say you can set your watch by the trains in India...well the year part at least.

I arrived to Amritsar surprisingly on time and headed straight to what would turn out to be one of the best hostels I've ever stayed at. I booked myself onto tours to see the main two sights in this part of the Punjab, the Wagah border with Pakistan and the blingest of all the temples....the golden temple. First up the border, via an excellent meal at a local restaurant where I successfully told one of the others in the group what to order to avoid the spice, only for her to take one mouthful and head straight for the water bottle...oops! The border played host to a daily closing ritual, involving lots of patriotic shouting, marching where freakishly tall soldiers attempted to kick their legs higher than their cross border rivals and finally a bizarre lung capacity competition where with a single breath the winner was the person who could make the longest noise. All this was played out to a stadium of people on both sides, no Simon Cowell style judging required, although putting him in the middle of this lot might have made for some good entertainment!

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The following day it was on to the next reason for heading to Amritsar, the golden temple. Made of enough precious metal to bail out a small European country (I'm guessing the guards here are to keep those pesky Greeks out), the temple was a sureal sight. I spent a few hours wandering around the complex, watching the locals go for a spirit clensing dip and also taking in the atmosphere of one of the daily prayer rituals. My stomach though was getting impatient and on leaving one of the great temples of the east, that well known temple of the west led the way...

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It was time at last to escape the heat and head even further north into the Himalayan foot hills...Next stop Kashmir.... The first time for me in this area and the first time I've been asked on a plane where I am flying too....not the brightest bunch maybe, but if its 20 degrees cooler I'll be a relieved man!

Posted by stuhutchuk 03:52 Archived in India Tagged trains travel india mumbai backpacking jodhpur jaisalmer amritsar rajhastan punjab wagah

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Some wonderful observations giving us a unique insight on the detail of life in these countries that TV and other accounts miss. Keep the blogs going

by Chris Hutchings

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