Goa – Where you end up staying longer than intended

29 10 2012

After my adventurous trip from Aurangabad via Mumbai I finally made it to Magao, the transport hub of Goa. But it was still in the middle of the night, so I had to wait another couple of hours until sunrise to catch a bus to Panjim, according to the Lonely Planet, the cutest capital of India, with lots of portugese influence and charm. When I finally arrived in Panjim and found a clean hotel with reasonable prices, I was reliefed that this most strenuously trip was over. The only thing I wanted to do was to take a shower… with all my cloths Which stank and were really dirty from all the different trains and waiting rooms.

Panjim - Do you see the portuguese flair?

Panjim – Do you see the portuguese flair?

Panjim was disappointing. Maybe because the expectations are high after reading about the city in the Lonley Planet. If there is some charme it is well hidden. Some buildings remind of the great time of the city and the portugese influence but most are of the ordinary Indian style: weather-beaten cubes of concrete. To distract myself I booked a river cruise tour that took place in the evening going up and down the Mandovi river for one hour. I was the only foreigner on board and at least for some of the Indians the main attraction. The tour included a cultural program with ugly local dances which could have been coreographed and performed by 6-years old kids but on the stage were grown-ups 🙂 for me, the main attraction was that I could immediately observe and feel the Indian culture. Between the ugly „cultural“ performances, the passengers were invited to dance on the stage. But, of course, in distinct groups. First were the children, afterwards the, mostly married, couples. It was strange to see how embarrassed and stiff they danced with each other, hardly touching each other or even looking at each other. This all changed within seconds when the groups of only single males and, after that, single females were asked to enter the stage. When males or females were amongst each other, they started to dance in the most detached way, touching and animating each other to dance even more wild. Social studies could be conducted on this river cruise!

River cruise in Panjim

Panjim – Do you see the portuguese flair?

I left Panjim the next morning to go to the southern beaches of Palolem or Patnem. I went back to Magao by bus (there is absolutely no need to take the overpriced rickshaws and taxis) and rented a scooter, haggling with the man in charge over the price. I managed to lower the price per day from 400 to 300 rupees and to be charged on a 24h basis. I thought that renting the scooter in Magao, where I would have to take a train or bus to Kerala at the end of the week, would be a great idea, so I would be free to move along the whole southern coast. In the end I stayed almost the whole time in Patnem and Palolem which are only 3km apart. So renting a scooter at one of the southern beaches would have been suitable, too. They are even cheaper at the beaches, charging around 200-250 rupees a day. But be aware: that you can test the scooter is also an assurance for them if you are able to drive it or if you represent a danger for the general public 🙂 I know two girls that actually wanted to rent a scooter but only got the answer „you not rent!“ after the test drive.

Sunset at Patnem Beach

Sunset at Patnem Beach

The freedom the scooter gave me was only restricted by my own laziness and so I was only commuting between my guest house in Patnem and the beach in Palolem. It was still two weeks until the season would begin and so my beach in Patnem was almost deserted. Only the workers buidling up the huts for the high season and occasionaly one or two tourists were seen on this 1km stretch of beautiful, sandy beach. Unfortunately the options for shops, bars and eateries were equally limited. I spent the first afternoon at this beach but went for dinner to Palolem, which provides far more dining options. The „Fernandes“ restaurant at the northern stretch of the beach proved to provide very delicious food at (at least for the beach) reasonable prices. Later I discovered the Krishna stall in the city of Caudin, which serves very good local cuisine for a fraction of the price the beach-side restaurants charge you. This became my favorite spot for breakfast. If you are around, try the Puri Bahji (some sort of chickpea curry sauce with slightly sweet bread) or Igili (rice bread with different sauces). There I met an old man that looked and acted somehow very much Indian but on the other hand not a bit… it was his cloths that distinguished him: pink tank top and shorts 🙂 he was an Israelian who comes to India for 6 months since 1987. He adopted most of the Indian gestures and habits perfectly, especially the head waggling (he even did this better than the most Indians 🙂 ). When I told him about that, he admitted that something must have changed over the years, because even the Indian beggars didn’t approach him anymore… I didn’t tell him that he, exept for his cloths, reminded me exactly of them 🙂

Krishna - very delicious eatery in Chaudi

Krishna – very delicious eatery in Chaudi

The beach at Palolem is a lot busier than the one in Patnem. There they were raising many huts, too, so I could enjoy the familiar sound of hammers and saws. My favorite spot on Palolems beach was the northern end near a little island off the coast. The advantage of this spot is, that it provides at least a few plaes that give a little shadow. There are absolutely no other shady places on the whole beach. A little river has to be crossed to reach this spot. Unfortunately this river wasn’t that small at high tide. Infront of me was a girl, that slowly searched for a shallow path at the mouth of the river were it meets the sea. I thought, that this must be the place with the strongest currents so I walked a little bit down the river and tried it there… just my luck that exactly there a stone was hidden and all the sand around was washed away by the (not so strong) currents. So I stumbled and almost fell full length into the water. Fortunately I put the camera into the wet bag to prevent it from becoming sandy 🙂 and I could feel the girl laughing and thinking „what a fool… he should only have followed me“. And she, Luise from Berlin, just told me that 🙂

View of my favorite spot of Palolem Beach and behind

View of my favorite spot of Palolem Beach and behind

In the evening Anne Lise, the french fellow traveller I met in Ladakh and Udaipur, was arriving on my second day in Palolem. It is funny how one meets known faces again and again along the road. So Luise, Anne Lise and I formed a little dinner and beaching club. Palolem is also good for Yoga, the girls told me. There are numerous classes for every level. The ones that are keen for a little bit more action can rent a kayak at rates of around 200 rupees and less, according to your haggling skills. I can recommend the tour up the river. Though the water is really dirty, the scenery definitely compensates for that and you might be able to see different types of Kingfisher birds, other animals, and some mangroves.

Kayaking on the river behind Palolem Beach

Kayaking on the river behind Palolem Beach

I also tried the beach at Agonda which is further north from Palolem. I was only there to see the sunset and for a Lassi at the H2O-Lounge/Resort/Bar. The sunset is really amazing and from the colors totally different from Palolem beach, although they are only 10km apart. I even saw some sun worshipper making some weird signs towards the setting sun.  The lounge area of the resort is really cool but I’m sure it doesn’t justify the price of 4000 rupees per night for a hut!

Sun worshippers at Agonda Beach

Sun worshippers at Agonda Beach

On my last day in Goa I finally took advantage of the freedom the scooter gave me and I drove a little detour on my way back to Magao to see the Braganza House, a massive portuguese-style mansion built in the 17th century. Therefor I went to Chandor, some 15km from Magao. Even the tour from Palolem to Chandor off the main road was worth the trip. Some other (smaller) portuguese-influenced mansions can be seen along the road and the people seem to be more relaxed and laid-back. Back in Magao I returned the scooter and boarded the overnight train to Cochin/Eranakulam in the state of Kerala.

My scooter in front of the Sea View Resort in Patnem

My scooter in front of the Sea View Resort in Patnem





Ellora Caves

27 10 2012

The travelling to Aurangabad was unspectacular. The bus ride to Aurangabad took about 5h and I could have stayed in the bus for another 9-10h because it continued to Mumbai as well… but I preferred the less shaky mode of travel so I got off the bus in the outskirts of Mumbai. The ticket master of the bus must have smelled a little commission so he wanted me to enter a rickshaw that would bring me to the train station. Only 20km from where the bus stopped and the rickshaw driver would generously do it for 250 rupees. I asked the tourists best friend and offered the driver 70 rupees and this time it was me who was generous, because I also knew that the rate per km was below 10 rupees. Google Maps clearly stated 7km and I asked him if he’s always that bad in estimating distances. He calmly accepted my price 🙂

Gujarat Thali in Aurangabad

Gujarat Thali in Aurangabad

I don’t have a clue wheter Ahmedabad is worth a visit or not. The Lonely Planet states that the city has many things to explore and do but that one would need some time to get warm with it. But it seems that, according to the Lonely Planet, the most boring and charmless places are described like spectecular oasis for tourists. I also read that it was famous for Gujarath thalis so I spent my short stay in a restaurant and, indeed, the Gujarath version of thali was very tasty. In the morning I arrived in Mumbai to wait for the next train to Aurangabad that would leave around noon. So I had plenty time to check if my parcel was still in Jaisalmer or it was really sent without paying the bribe to the post officer. After 3 people telling me, that it was not possible to track this kind of parcel another woman came, provided the parcel’s id to some Internet service and there it was: in Delhi!! 🙂 After another eventless train ride of 7 hours I finally arrived, after 30h of travelling and waiting, in Aurangabad at 9 in the evening. Again, the rickshaw drivers tried to rip me off, offering me to take me to my hotel (the ones with rooms less than 500 ruppes seems to be holes but at least my one had a really good veg. restaurant next door) for 100 rupees. When they finally realized that I know how far it is, one agreed to take me there for only 10 rupees 🙂

Ellora - Cave 10 entrance

Ellora – Cave 10 entrance

Aurangabad itself doesn’t seem to have much to offer for tourists except for hotels and buses going to the many sights in the proximity of the city. Besides the Ellora Caves, definitely the main attraction there are also forts, tombs, and other things to see. If one is keen to see them all, auto-rickshaws can be hired for a full day for around 700 rupees. I only wanted to see the caves because it is a huge area that will take some time to explore if one wants to take more than a glimpse at each cave. So I took a rickshaw (the brother of my rickshaw driver from the day before was already in front of the hotel hoping for a great deal) to the government bus stand and than a local bus, which was only 30 rupees for the 40-minutes ride, to the Ellora caves. Poor rickshaw driver… it was already the beginning of the season but he told me that almost no tourists were in town. Most of the other sights are passed en route so I got an impression whether it might be worth to take a rickshaw back to stop at these places.

Ellora - Cave 10 from the top

Ellora – Cave 10 from the top

The caves run along a long stretch with a little park infront. Even there, in this ancient setting, most Indians use rickshaws inside the park to get close to the caves to minimize the walking. The cave closest to the entrance is also the most impressive (cave 10). It seems that the monks responsible for this cave, turned a massive rock into a massive, impressive, and freestanding temple, with no more than hammer and chisel. There are 34 caves in total that can be assigned to different religions: Buddhist (around the impressive temple of cave 10), Hindu and Jain. Some of the caves date back to the 6th or 7th century. Among impressive stone scarving skills they must have had plenty of time back then 🙂

Even with the best intentions... one will always end up with a photo like this :-)

Even with the best intentions… one will always end up with a photo like this 🙂

One can clearly distinct between the different epochos and religions in which the caves were built. Some show only buddhist figures, often taller than man, while other show a variety of different gods/figures and even women with enormous breasts… 🙂 it was really impressive seeing the fine carvings on the one hand and basic but huge prayer halls carved into or out of the stone. I ended up spending the whole day in the park so I skipped the other sights I had seen on my bus ride to the caves, although the fort looked really interesting. After all I was glad that I took the long detour to see this monumental piece of Indian history!

Impressive statues carved out of stone

Impressive statues carved out of stone

The next morning I had to get up really early to take the train back to Mumbai at 6AM. I was curious about my connecting train from Mumbai to Goa because my status on the waitlist haven’t changed since the last morning: I was still the first on the list… but it was still 8 hours and only a single person had to cancel to get a confirmed ticket myself. Until now it has never been a problem, sometimes even being 30th on the waitlist… but this time I had no luck! I got off at Thane, a district close to Mumbai and waited for the train to arrive and my status to change but the latter didn’t happen until the train reached the station. Because of a lack of other options and the hope that another person might have missed the train somewhere I still boarded the train but the train conductor told me that there is not a single seatr available. I had to buy another ticket for sleeper class (open carriages with beds and no A/C, ) with a fine ontop because I had no valid/confirmed ticket. But still, there was no seat available even in sleeper class. The other option would have been to get off the train in the middle of nowhere. It would be really interesting, if the train conductor added a little to the fine for his own pocket… he definitely acted strange when calculating the price. Finally I was sent to the sleeper class carriages without any advices where to seat. I just grabbed the first free seat, although it was booked by someone boarding at a later station, and didn’t move. When the train conducter came along I always asked him if there is a free seat now but he just accused himself always with the words „one minute“ and didn’t showed up for a long time. I’sure there were a few free seats but I think, because I already had paid for the new ticket, he sold them to other passengers. !!!!!Bedenken haben!!!!! of how it would be to show up in the sleeper class alone with all of my luggage and no chance to move if I don’t want to leave it alone. Now, writing this post in the train from Goa to Kochi travelling in AC3 class again, I think that the people in the lower classes are even more friendly and well-mannerd as the Indians of the middle class that can afford AC seats and bend. Here, in AC3, most of them behave like they are alone, burping, farting and throwing their rubbish everywhere… it seems they even don’t know how to use a mobile phone or watched too many episodes of Star Trek confusing their Nokia phone with a tricorder… In the sleeper class I (fortunately) sat next to a friendly family, with 3 children, 3 men and one woman, which (unfortunately) hardly spoke a word English. Nobody complained that they had to share the bench with one more person. At night, when everybody (except me) was preparing their beds, one of the men offered me one quater of his bed which he already shared with the two small kids. Another father of a small kind couldn’t stand seeing the four of us cramped on one bed, nobody able to sleep, so he offered me his „spare“ bed… I’m not sure if it was really a spare bed or if he was sharing one bed with his wife and kid afterwards, but I glady accepted is friendly offer. I really wonder why in India the less fortunate are mostly the more friendly and helping and the so called „middle class“ often selfish, unfriendly, mannerless and if they are in the tourist business they want to rip you off…





Rajasthan – Land of the kings!

17 10 2012

Jaipur is Rajasthans capital city and for tourists it offers some palaces, a couple of buildings influences by british-colonial architecture, a fort on top of a hill overlooking the city, a bunch of pink houses in the old city center, the usual bazaars, and the „heaven piercing minaret“, a minaret overlooking the old city center. I was heading to the latter when an Indian man was telling me that the minaret is already closed and I should visit some other temple instead were I would have similar views and, of course, for free… I ignored the man like one ignores so many other touts offering alomost everything for free. The minaret was really closed so I gave the temple a try. Indeed, one could enter for free and it provided nice views of the bazaar road and the surroundings. I spotted the man who gave me the tip and the only thing I could do was to nod at him in acknowledgement. This is one thing that really annoys me a lot in India. Everyone who depends on tourism for a living or at least is related to tourists tries to rip you off: rickshaw drivers promising to bring you to the best value guest house, which turns out to be a shithole in the middle of nowhere, the best value shops, tours or whatever, that are fairly overpriced or provide low quality. Shopowners, men on the streets and even kids approaching you to show you the best spots of the city for free or only liitle charge… if one is naive enough to follow their call one will most certainly find oneself in the middle of a bunch of Indians trying to sell stuff you don’t need/want at prices up in the sky and it’s really hard to get out without buying anything. On the other side there are a lot of Indians (the ones not related to tourism) who are just friendly and helpful, like the man telling me about the temple. But there is no chance to know beforehand who is of which type so you tend to distrust and ignore simply everyone and by doing so you’ll definitly miss a lot of cool spots 😦 Only by chance you will realize that some people don’t want to rip you off.

Jaipur: flower bazaar

Jaipur: flower bazaar

In the evening I went to the „Jaipur night tour“. It is organized by the Rajasthan tourism office but I guess you’ll never know what is official and what is not. In Delhi there was an „offical tourism office“ at almost every corner… The tour covers all the sights in Jaipur, even these outside the city center. This is the positive thing about this tour. Because you are going by night, you can’t get into any of these because everything is closed. Another positive suprise was the dinner, which is included in the price of 375 rupees. You will dine at the Tiger Fort, the fort on top of the hill with very nice views of Jaipur. The food was unexpectedly tasty: various vegetarian curries/dhals, rice, chapatis, curd… After that we went to some other palace with a very cool light and audio show. Eventhough it was the „offical Rajasthan tourism office“, we ended up in some big shop, selling everything from textiles (they even explained the process of block painting which Jaipur is famous for) over statues to painitings. At some point, the sales clerk at the paintings section asked me if I wanted to see his special paintings he personally creates in his free time. Scenes from the Kamasutra 🙂 and really great works!!

Jaipur: Night Tour with cool light/audio show at some fort

Jaipur: Night Tour with cool light/audio show at some fort

The next day I wanted to see all the sights in the city center we drove by the last night but I ended up in some shop. First, the owner was just talking to me, making jokes about other customers which he knew were doing business with some of his „enemies“. I ended up buying a tailor-made shirt and trouser and some more stuff, always thinking that I am ripped off… The material seemed very good, but I’m no professional and I don’t know whether it is good value or not. During the time my cloth were tailored I went to a nearby cinema to watch a Bollywood movie. Unfortunately they were only showing the movie „English Vinglish“ at this particular time. It’s not a real Bollywood movie, less dancing and sob stuff… but a lot of English so at least I was able to understand most of it. Back at the shop I was still not sure whether I was being ripped off or getting good value cloths. The shop owner had a travel agency as well and because he „really liked me“ he was offering me a good deal for a camel safari in Khuri, a small village near Jaisalmer. I ended up buying this, too. In the end it turned out, that at least the camel safari package was really cheap in comparison to what the other guests where paying per night (I paid less than half for 2 nights than the others for one night), so it might be that the cloth were good value as well. But it is also possible that the cloth were so overpriced that the owner felt sorry for me and therefor offered me that package 🙂

Jaisalmer, or more specifically Khuri, was my next destination. Jaisalmer is a small city built around a huge fort made of sand stone near the Pakistan border in western Rajasthan. It is also famous for camel safaris. My „resort“ was in Khuri, a small village some 50km southeast of Jaisalmer. I had to take the local bus to get there. And there it was agian. The rickshaw drivers and some random people told me, that there was no more bus going to Khuri that day. But they could take me there or knew somebody who could. Others told me there will be a bus but everyone was sure it was going at a time that didn’t match with the times the others told me. I figured out that most stated a time between 1PM and 3PM and in fact, the bus showed up at 1.30PM. I asked the ticket officer for the price and he answered almost immediatly with 100 rupees. I was sure I read something about 30 rupees (but in a book that was 2 years old) so I started to ask the others on the bus. They confirmed the price of 30 rupees so I started a little argument with the ticket officer. After 30 minutes of riding in a absolutely overcrowded bus were I wasn’t able to move and some really old Indian beggar started to rail against me/foreigners in general (I was sure about that although he didn’t spoke a word English) I finally got back my 70 rupees.

Khuri: accomodation at my "resort"... the hut was my one

Khuri: accomodation at my „resort“… the hut was my one

The two nights in the „resort“ were quite okay. A complex consisting of some tents and some shanty huts is regarded as „resort“ over there 🙂 On the first evening I had my first ride on a camel to the dunes to see the sunset. Afterwards I had sore legs and muscle ache in the arms… riding a camel is definitely the most uncomfortable mode of travel… 🙂 Every night was the same entertainment program with traditional music and dances. But the music wasn’t exactly my taste and way to loud… the dances were nice though.

Khuri: my camel, I named her Trudy, watching the sunset...

Khuri: my camel, I named her Trudy, watching the sunset…

On the third day I went back to Jaisalmer, paying only 30 rupees for the bus right from the start 🙂 in Jaisalmer there are many guest houses, almost all of them with views of the fort and roof-top terraces. I went to the Roop Mahal which had very basic but clean rooms for only 300 rupees. Try to avoid eating at the roof-top restaurant… I was feeling a little bit sick a couple of hours after I had breakfast there and I just met two fellow travellers which had even more serious stomach problems after eating at this place. In the afternoon I tried to send a parcel back to Germany… not an easy task in India. You have to go to a tailor first that tailors some kind of bag that fits exactly around your parcel and seals the stitching with wax. After that you can go to the post office and pay a fortune to send some kilos via land and sea… and still, some bloke of the post office, probably the supervisor, came around when I had to pay and asked for a bribe… as if it was the most natural thing… I refused to pay and now I hope the parcel won’t get „lost“ somewhere… This is exactly the type of people that make travelling in India a less nice experience and making you suspicious of most Indians because as tourist you normally deal with these people more often.

Jaisalmer: panorama of Jaisalmer Fort

Jaisalmer: panorama of Jaisalmer Fort

The next day I visited the Jaisalmer Fort which is very impressive and the audio guide highly recommended. It’s even included in the admission fees. It was the first time I tried an audio guide and I think I will go for it more often from now on… if the price is reasonable 🙂 In the afternoon I met Kai, the Japanese-German guy I met in Leh, and we went to the bus stop to start our 14 hours overnight bus ride to Udaipur… the bus ride was an advendure for itself. We had the berths in the rear section of the bus. With every bump the bus was crossing we were jumping back there… and if you are taller than 1.70m there won’t be much space to jump! The bus driver was driving like a madman… in Europe you would barely recognize the street as mogul slope. Here in Rajasthan it was a highway! If there were some animals on the street he chose the last chance to brake… I’m sure we even hit some of them… I think I managed to sleep at least 2 hours before we arrived in Udaipur the next morning.

Sunrise in Udaipur after our 14h bus ride... What a relief!

Sunrise in Udaipur after our 14h bus ride… What a relief!

To be upfront with it: if I had to live in one of the cities I’ve seen so far in India… without any doubt, it would be Udaipur! The city spreads around the lake Pichola and is surrounded by some hills to the west. The houses rise steadily from the banks of the lake so that almost everyone has a rooftop terrace overlooking the Lake Palace hotel situated in the middle of the lake and only reachable via boat. Our guest house is situatedon a small headland on the bank opposite Lal Ghat and the main city with splendid views of Udaipurs City Palace. In my opinion, you will have the best views of the city right there and it’s a bit more quite with less tuk-tuk drivers and shop owners competing for your attention. We searched for accomodation and weren’t lucky at first… not enough free rooms for the three of us or just too expensive. But then we were taken to a „new“ place of the brother of one of the guest house owners, the Araveli Palace guest house… everything is a palace over here, no matter how old and in which state 🙂 our’s was definitely not new but provided clean (Indian standard of cleanliness) and very good views from the rooftop terrace for only 300 rupees per night. I wished it would be always that way!

Our hotel was one of the higher ones in the background, overlooking the sunrise scenery!

After we recovered from our bus tour, we started to walk around the city and finally took a taxi to the Monsoon Palace, which is situated on top of one of the hills, for sunset. It is a bit pricey, 600 rupees for the taxi that will wait for you while you explore the Monsoon Palace and wait for the sunset, another 130 rupees parking fees, and finally 160 rupees admission per person, so share at least the taxi and parking fees if possible. The views of the city and the hills are really good, the palace itself is not too interesting. The next day I went with Kai to see the Udaipur City Palace and it’s museum and we spent over 2 hours in there. Unfortunately the audio guide was a little bit too pricey. In the museum one can enjoy the amazing architecture with beautiful stone and wood carvings and the sheer size of the palace. There are uncountable rooms, many of them displaying paintings and other exhibits of past times, and occasionally open areas with gardens and springs and whatever a moghul or king needed 🙂 after visiting the City Palace I was keen to find a quite and green spot for reading. I finally ended up in some park behind the City Palace that turned out to host the zoo of Udaipur, a little toy train, and I was sure there was some karaoke going on somewhere near, too…

View from the Monsoon Palace in the opposite direction of Udaipur

View from the Monsoon Palace in the opposite direction of Udaipur

During the day one could see preparations going on for some festival starting the 16th in the evening, the Navarathri festival. It will last for 9 nights and as I heard, there will be a lot of dancing. Unfortunately I will travel a lot the next days but I hope I can attend some ceremony somewhere. The first night we missed the festival because of a cooking class with Sashi, an Indian woman here in Udaipur. Besides the 14 dishes we prepared or at least discussed that night we learned a lot about her life and Indian rules according to casts. She, for example, is of a family from a very high cast, and the members are only allowed to eat vegetables that grow over ground. Being from a high caste doesn’t necessarily mean you are rich and when her husband died she really struggled for a couple of years to care for her son and herself. Again, being from a high caste can be cumbersome: she had no job then and as soon as her husband died his family turned away from her and her son. According to the rules of her caste she even wasn’t allowed to do some jobs like laundry and such. Finally, with the help of many western tourists which encouraged her to learn English, she opened up the cooking class and now she’s very proud to be the number 1 tour attraction in Udaipur on TripAdvisor 🙂 The cooking class was really a memorable event… we spent 5 hours in her home around a small table or the cooking plates, discussing a wide range of Indian recipes, chopping vegetables, kneading dough, or frying dishes. Now I know how to prepare a really fresh Masala chai (not using any powder mix), Pakoras, Chapatis, Curries, different types of Parathas (sweet, plain, buttered, stuffed… you name it!), and even Paneer cheese… will definitely try these back home!

Quintessential choice of spices needed for Indian dishes

Quintessential choice of spices needed for Indian dishes

Spices lessons with Shashi and my fellow students

Spices lessons with Sashi and my fellow students

In a few hours, a most likely tiresome session of travelling will begin. First I will have to go to Ahmedabad by bus only to board the night to Mumbai train 3 hours later. Arriving there in the morning, I won’t waste time and get onto the next train to Aurangabad in the early afternoon, arriving in late evening. All this to be able to see the Ellora caves. Hopefully these are as good as everyone is telling me 🙂

Lal Ghat in the evening...

Lal Ghat in the evening…





Delhi, Agra, Amritsar… monuments everywhere!

17 10 2012

On my flight back to Delhi I met two Israelian women I already knew from the rafting. They were also heading to Delhi and someone back in Leh recommended to stay in the neighborhood of Majiu Ka Tila. It was the Tibetian district of Delhi, with many stalls and shops selling the same stuff as in Leh. The buildings are built so close to each other only allowing very small and dark passages between them. Although it felt quite touristy it was almost laidback in comparison to the main bazaar region where most of the other travellers seek for cheap accomodation. The girls told me that hey have just finished military service back in Israel and filling the gap until uni starts with travelling around India… in Israel everyone has to serve at least for two years, three years if you didn’t want to be on the lowest step of the ladder… crazy people over there 🙂 Delhi itself is better than it’s reputation. If you tell a fellow traveller that your next destination is Delhi he or she will most certainly ask you something like „one or two days? There’s really nothing to do…“. In my opinion, it’s a bit like Mumbai but without the colonial architecture. Still, two days are really enough to see the hustle of the main bazaar and the other sights which are relatively close to each other… what reminded me most of Mumbai were the rickshaw drivers telling you some stories to rip you off… Ony my first day I went to India Gate and Babur’s tomb. The latter is really nice but with 250 rupees admission a little bit overpriced… I arrived very late and wanted to go to the Red Fort of Delhi afterwards. Because I had my share of walking that day (from main bazaar via Conough Place and India Gate to Babur’s tomb; where is a rickshaw when you really need it???) I approached a random rickshaw and asked for the price. I was suprised to hear a reasonable price, slightly above 10 rupees per kilometer. But then he started to tell me that the Red Fort is closed this and the next day because of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday the next day… I checked that fact and it turned out to be true… it was his birthday and also a national holiday so it could be true. Majinu Ka Tilla was, in his opinion, too far to go by rickshaw… strange to hear that from a rickshaw driver but most certainly true. So he offered me to drop me at a Metro station… for only 100 rupees!! Hmm… at first, he wanted a reasonable price to go to the Red Fort that is quite a distance and now he wants even more to drop me after the next traffic light?? In the end I had to give him 50 rupees because I had no smaller change and it turned out, that the Red Fort wasn’t closed at all. Screw you, you bloody tout!! Fortunately I went there by chance and spend there almost the whole afternoon and evening of my last day in Delhi. Inside the Red Fort several groups of male Indians approached me to take a photo with me… I really don’t know why they do it. It happend at some other places as well. I could understand it if I was female with blonde hair and whatelse could be special… but even for an European I just don’t look that special, do I??

Delhi: Badur's tomb

Delhi: Badur’s tomb

The next day I had to get to New Delhi railway station really early in the morning so I booked a taxi at my hotel and they ensured me to call me as soon as my taxi arrives. 10 minutes after the fixed time I went to the reception only to see several men sleeping on the couches. At least it turned out, that my „taxi“ driver was amongst them… I guess a friend of some of the hotel’s employees. On our way to the railway station I could hardly read the traffic signs that stated a maximum speed of 60 km/h… but on the city’s highway and streets we were speeding with at least double of it, not even braking for cows crossing the highway… It was my first train ride on Indian trains to Agra. I booked 3AC class which is best value for overnight journeys. If you are travelling over day try to avoid upper side berths because I had exactly this berth and some fat stinky Indian asshole was occupying the whole lower berth which should have served as two normal seats during day time: my seat!! But he pretended not to speak English although he was speaking to me in the beginning… so I had to search an empty seat.

Delhi: Inside the Red Fort

Delhi: Inside the Red Fort

In Agra I went to some guest house just 2 minutes from the south gate of the Taj Mahal. The roof top terrace had excellent views of it but so have other guest houses in the proximity, most of them really cheap. There, on the roof top terrace, I met Matthew from UK, which looked as lost and frustrated as me after my first days in Mumbai. So I started to chat with him and it turned out that he really felt this way and was reliefed to finally talk to someone after spending 2 days in Delhi not meeting any fellow travellers. We arranged to meet early the next day for the Taj Mahal.

Agra: Views of Taj Mahal from my rooftop terrace

Agra: Views of Taj Mahal from my rooftop terrace

Early in the morning, only the western and eastern gate is open, the southern gate, which was only 2 minutes from our guest house, is closed until 8AM. We have chosen the eastern gate to enter the complex which was a huge mistake because the ticket booth is more than 1.5km apart from the entrance. Within the complex you will most probably see the biggest crowd of foreign tourist you will ever see in India (maybe except from Goa). Even in the Golden Temple complex it was hard to spot another foreign tourist but not at the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal itself is really impressive: the whole building is made of white marble and beautifully carved and painted… one could not imagine what it would have cost to build something like that. And all this as a mausoleum for the (obviously) beloved wife of the emperor Shah Jahan. No wonder he was imprisoned by his own son when he came up with the idea to build another Taj made of black marble just on the other side of the river… his son was more practical and spent the money to support the ordinary people and he imprisoned his father in Agra’s Red Fort so that he could enjoy „his“ Taj Mahal. Eventhough he hadn’t Pay-TV like prisoners nowadays, the complex wasn’t the worst to be locked-in. It’s even more impressive than the Red Fort in Delhi and consists of no less than 16 palaces.

Agra: Taj Mahal in the morning sun

From mid-day to the early evening Matthew and I hired a rickshaw that took us to all the other sights of Agra: the „Baby Taj“, an earlier mausoleum that stood model for the actual Taj Mahal, the site where Shah Jahan started to build the black Taj and the Red Fort. It is definitely worth to see the other places but every site charges admission as well so it will be an expensive day. You get discount if you have been to the Taj Mahal on the same day and show the ticket at each counter.

Agra: Baby Taj

Agra: Baby Taj

The next destination was Amritsar to see the Golden Temple. Because I wanted to see all the different classes of Indian trains, I booked first class (1AC) for this trip. My ticket didn’t state my seat so I had to ask the train conductor. He seemed so enthusiastic to have a foreigner in his carriage that he dislodged a Sikh couple from their compartment for two to make room for me. The Sikh man and the train conductor started a serious agrument and I feared that they would get rough every moment. After 10 minutes the Sikh man came to my (formerly his) compartment and asked me if I paid a bribe to the train conductor. After I negated this he turned out to be very chatty and curious. He asked the usual questions about my marital status, children, job, and what else seems to be primary to Indians… but he was also very interested in what I was earning when I worked during my studies and other very personal questions. He also seemed to have travelled a lot in Europe, especially Germany, and turned out that he had relatives living in Rostock and Frankfurt/Main. The Sikh man was so excited to talk to a guy from Germay that after another 5 minutes I was talking on his mobile to the nephew living in Frankfurt. We both didn’t really know what to talk about so it was only a short conversation 🙂 The Sikh was a retired commander of the Indian army and after we talked a bit about our travels he just asked me about Hitler and Rommel and adored their tactics: „If Hitler hadn’t gone to Russia he would have conquered the world“!! What are you supposed to answer to such a statement?? As German?? I suddenly knew why he travelled so much around Europe: he was visiting famous site of WWII. Apparently, Hitler and the tactics of the Germans during WWII are studied nowadays by commanders of the Indian army. Very strange… To come back to the topic: the 1AC class isn’t really worth the money. You pay a lot more than in 2AC or 3AC. I couldn’t see any obvious differences between 1AC and 2AC and even in 3AC you will have enough space and the interieur is almost the same.

Train: AC1 compartment

Train: AC1 compartment

The main attractions of Amritsar are the Golden Temple and the border ceremony at the Indian-Pakistani border in Attari. The latter was recommended to me by the Dutch guy with whom I was at Pangong Lake and the Nubra Valley. He told me to book a tour with the Grand Hotel Amritsar, which will take me to the border ceremony and the Golden Temple as well. This indeed was a very good tip. For 580 rupees they take you to some famous labyrinth temple, the border ceremony and afterwards to the Golden Temple complex.

Attari: Indians celebrating at border ceremony

Attari: Indians celebrating at border ceremony (incl. group dance)

I didn’t knew what to expect from the ceremony. I thought of something really strict and cold as these two countries aren’t the best friends… but it turned out to be more of a fair or festival. They have built big tribunes on both sides of the border so that a lot of people can attend the ceremony. Snacks and drinks (but no alcohol) are available and the Indians (suprisingly mostly females) queued up along the road that led to the border gate to grab an Indian flag and run with it towards the gates and back again. Later they played popular songs from the Indian music charts and, again mostly/only women, they started a huge group dance. It seemed that the older unmarried women were dancing the most explicit 🙂 During the ceremony some soldiers with funny hats and an ugly way of marching (when they stopped or turned direction they always kicked their feet so high they could probably touch their heads with their tiptoe). There was a short shake-hands between a Pakistani and an Indian soldier, the flags were secured and the show was over. Really funny though and surely not what I expected.

Attari: border ceremony

Attari: border ceremony

The Golden Temple was, like so many other monuments in India, simply breathtaking. I think it doesn’t matter which time you are going, there will be a huge crowd in there. You must cover your head but many Indians sell simple headscarfs for only 10 rupees. In front of the temple some rags of headcloth are provided but you’ll never know who else was wearing it before you. We reached the complex at around 8PM and it was impressive to see the golden building nicely illuminated in the middle of this pool, with hundrets or thousands of people wandering around it. The next day I went there in the late morning to see even more people on the streets leading to and in the complex. Never go to an Indian monument on a weekend 🙂 In my opinion the Golden Temple is more spectecular during day time with all the glimmering gold shining in the sunlight.

Amritsar: Golden Temple

Amritsar: Golden Temple

I even managed to get into the communal kitchen, the Guru Ka Langar, to have a free meal. The Sikhs seem to have an all-inclusive philosophy and the free meal is part of it. One is encouraged to donate a small amount of money though. I was positively suprised by the meal. It consits of chapati and rice, two curries and a sweet dessert. Everything is served out of big buckets though 🙂 everyone sits in long rows on the floor of the building in the typical cross-legged style. It took the supervisor a while to realize that I am too immobile to sit in this position for more that 30 seconds so I was generously allowed a more comfortable position 🙂 one has 15 minutes to finish the meal and should make room for others then. I read that the communal kitchen provides meals for 80000 people… every day!! On weekends even more!

Amritsar: friendly Gandalf offering me a plate for the Guru Ka Langar (communal kitchen) of the Golden Temple

Amritsar: friendly Gandalf offering me a plate for the Guru Ka Langar (communal kitchen) of the Golden Temple

Guru Ka Langar: Today in the bucket... err... on the menu!

Guru Ka Langar: Today in the bucket… err… on the menu!

The same evening I took the next train to Jaipur. This time 2Ac class. As I said, I cloudn’t determine big differences to 1AC, so if you preferr less (max. 4 in 2AC, up to 6 in 3AC) company in your (open, in comparison to 1AC having doors) compartment you should go for this class.





Amazing Ladakh

5 10 2012

My flight from Mumbai to Leh was at 6 AM so I had the glorious idea to safe the money for staying at the hotel and drive to the airport the evening before… this time, I assured, the taxi would cost me around 8, not 50 Euros 🙂 arriving at the airport, I was forced to stay outside for another 2 hours for no obvious reasons, but after that it was fine. Sometimes (or better often) one should not ask for reasons or even some kind of sense over here 🙂 I spent the night with watching TV shows on my laptop to kill the time, beause unfortunately sleeping was not possible on the seats although it was relatively quite.

Sunrise over Mumbai

Sunrise over Mumbai

After the take-off I saw my first beautiful sunrise over India and shortly after that I doze of. On our stop in Delhi I didn’t had to get off the plane as it would go onwards to Leh. To fly over the Ladakh region and the descent to Leh was the most spectecular I’ve ever seen out of a plane. Amazing landscapes with huge montains, most of them topped with snow (snow line must be around 6000m there) everything else was just bare rocks and sand and looked like a scenery on the moon. Eventually, green oasis came into sight, following rivers that emerge between the mountains and reached into wide valleys and plateaus.

Approaching Leh

Approaching Leh

Leh itself is a little town that seemed quite busy and touristy to me. Maybe because I expected a little sleepy village in the middle of nowhere. It definitaly was in the middle of nowhere 🙂 I found a guest house with a nice garden an (at least advertised) 24h WiFi. For Indian standadards it seemed clean. This don’t count for western standard 🙂 but one will get used to it very soon and soon see the difference between old/worn and real dirt. In my room I had to face my first Indian challange: a squatter toilet 😉

The family that runs the guest house was really friendly. The grand father asked my whether I arraived today by plane and when I confirmed, he sent me to my room to have a rest 🙂 this is important to acclimatize to the height and to avoid mountain sickness. It was a welcoming advice because I had only dozed a bit on the flight. Normally, one should take it easy at least for 2-4 days, but on the next morning I felt really good so I went to explore the area. First destinations were the main bazaar of Leh, which is packed with souvenir and textile shops, selling primarily tibetian junk and shawls, curtains, bed sheets … everything from simple wool over Yak wool to silk and Paschmina wool. On my way to Leh Palace I met a guy from UK that tried to carry his bike up the hill, but after 200m he surrendered and kindly accepted my little lock. It was obvious, that it won’t stop anybody from stelaing it, but it was better than nothing 🙂

Leh Palace and Leh Fort are on top of a hill in Leh. The climb is steep but you will be rewarded with amazing views. Due to the height and the thin air, one will feel every single step and be exhausted every few meters. But I guess you haven’t been to Leh, I you don’t visit these both landmarks.

Panorama of Leh from Leh Fort

Panorama of Leh from Leh Fort

My aim was to do at least a 4-days trek in the region, so I had to be fast with organizing a tour because I only had 7 days in Leh. in mid-Septermber it is already low season, so I wasn’t able to find any trekking companions, at least not for the intended length and route. Finally I decided to do it on my own with only a guide. The tour began on September 19th and was from Spituk, some 30 minutes drive away from Leh, to Chilling. I don’t wanted to carry a sleeping back and tent, so I decided to go for home stays, which means, that I would be staying at the homes of locals from the villages where we would stay over night.

The morning the trek started, I met my guide, a 23 years old student from Leh named Lotus. It took us a while to get warm with each other, but in the end he turned out to be a funny guy and we talked a lot about our lives. The first little shock came, when the mini van dropped us at some point of the road on a wide plateau in the middle of nowhere. In sight were only the road, the mountains and between that only rocks and sand. A really surreal landscape. And now it was time to walk. Soon we reached the Indus river and were headed to path between the mountains. Always, it was green as soon as there was a river or some little stream. The landscape seemed bare, monotonous, and dusty at first sight, but it soon seemed to change every few meters.

The goal of the first day was a village called Yurutse. After we reached it, I had to redefine my understanding of the term village: over here, if there is at least one house, it’s a village. Yurutse has two houses and therefor could count as metropolis 🙂 I stayed in a house with one woman in her 50th and two men that could have been anything from 70 until 300 years old. The woman was really caring and friendly while the older men where busy with murmuring and praying (may be equivalent). None of them could speak a word English and so a downside of my guide Lotus came to light: he rarely translated anything of what the loacals were saying and even if I explicitly asked him to translate a discussion between several locals, he normally just answered „some old story“, which might be true but doesn’t help me to get to know and in touch with the people. I heard of other travellers having more luck with their guide.
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After the shock with the squatter toilet of the guest house in Leh, I was only a little bit worried to see, that there is something even  more simple serving as toilet in a house: a hole in the ground in a room of the first floor 🙂 along with sand and a spade. Fortunately I brought my own toilet paper… one of the most useful items to have in India!
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In the evening, we sat alltogether in the main room of the house, which served as living room, kitchen, sleeping room, and whatever there is exept the toilet. The woman cooked soup and prepared some bread rolls, which were steamed before eating. At 8 PM I excused myself to bed. Boredom can be exhausting… especially if a lot of talking happens around you and you don’t understand a single word.

Living room of home stay in Yurutse

Living room of home stay in Yurutse

On the second day we started early at around 7.30 AM and walked (or climbed) through wide areas and narrow paths, green patches, dessert-like areas and sometimes even small forrests. The next village only contained a single house, but it was bigger that the two ones of Yurutse and seemed livelier. It had also a rooftop terrace with splendid views of the Stok-Kangri, one of the easiest mountain over 6000m to climb. To kill time, I tried to climb the hill behind the home stay, I read a lot and in the evening there was the same procedure as before, this time with more people. We had dinner, the others were chatting („Some old stories“), but before going to bed, I managed to taste half a glass of local Ladakhi beer… something that reminds me a bit of Cider but still has an undefinable taste. The locals drink it with a lot of flour and as soon as you have a sip, somebody will refill your glass. With food it is mostly the same in home stays… You simply can’t eat as much as they want you to 🙂 and it takes many excuses to not get even more.

The highest point of the trek had to be passed on the third day. Again, we started early, right after breakfast. This time I wasn’t really sucessful in denying refills. Right after starting the hiking, I felt really weak and I was exhausted every few meters… that’s the right mood to cross a pass of over 4900m height! I was fully reliefed and exhausted when we reached the top after the first 3 hours of hiking… but after a rest of 5 minutes I felt good enough to climb the hill at one side of the pass to take a beautiful panorama picture 🙂 The way down is always easier, but it took us another 4 hours to reach the last home stay. There, the new houses even had a bathroom. Unfortunately without water 🙂 At the second home stay, we had a little stream outside the house that represented the shower, here it was a big river. Again, bitterly cold. At the evening a buddhist monk came to the guest house to stay over night. And of course, he had to do a prayer ceremony. Eventhough it is very interesting, it also can be very annoying, having a monk burning some herbs, shouting, and ringing bells randomly inside the house 🙂

The highligh of the next day was rafting on the Zandang river. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, it would be my first rafting, so I was pretty much excited. On the other hand, it still was this bitterly cold mountain river of not more then 6°C. On the way to the starting point, we had another highlight: crossing the river in a little box that hung on a rope spanned over the river. We met another couple from Germany and their guide, so there were 5 of us crossing that river in the little box. On the last round, when the other guide and the German guy were crossing the river, the rope, that is used to pull yourself to the other side, broke… so I guess, the ones arriving after us might have had a little problem 🙂

Who is stupid enough to go rafting at 5 degrees water temperature?

Who is stupid enough to go rafting at 5 degrees water temperature?

The rafting itself was okay. We were two and later 3 boats with approx. 8 people per boat. The level should be a 3+ but due to little water in the river, I guess it was less than that…

Back in the guest house I started to check the agencies for the next experience. I met a German/Japanese guy (Kai) in the guest house having similar plans. The easiest to organize would be mountainbiking down from the Khardung pass, one of the world highest motorable passes. A jeep is carrying the bikes and bikers up to the pass station and then you can speed down the road again… sounds awesome. It turned out, that even the way up in the jeep is very adventurous. Motorable actually doesn’t necessarily involve good streets… or something you would call at least a street 🙂 So all of us were very cautious on the highest parts of the „road“. It really was amazing with excellent views, a lot of adrenalin, and effortless cycling. After the road was reckognizable as road, the brakes weren’t used very often until I reached the starting point again. I would recommend this tour to everyone that likes biking at least a bit…

Mountainbiking Leh

Speeding down from Khardung La (5600m) to Leh (3500m)

Still, there were many places toeither to Pangong Lake or the Nubra Valley. I never heard a bad word about one of the location from other travellers. In fact, they were raving about these areas, so I decided to visit at least one of it. It isn’t too easy to organize a tour at the end of the season in Leh. First of all, many tourists seem to be in a hurry. They mostly went for 1-day tours, which means they will have approx. 2 hours at the possibly most exiting places in the world… I wasn’t… I had just extended my stay by changing my plans of going to Varanassi and rebooking my flight from Leh back to Delhi for 6 days later. It was a very reasonable price/fee in comparison to change flights in Europe, even with low-cost carriers. Kai and me checked almost all of Leh’s agencies, just to come up with one or two options, which were canceled just the evening before, due to sickness of other fellow travellers. And sharing the jeep with just 1 or two other people is too expensive. So we started another round of agency hopping and finally found another promising tour to Pangong Lake for the next day. It was with 3 other travellers, so it would be affordable, even if one got sick again… and so it happend: the guy from my guest house got an urgent call from the loo over night and was still busy taking to it in the morning so unfortunately he couldn’t join 😦

So I went with one weird Dutch (he always said Holland) guy, a girl from France and another girl from Israel. Driving through the mountains was awesome again. The landscape often changed from rough and steep abysses, to moon-like scenery and back to wide green plains with lovely rivers. We had to pass the Chang pass which seems to have the highest 90’s revival party in the world… At the local shop from a little car radio attached to a car battery, Take That and others were causing headache… I’m certainly sure that this had nothing to do with the heigth 🙂

Pangong Lake

„Interesting nothing“ of Pangong Lake

When we approached the Pangong Lake, I realized, that I had something totally different in mind, when I thought about how it might be… I thought of some nice villages along with trees, old ladies weaving socks and shawls from Yak wool, a few shops… but there was almost nothing! Sand, dust, rocks, more sand… and a beautiful lake shimmering in multiple variations of blue and green. And occasionally some old lady weaving something from Yak wool 🙂 Especially in the low season this is a very calm, sleepy place. There are some hints, how it must be in high season… a tent village with restaurants and souvenir shops, a bunch of toilets standing on a field (I guess/hope there will be a tent in high season)…

Only the guest houses of the families that are staying over the winter at Pangong Lake were still open and this weren’t many. We chose one that somebodz recommended to me back in Leh and it was a really good choice. At night, we had a lovely dinner with the family and we could even watch the process of making butter and cheese. In the morning I was able to try traditional Ladakhi cloths.

Cheese

Making Of: Cheese!

Traditional Ladakhi outfit

Traditional Ladakhi outfit

Lucky me, the Dutch guy and the Israelian woman wanted to go to Nubra Valley as well. The agenciy found two other Indians to join us, so we went right the next morning after we came back from Pangong Lake. We had to cross the Khardung pass again. On the other side was a thrilling canyon  range which I would have liked to explore… but a lot of driving was the plan for this day. After the first 3-4 hours of driving we finally saw the Nubra Valley.

Nubra Valley

First view of Nubra Valley

The first view is simply breathtaking. Between two really high mountain ranges is an almost endless plain with different distinct landscapes one could see from above. There was a river, shining almost as bright and colorful as the Pangong Lake. Near to the river and the streams coming from the mountains there were expansive greens with some small trees and even high cottonwood trees. On a hight of over 3000m! Then there were the usual rocks and dust. And, suprisingly, some sand dunes…

The farthest we got into the Nubra Valley were the „hot springs“at Panamik village. This was the only disappointing thing: you are driving through a beautiful landscape which holds enough to spend several days and your tour will stop after 6 hours of driving at this (sorry to say) shithole of tourist trap. If you can avoid going there do so… it is way better to explore a dark rock some 10km before Panamik. I’m sure it will be more fun to climb it ant the view must be awesome!! I’m still a bit angry we hadn’t the chance because we didn’t know what to expect in Panamik.

After Panamik we drove to some monastery which was nice but also not very special. Still we had two hours of driving to reach our final destination for the day: Hunder village, on the other side of the river and into another side arm of the valley. Hunder seems to be the place to stay over night. A lot of guest houses, camping sites and other accomodation. But it seemed still a natural, sleepy town, especially in low season. Our guide drove us to a nice little guest hose, owned by a very welcoming and nice family, with rooms at reasonable prices (Honcho guest house). The group of us started immediately to explore the area because it was about to get dark and we definitely wanted to see the river. On our way, we stumbled into a house of a local family. We had another very warm welcome, with children running around us and the oldest daughter, chatting with us in suprisingly good English. Although we came totally unexpected, we all had a cup of butter tean in our hands after just 3 minutes. I read about butter tea before and was expecting something really weird. It was weird, because it was made from milk tea, butter and salt, but tasted not as horrible as expected. Afer a few minutes, we all agreed to send back a letter with the photos we had taken of the family, we left for another attempt to find the river… without success… When it was getting dark, we headed back to the guest house, had dinner, and watched the cricket game India vs. Australia with our hosts later. I left after only one hour when one Australian player destroyed all chances of victory for India 🙂 The next day we were able to ride camels that live in this valley. I chose to take some pictures of the sand dunes instead 🙂

PanoramaNubraSandDunes

Panorama of Nubra’s sand dunes