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RAAC visit to India and Nepal

RAAC House Trip to India and Nepal
19th to 31st March 2009
This, the fifth house trip abroad, was a new style of venture. For once we were going to countries that were neither communist nor post-communist, and to one of which is the largest democracy in the world. Time constraints meant that we were restricted to the Golden Triangle in India and the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, but I am left in no doubt that the seeds have been sown amongst many of the party to further explore regions of both countries.
Travel between sites in both India and Nepal was done by private coach or, in the case of the journey from Delhi to Ajmer, by train. For some this was the opportunity to catch up on sleep; for most it offered the opportunity to see rural areas at first hand which, given the extreme poverty in both countries, was an eye-opening experience. Lunch was almost always taken in local restaurants, so there was the opportunity to rub shoulders with the local people, and there were myriad opportunities throughout the tour to walk freely in the cities that we visited. Our accommodation in five star hotels could not have afforded a greater contrast with what we were to see during the day: hotel porters saluting us on arrival, garlands of flowers being placed round our necks as we checked in and porters to carry our bags at all times. Photographs were taken by the thousand but they only capture the sights, the beauty of the monuments and the bright colours of all that one sees; they cannot capture the noise, the buzz, the movement and the smells of two countries which are so very different from the UK. Cows, stray dogs and monkeys are everywhere, as are carts pulled by camels or oxen; cars, lorries and coaches are all equipped with loud horns, generating noise levels are unbelievable.
After settling into our hotel in Delhi on the first day we toured the city, gaining a valuable introduction to life in India and the magnificence of the sights we were to encounter in the coming two weeks. Then after, much needed sleep, we travelled to Pushkar, via Ajmer, and had the chance to walk through the city to the lake, where the group received instruction in Hinduism. Later, after a warm welcome, lunch and a guided tour of Mayo College by the three boys who will be in Eton on exchange this summer half, it was on to Jaipur, where we had an extensive tour of the Maharaja’s City Palace and the incredible Jantar Mantar, an open-air observatory made of stone and marble. The next day, in the morning, ascent was made to the Amber Fort by elephant; the afternoon saw us travel to Ranthambore, where we spent the night in a colonial style hotel built round an open-air swimming pool. Again, rest was needed, for the next day needed an early start to the Tiger Reserve and National Park. We fed wild birds and monkeys by hand, saw various species of deer in their hundreds and crocodiles sunning themselves only yards from our open-topped vehicle, but nobody will ever forget following a wild tiger up a path through the bush. There are only 30 or so tigers in the huge reserve, so this was a huge coup. After breakfast at the hotel there was a long coach journey to Bharatpur and a visit to the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary, that was done on foot and by bicycle rickshaw. An intriguing insight into the activities of Old Etonians was given by the board showing precisely how many birds they had hunted and killed in years gone by – well, given that the list began with Lord Curzon, we assumed that the remainder were OEs as well! The next day saw us leave Bharatpur for the journey to Agra, via the deserted, though magnificent, fortress of Fatehpur Sikri. The day in Agra began with a visit to the Agra Fort from which we could see what for many was expected to be the highlight of the tour, the Taj Mahal. Given that one is recommended to see the monument at either sunrise or sunset, we delayed our visit until late afternoon, and it did not disappoint, particularly as the sun set and the colour seemed to change from white to gold. This had to be the place for the group photograph.
Then, the following day, it was back to Delhi, this time via a sanctuary for bears that have been rescued from the cruel practice of dancing in villages throughout India. After a visit to the Red Fort, claimed to be one of the most spectacular palaces in the world, which certainly did not disappoint, we completed our tour of Delhi, seeing the monuments we had not had time to see on our first day. Then it was time to say farewell to Barry, our guide throughout the tour in India, and a man who made our stay so memorable; we could not have wished for a friendlier, more selfless and more accomplished person to ensure that the tour of the Golden Triangle was so memorable.
By now we had spent 10 days in India, but it was time to leave Delhi for the flight to Kathmandu in Nepal. On arrival we were met by Anup, who was to be with us throughout our tour, and who was a similarly positive ambassador for his country as Barry had been in his. Had we spent all our time in the Shangri-la Hotel we would never have known that Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world nor that it has gone through significant political turmoil since one infamous Old Etonian took it upon himself to shoot virtually all the royal family. We had a comprehensive city tour en route for the hotel, then it was up early next morning to take a flight round Everest, courtesy of Buddha Air, before returning to the hotel for breakfast. After the tiger and the Taj Mahal, was the sight of Everest from above the most magnificent memory? It is hard to say. The visit to a magnificent temple complex that followed, lunch in a rooftop restaurant and then witnessing open-air cremations on a river bank by the Pashupatinath Temple were all equally memorable, though in very different ways. There remained only the following morning in Nepal, which saw us visit Patan and the old Newar City, and which was followed by a trip to the largest Buddhist temple in the country, known prosaically as Little Tibet.
The journey home was long. A stop-over in Delhi gave us the chance to eat one last, and superb, meal in the “Line of No Control” restaurant before sending two of our party on their way home to Hong Kong. The rest of us had to wait for what seemed an eternity in the airport before we headed off in the opposite direction, back to London, where we arrived early in the morning after a thirty-hour journey.
It is impossible in such a brief account, with so many places and experiences necessarily omitted, to do this trip justice. All had expected the Taj Mahal to be the highlight of the tour, but the truth is that there were many highlights, all different in their own ways. Travelling in pairs by Tuk Tuk through crowded city traffic or being transported by cycle rickshaw in the seemingly lawless traffic of major cities will remain for ever in the memory as adrenalin stimulants; no risk assessment could adequately encompass these experiences. At the other end of the spectrum will be the stomach upsets experienced by all; everyone was grateful for the power of immodium. The sight of poverty, unhidden on the streets, and the beggars without number had their own effect, but so too did the welcome we received at all times from all whom we met throughout India and Nepal. This was a memorable trip in so very many ways, and all will have personal memories that will be simultaneously thought-provoking, stimulating and, on occasion, haunting. My thanks go to the boys for the high standard of their behaviour, for their courteousness to everyone with whom they came into contact, and for being company that can only be described as fun. My thanks also go to my adult companions, Andy Copsey, Simon and Lorraine Hearsey, Matt Holdcroft and, last but not least, Edward, my son and Anne, my wife and Dame. This was a marvellous and memorable fortnight.
                                                                                                                                   Richard Coward
DATE POSTED: 16 April 2009

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