Filling the GAP

Less than a mile or two from where I’m living now is a rails-to-trails path called the Greater Allegheny Passage. It’s an old railroad line that now serves as a bike path stretching 150 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to Cumberland, MD. It connects with a further trail named the C&O Towpath that goes a further 250 miles to Washington DC. Ever since my folks moved out to this area, I’ve enjoyed walking on this trail. The nearby section follows the Casselman river, and is lined with trees and filled with scenic vistas. For years I’ve thought “One of these days, I’d love to bike the entire GAP trail. Finally this summer, I pulled out that “round tuit” and biked the GAP.

I am not a great cyclist. You won’t find me training for the Tour de France anytime in this lifetime. I’ve ridden off and on over the years, but never with any prolonged intensity. The idea of riding 150 miles, even over several days, was something I did not take lightly, and so I did put in hundreds of miles in training this summer, and picked a date in the fall when the weather would hopefully be decent and the leaves would just be starting to turn.

Logistics alone were a challenge. Getting a ride from bike companies from one end to the other was prohibitively expensive for a single traveler. There is a train, but it gets into downtown Pittsburgh at 11PM. No buses available either. So I drove to Cumberland, rented a car one way back to Pittsburgh with my bike aboard, and caught a bus from the airport that took passengers and their bikes to the trail. Whew. Thankfully, I only had a few miles to go for the first day.

The northern terminus of the trail begins at Point State Park, nestled in the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers which create the Ohio river. The trail follows south along the Monongahela through the city through parks and trendy commercial areas, tucked away out of Pittsburgh traffic.

My first stop was Homestead, less than 10 miles from the start. My aim was to keep things relatively simple, so I stayed in a hotel. After putting in over 170 miles of driving, I kept the biking mileage light, and my hotel appeared on the trail before I knew it.

Continuing south the next day, the trail went along roads and followed train tracks past steel mills and other industrial areas. While the factories aren’t exactly scenic, their sheer numbers do give an indication of how Pittsburgh was built. There’s a reason their football team is called the Steelers.

Further along, the trail goes behind Kennywood amusement park. This park began in 1898 and has been giving Pittsburgh residents vertiginous thrills for over 120 years. My grade school days were mostly spent in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, and in days long past, towards the end of the school year they would pack us youngsters in buses and let us run amok all over the park. We would spend the day going on all the roller coasters and other rides that our youthful bodies could manage. Kennywood was the essence of summer vacation for us, as much as Otter pops, sparklers, and freshly cut grass.

Moving along from old memories, I followed the trail over old metal bridges into McKeesport, where the Youghiogheny (pronounced yock/i/gainey) river meets the Monongahela. The trail then goes southeast along the “yough” river to Boston. Boston, Pennsylvania, that is. Unlike the big Boston, little Boston is a sweet little town with parks, baseball fields, a welcoming visitor station and an old railroad car on display. There are old mills from earlier times that are no longer running, and one can imagine what the town was like in its heyday.

The trail continues through a wooded path along the river. My stop after 50 miles was in Connellsville, after riding along the river and through sleepy small towns that time forgot. Connellsville was the site of a camp for British General Edward Braddock during the French and Indian war. Included in his troops at the time was the young George Washington. Things didn’t go well for General Braddock, but George Washington fared a little better, I think.

The next morning I headed further through Ohiopyle State Park, a haven for kayakers, river rafters, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The welcoming town has a plethora of restaurants, shops and inns catering to visitors, and the waterfalls in the park are a must-see.

I stopped after nearly 40 miles to rest up for the final day. From Pittsburgh to Connellsville, the trail is pretty flat, but then it picks up steadily in elevation gain past that. While the grade isn’t more than 2%, a bit past Ohiopyle one really starts to notice it. So on the last day, I climbed steadily for 30 miles, past forests and farmlands, over viaducts and bridges upwards toward the Eastern Continental Divide at an elevation of 2,392 feet. By the time I made it I was questioning my sanity in doing this trip, but then the elevation and my mind state changed course. After the divide, there is an elevation drop of over 1500 feet in the course of 23 miles. Not roller coaster worthy, but still fun to do on a bike. I enjoyed riding through the well-lit Big Savage Tunnel, past the Mason-Dixon Line, and all the way into Cumberland. There may have been a few moments in which I did an impersonation of the Geico pig, but there were no witnesses to confirm or deny that event.

If you asked me that day when I had just finished if I would do it again next year, you may have received an icy stare. But now that the body has recovered (or forgotten)… well, I might. But after nearly ten years of saying “someday”, I’m glad I found that round tuit.

The End of the Line

So this is it. The end of the line, so to speak. You know you’re at an outpost when the railroad lines come in perpendicular to the railway station vs along side of it. This is Kanyakumari, the southernmost point in India (at least, the mainland). It’s where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea waters all mix together in a beautiful blue horizon. Giant waves roll in and crash among the rocks, sending white foam into the sky. Small sailboats dot the surface of the water as they catch the plentiful winds. Looking out towards the water, it’s a beautiful place.

The land is a bit less memorable. 

There’s the Gandhi memorial, which was my favorite. It was erected to house where a portion of his ashes were kept in the town before being released into the sea. It’s a peaceful, open structure, 79 feet tall for each year he was alive. Ind in the ceiling there is a circular hole, through which once a year on his birthday, the light streams directly on the inner memorial shrine.

There’s also the Vivekananda memorial rock and shrine, where one can take a ferry out to the rock where he meditated for several days.

And there’s the 133 foot high statue of Thiruvalluvar, an ancient Tamil poet. Built one foot for each chapter in his classic work, Thirukural.

Last but not least, the temple for the goddess for which the town was named. The Kumari Amman Temple, built for the virgin (kanya) princess (kumari) manifestation of Devi.

And sadly, a billion trinket stalls and more trash and pollution than you could pick up in a month.

Of course, I suppose in the states it would either be a beautiful national park (which I admit was how I pictured it before I got here), or in U.S. capitalist fashion, a trendy spot where one couldn’t visit the beach without spending a fortune in a swanky hotel.

So it is what it is, and I’ll share some of the pictures I took of the more beautiful aspects.

While I was here, I also visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace. Having admired Keralan architecture, I read about this place and knew I had to visit. It was totally worth a few hours on local buses.

The palace is a classic example of Keralan architecture and is actually a conglomeration of fourteen palaces, some dating back to the mid 16th century. Perhaps it’s the heavy use of wood, but it reminded me of older Japanese structures. Either way, it was a peaceful way to spend the morning.

Goan nowhere?

I’ve been in Northern Goa for several days now, and am in a quandary of sorts.

Visiting various places for a few days at a time, plus extended travel schedules, has worn this body and mind out a bit.

So visiting the beaches of Goa sounds like the perfect place to relax, right? It’s a town along the coast with old Portuguese architecture, a laid back feel, and miles of beaches. The perfect place to take a break.


Not so much.

While walking along the beach has been soothing, and having nowhere specific to go has been restful, it’s certainly not what I expected. 

Goa has the reputation in India as being a place to party, and now I understand why. As a single older traveler, I am invisible to those who are here to get high, drunk, or engage in other such activities. Which is fine, since I do not. But in my two months of being a solo traveler, I have never felt as alone as I have here in the crowds of vacationers.

And the trance/club/”uncha-uncha” music that is still playing after 11 at night is not exactly restful.

So I find myself still a bit worn out, and losing momentum. I want to head further south, but can’t get excited for any particular place. Yet staying here is not as appealing as I thought it might be.

So for those who haven’t been here, I’ll share some of the more beautiful aspects of the town through pictures. There have been some beautiful places, and I don’t mean to whinge about a lovely vacation spot. But perhaps my followers in India or those that have been here may understand.

I’ll welcome suggestions of somewhere to go to rejuvenate energy for the trip.

Preferably without trance music.

Arambol beach
Returning the boat
It takes a village: pulling in the catch of the day

Caves and Castles: Aurangabad

My plan for visiting Aurangabad was the Ajanta and Ellora caves, and I happened upon a few extras while there.

The Ajanta Caves were built around the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD, and are a mix of monastic viharas and meditation halls. The 28 caves are set in a horseshoe shaped cliff with a peaceful meandering river below. I spent several hours here, admiring the work and the energy of monastics from a long time ago.

The caves from a distance
Pillar and fresco. It’s all a bit dark, unfortunately. No flash allowed.
Cave facade, and a girl that I’m pretty sure is giving me the stinkface!-)

Daulatabad Fort was part of a packaged bus deal. It was a great addition, as the place was peaceful and beautiful. It could have taken a day on its own. Built in the 12th century, it must have appeared as an impressive fortress that would last forever. Now, its walls are crumbling, and nature is taking it back, only adding to its beauty.


Next up were the Ellora caves. These were built later on, in 600 to 1000AD. There are 34 caves in all, including Buddhist, Hindu and Jain. Sadly, as the bus tour was a bit rushed, I only saw about half of them. I saw the Buddhist monasteries, and a few Hindu, including the impressive Kailash temple. But as advice to other travelers, Ellora is close to Aurangabad: hire a rickshaw and stay for as long as you want.

Waterfall at the Buddhist caves
Three-storied Buddhist monastery
Kailash Temple

We also stopped at the Bibi ka Maqbara, also known as the “Mini Taj Mahal”. It was built by the son of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, Azam Khan, as a mausoleum for his mother. Azam’s plan was to make it completely out of marble and have it look like the Taj in Agra. Aurangzeb put the kabosh on that though. Guess he wasn’t quite as enamoured with his wife as Shah Jahan was to his. The building does resemble the Taj Mahal, but on a much smaller scale.


My trip to and from Aurangabad was equally as interesting as the tourist attractions were. The train to and from Mumbai does not do tourist seats, so because I didn’t buy a ticket ahead of time, I ended up in a second class car. It was everything I imagined riding in the non-AC section of India’s trains would be, except it wasn’t so crowded that anyone had to ride on top of the train. There was one guy that went up on the luggage rack though.

The ride back was even more crowded. As the train pulled into the station, what seemed like five hundred people all tried to get into a single train doorway, pushing and shoving their way in. By the time I got to my seat, a family had camped on it, and I ended up across the aisle. Better than the floor, which is where about a dozen people sat. Every few minutes a vendor with various, food, chai, water, or trinkets would step through all the people in the aisles, yelling out what he was selling, to make his way through the car. It was crowded and hectic, yet everyone seemed to take it all in stride. Eventually, I could feel myself doing the same and just enjoying the ride.

Lakeside loveliness 

I took a “sleeper” bus from Jaisalmer to Udaipur, as there was no direct train. I won’t go into sniveling details, but let’s just say that the term sleeper for a bus is even more optimistic than the train.

Despite lack of sleep, I arrived in Udaipur with some energy to explore the city. Udaipur is spread around Lake Picchola, which is about 12 sq. km.. The main tourist spot is the city palace complex, which is Rajasthan’s largest palace. Like many of these grand structures, it was started by one ruler and built upon by subsequent ones. This palace was initiated by Maharana Udai Singh II in 1599.


The museum inside displayed some of the interior architecture, along with articles used by the maharanas. My favorite parts were the stained glass windows, but it was all impressive.


Outside of the city palace, there are peaceful sites by the lake to relax, and I explored these in the afternoon.


Another popular building on the lakeshore is the Bagore ki Haveli, which has a museum with the largest turban, among other things, and at night hosts a Rajasthan culture show. I would highly recommend both for a sampling of local culture.


My last tourist visit was to Sajjan Garh, or the monsoon palace. It’s not very old, as it was built in the late 19th century by Maharana Sajjan Singh. Apart from some scaffolding in various parts, it looks like it’s been largely neglected since then. But it’s main draw is the surrounding scenery vs the architecture. It’s a few miles from town on the top of a hill, and offers endless gorgeous views from the surrounding area. It’s also a favorite place to watch the sun set, with good reason.


Apart from these main attractions, I’ve been wandering by shops, puzzling vendors by being the rare tourist that isn’t interested in buying things, and finding quiet places by the lake not mentioned in Lonely Planet. Overall, it’s been a peaceful visit.

Gloriously Golden

I arrived in Jaisalmer about noontime, and settled into my room at the hotel after they picked me up from the train station. I happily splurged a few hundred rupees more for AC, as temps appeared to be in the low 90’s. I took some time in the afternoon to walk around looking at the buildings. Many of the houses, called havelis, have central courtyards with the rooms facing inwards to allow for light and airflow. As the wind goes through the courtyard, it cools in the summer yet stays warm in the winter. Hava is the Hindi word for wind, hence haveli.

From inside the haveli
Such intricate design

I was impressed with the cleanliness of the streets that I hadn’t seen in a while. Apart from the odd cow patty, not a whole lot of garbage laying about. Such a beautiful city, it’s pleasing to miss the general rubbish display of other towns.

The haveli of “The men who stare at goats”, or perhaps “The goats who stare at men”

The next morning I planned to check out the fort…until I got out of bed and sped to the bathroom. My gut revised the day’s plans to alternatively staying flat on my bed and calling my attention to the interior of the bathroom (which is, btw, lovely with painted tiles). 

I’ve spent more time in much worse bathrooms!

The fever, chills, body aches, and an overwhelming urge to be horizontal came afterwards. I honestly felt like death was watching. After the fever rose to the point which I could feel my brains simmering, I resigned myself to the need for some pharmaceutical intervention, and sent the hotel guy with a list of medication to get. He returned shortly with medication that would have been at least $30 in the states. Here? About $1 (OK, I’ll skip the rant on how big pharma overcharges for their medications in the US). Eight hours later, the fever went down, and I managed to eat a few biscuits and take some water. By this morning, I felt like a new woman, and managed a late breakfast, lunch, and a wander in the afternoon spent looking at various havelis. And was rewarded by a golden view of the city.


I still took it easy because tomorrow is the big day: an overnight camel safari in the desert. And that will be my next post. Stay tuned and be well!

A Case of the Blues

Jodhpur is classically known as the blue city. Originally, blue was a distinguishing color of only Brahmin houses. Later, everyone else got into the act, and now a majority of houses in the city are painted varying shades of blue. IMHO, much prettier than pink, but to each their own. The blue color is also claimed to repel insects, but I have my doubts on that.


The first day there I headed to Mehrangarh fort. Nothing “meh” about it; like Amber fort it was everything I could have asked for in Rajput architecture. Construction of this massive fort was started in 1459 by Rao Jodha, and continued with successive rulers. The fort encloses gardens, massive gates, meeting halls, and private chambers. There’s a museum of elephant seats, palanquins, paintings and other items used and admired throughout the ages. I walked around for a few hours, and then fueled by a makhania lassi and pyaz kachori, wandered further to the Rao Jodha desert rock park.


In case you’re wondering, a lassi is a drink made from yogurt, combined with either spices, fruit, or honey. A makhania lassi is quite thick, sweetened, and made with saffron. The best ones in possibly all of India are served at Shri Mishrilal Hotel. They’re so thick they’re eaten with a spoon instead of sipped. Kachori are fried bread with various fillings. The pyaz kachori seemed to have potato and onion inside. Probably not very healthy, but tasty nonetheless.

Rao Jodha rock park is 73 hectares large, and located at the base of the fort, providing some great views and photos. It was also a beautiful retreat from the crowds. At first I wondered why there seemed to be no one else there, but it soon became apparent as the temperatures rose. Most people go there in the morning, but I was there from 12-2. But there was a breeze, and I had water, so it didn’t get bad until towards the end. Maybe I’m getting used to the heat here. Maybe.


The next day I set out with a short list of errands: get train ticket to Jaisalmer, get batteries for water purifier, get some medicine and a cheap prepaid cell phone. I of course ended up walking way past the train station, and thankfully went with a rickshaw after I felt like I should have been there (boy was I off course!). For some inexplicable reason, the rail  booking office is 300 meters away from the actual station. Don’t ask me why. But knowing this, I made my way there after being dropped off at the station itself. I patiently waited in queue and handed in my filled request form. 

There’s a waiting list. 

Even for tourists?

Tourist ticket ok. You have photocopy of passport? No? We don’t make copies here. Come back with a copy. Next in line please.

So I wandered towards the post office next door, when a man helped me find a nearby shop to get a copy. Returning to the ticket office triumphantly with ticket in hand, I got my ticket. Ha. 

The same guy also “helped” me get a cell phone, but pressured me into getting one withoutq a receipt (yeah, I know, you see where this is going, dont you?). He then “helped” me get a SIM card, but they wanted a photo for it. I didn’t have one, other than the picture on my passport. Feeling conned and frustrated at this point, I left, and headed to the main market for batteries and a pharmacy, but was unable to find either. No one had the batteries, and a pharmacy seemed nowhere to be found. I retreated back to the guest house and sulked through the afternoon, then thanks to google, at least found the pharmacy later that day (it helped that it was near the lassi shop).

Main market madness

The next day I went on a village tour, seeing a pottery maker, a block print maker, a loom weaver and Bishnoi tribal members. The Bishnoi, named for the 29 precepts they keep, are the original tree huggers. In 1730, in their efforts to protect local khejri trees, over 370 members hugged the trees to save them, and were beheaded in their efforts.

Block print fabrics
Woven dhurries
Showing how they filter opium
Going Rajasthani style

So in the grand scheme of things, the fact that when I returned to the phone store after the tour and they wouldn’t take the phone back seems relatively minor in comparison to being beheaded. And yes, rather foreseeable. A $20 lesson to follow my instincts. It could have been much worse. Anyone want to buy a phone?

Minor as they are in the grand scheme, incidences like this make me want to just stay in my room and not go out, yet there is so much goodness out there that I miss by hiding. So the mind goes back and forth. I hide for a while, and then I give India another go. And I usually get rewarded for doing so.

0515, Jodhpur train station 

I step over a sea of bodies sleeping on the station floor and make my way to platform three over the stairs. The smell of machinery and human waste assaults my nostrils. More people are sitting, sleeping, or squatting on the ground, waiting for the train that’s thirty minutes late. Vendors walk up and down the platform with paper cups and teapots, chanting their popular mantra; “Chai, chai, garam chai, chai-chai-chai”.

This time I find a sign which shows where my train car will be on the platform. I have not always been so lucky, and have ended up race-walking/jogging from one end of the platform to another. India has very long trains.

The train arrives and I climb the steep steps aboard, already happy that I bought a ticket in the air conditioned section. I’m wearing my suitcase on my back, my backpack on the front, and a yoga mat bag slung over my shoulder. I look like a deformed turtle. I step aside to let some departing Sikh gentlemen go by, and they help me to find my seat without even being asked before they go. The goodness in India strikes again.

I watch the landscape roll by and am reminded of Arizona. The English planted a variety of Mexican trees here similar to mesquite, to provide a fast growing tree as wood supply. As foreign species often do, the trees adopted to their new environment a little too well, and are now an invasive species, choking out the native plants. The green of the mesquite-like trees and grass complement the sandstone rocks among the occasional hills, then the grass and the trees became more sparse. Thus was the moving picture I watched on my way to Jaisalmer, which will be my next post. 

Amritsar

From Rishikesh I took a shared rickshaw to Hardiwar. The couple I was sharing the rickshaw with were going to another location there, so the driver arranged for me to get in to a very shared vikram for the last bit of the trip. To those that don’t know, an auto rickshaw is sort of like a golf cart with the body from a tilt-a-whirl instead. There are larger shared ones called vikrams, which have three benches: one for the driver and two behind facing each other for the passengers. Apparently it’s possible to fit at least fourteen people in one vikram. Maybe more if the people know each other, we did not.

I arrived at the train station and people-watched for a while since my train was scheduled for a few hours later. While waiting, a family that was sitting nearby “adopted” me. They offered me some chai, then some biscuits, and the son-in-law spoke with me mostly, although I managed some meager conversation in Hindi. The family was a couple maybe my age, and their daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild. The mother had the kindest face, and they were all very sweet and helpful. Another advantage to traveling alone is that you’re much more likely to be spoken to than when traveling in a group.


The train was a “sleeper”: An overnight train on which you get an open bunk with some sheets, pillow, and blanket. Sleep, however, is not something you get much of, as the bunks are hard, and you’re in a cabin filled with lots of people who invariably snore.

I arrived in Amritsar and found a reasonable hotel, and rested for a bit. My main purpose in coming to Amritsar had been to see the Golden Temple and Jallianwalla bagh. The Golden Temple is the most venerated temple of the Sikh faith, housing their scriptures, the Adi Granth. It’s actually part of a large compound with several buildings, in which the main temple sits in the center of a large pool of water, connected by a bridge. There is a museum, hostel, and a community kitchen that feeds the 100,000 visitors that come on a daily basis, free of charge. I had read about the temple and seen it in films, and although the actual experience was a bit different, no less satisfying.

Here’s a great Bollywood film clip of a visit the temple.

Here’s a link to my experience.

And the best photo I got:


I went first on a Sunday, which was pretty crowded. But when I returned the next morning, there were fewer people, yet the sense of devotion was just as powerful.

Another powerful visit was to Jallianwalla Bagh. During the struggle for India’s independence from England, several thousand men, women, and children had met for an observance in a large courtyard in Amritsar. General Dwyer ordered troops to assemble in and block the exit points and then ordered the troops to open fire on the peaceful group. Many tried to climb the walls or jump in a deep well to avoid the volley of bullets which lasted for ten minutes. After the munition was expended, the official count was nearly 400 dead and over 1400 injured. Now the courtyard is a peaceful park commemorating this senseless tragedy.

The white squares surround the bullet holes in the wall

The well people jumped into to avoid being shot…and where they were shot anyway. You can see bullet marks and old blood here.

Another tragic wall

My last tourist attraction was the border ceremony. Amritsar is about 30km from the India-Pakistan border, and each day the border closing is enacted with much fanfare. It’s a well-attended event by tourists and locals, at least on India’s side. So I and 9 other tourists climbed into an suv taxi, rode for nearly an hour and then walked through numerous security checks to get to the open seating near the border gate. The ceremony started with women volunteers running up the road to the gate with flags, and running back. Patriotic songs started playing over the loudspeakers, and women started dancing in the road. Even western women from the audience joined in, and I thought, “Looks like fun, I’d love to do that”. I stayed put for a few minutes until I realized that staying back would be something I’d regret later. And the next thing I knew, I was dancing along with about fifty women in front of thousands of people in 95 degree heat. It was a surprise even to me, but a lot of fun, and there was a sort of sisterhood between us women that felt quite sweet.

When in Amritsar…..

Next was the marching. With great pomp and posturing, the guards on both sides took turns high-stepping to the gate and making exaggerated stances of might on their respective sides, lowered their flags and slammed their gates shut. Sure, a lot of it is for show, but I’m pretty sure the assault rifles that the soldiers carried were very real.


And a funny YouTube video of the ceremony. This is much better than what I got with my little camera from the nosebleed section in the stands.

I haven’t said much about the food here yet. There’s been no shortage to talk about, although recently my appetite has been less than usual. Goddess Kali has been poking me in the belly saying “Don’t think I’ve forgotten you. We will meet before you leave.” But I did manage a Punjabi specialty that is definitely worth sharing.

Kulcha is a flat bread with a hidden filling. It can be potatoes, cheese, onions or spices alone. The bread is rolled out with the filling inside, and then cooked in a little bit of oil, served with a lentil sauce, an onion sauce, and a heavenly splat of ghee on top. Oh my goodness. I went to the Kulcha walla section of Amritsar and saw this hole-in-the-wall place that had people in it (people eating are a good sign). The mixed kulcha had all of the fillings, and one heavenly kulcha was less than $1.00. You can’t beat that with a stick.

“Why do I get the feeling I’ll regret this?”

OMG. So worth it. And I didn’t even suffer for it later.

 

I’m now in Delhi, chilling out in a schnazzy hotel with great internet, but that story is for my next post. Be well and happy, dear readers!