Our flight to Hyderabad was delayed over two hours, but fortunately we were able to call Kingfisher Airlines from the house and check on the status of the flight. This meant that we could wait comfortably at home instead of sitting in the departures terminal of the Nagpur airport. We made good use the the time by going to the internet office and catching up on emails and then having a relaxing cup of masala tea with Kamal and Manju's neighbour, Kiran.
Once we arrived at the airport, things went very smoothly and we were thrilled with our short flight on Kingfisher. For those of you who are not aware, Kingfisher is a brand of beer sold in India - Anil is happy to report that the service on the airline is even better than the beer. There are now several private airlines in India, competing for business with Indian Airlines. Kingfisher has pulled out all the stops; even though our flight was only 45 minutes long, we were given a travel pack full of goodies and a light meal. Anil wants me to give you a blow by blow description of the lunch menu:
As we flew into Hyderabad we were pleased to see a large city with mostly low white buildings sprawling over the rocky landscape. We could see we were in for a treat. A taxi was waiting for us as planned. We had booked to stay at a guest house in the up-scale Banjara Hills area that was recommended to us by Madhu Seth, a member of the Sunday card-playing circle that Manju and Kamal have established in Nagpur. We were very pleased to find that the guest house has achieved what it set out to do; treat guests like they are members of a family. The rooms open off a central dining room/living room on each floor. Meals are available to those who choose to eat in (we are having our breakfast and dinner there) and the local papers are delivered for all to share. Most of the other guests are young men who work on a temporary basis in the city.
Our first evening we ventured out to walk through the area and get our bearings. We found that the main commercial area of Banjara Hills is about one and a half kilometers from the guest house down a series of steep, winding, narrow roads. After a long walk we found ourselves in the middle of a modern business center and it was here that we found an ATM that would accept foreign bank cards and also the closest Reliance internet outlet. Kamal would probably say that I have now located my "second home" in Hyderabad. There are few taxis as we have seen in other cities in India, but here the autorickshaws are all painted bright yellow and have meters. This takes most of the hassle out of getting a ride because we don't have to bargain for the price of a ride. There is even a bar across the right side of the auto so that passengers can only enter or exit on the "safe" side, away from traffic. I say this tongue-in-cheek because motorcycles are notorious for passing through the narrowest of spaces and one always has to be careful when getting in or out of any vehicle on any side.
For our first full day in Hyderabad we decided to take an autorickshaw (auto) out to the Golconda Fort, a distance of about 12 kilometers. The traffic was very heavy as we descended from Banjara Hills and the exhaust was choking in the back of the open auto. As we neared the edge of the city the traffic thinned out and we were able to breathe easier and also enjoy the passing boulevards that were green with grass and ablaze with flowering trees. The driver pointed to the rocky outcropping where the fort was located and our first look was rather disappointing. Naturally, we were comparing the view to our first glimpse of the Gwalior Fort. This one looked unimpressive.... just a crenulated stone wall at the top of a large outcropping of red rocks. We turned off the main road and passed the entrance to the Shahi Tombs. From there we drove through a narrow lane that was bounded by white-washed walls of muslim homes. Each home had their high gate painted a different vivid colour - red, green, blue - and I was reminded of my journey long ago in muslim north Africa. After about a kilometer we arrived at the base of the fort and I was thrilled to see that there was more to Golconda than first meets the eye.
We are becoming quite used to the fact that there are different admission prices for Indians and for foreigners but I was surprised to see that my "foreigner" ticket for 150 rupees had "2 US Dollars Only" written just below the fee. I am happy to support India's attempts to preserve her historic monuments, but I don't know where they get the exchange rate from. At the current exchange rate, the price is more like 4 US dollars - they probably just raised the entrance fee but didn't bother to change the caption below it.
We entered just as another group of three foreigners arrived so we joined forces and hired a local guide. His English was very good and later we learned that he had been a Biology teacher for 35 years and was working to stay active and also to supplement his retirement pension. Unfortunately, we didn't find him particularly knowledgeable and when we told him we were game to climb the three hundred steps to the top of the citadel, he begged off due to old age. He was able to point out one of the unique features of the fortress. The builders incorporated a series of Persian wheels to lift water to the higher levels from where the water was distributed throughout the fort using a system of clay water pipes. When you think that this fort was started before 1363 AD and was the capital of the Qutub Shahi kings for the period 1518 - 1687 this is quite remarkable. The Mogul Emperor Aurangazeb lay siege to the fortress in 1687 and after eight months was only able to defeat the Shahi kings when an insider turned traitor.
I won't say too much more, you may not be as interested in forts as I am, but where the other forts that I have visited in India are often built on large outcroppings of rock, this one has a much smaller peak where the citadel is located 400 meters above the plain and the buildings spill down one side of the rock face. This makes the vistas of the fort most impressive and in order to protect the thousands of courtiers, three separate defensive walls were built. They also built a seven kilometer moat around the outermost wall. I have taken a few pictures but this fort really needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
The weather during our visit to Golconda was very pleasant. There was a lovely breeze blowing that cooled us after our hard climb to the top. It's easy to forget that we are still near the equator and that the noonday sun is really intense. I found myself getting pretty heated during our descent, my blouse was soaked with perspiration on by back. This made the sight of a father walking with his young son even more laughable. While the father was dressed in a light shirt, his son was wearing a ski jacket zipped right up to his chin. For the people of Hyderabad, this is winter and they are overly protective of their much-adored children.
We took an auto to the Shahi tombs,just a kilometer away, described in the Lonely Planet as situated in landscaped gardens. While the tombs themselves were interesting, the gardens, if they ever existed, were sorely neglected and after taking a few photos, we headed back to our guest house for an afternoon siesta.
That same evening we decided to head for the old part of Hyderabad and see the famous Charminar (Four Minarets). This beautiful structure was built in 1591 to commemorate the end of a horrible epidemic. There are four arches each facing the cardinal points and a minaret atop each column. A large market has grown up around it and at night both the Charminar and the market are ablaze with light. This area is the center of the pearl trading in Hyderabad and along with the beautiful pearl shops are perfumeries, sari shops and the most bangles one could ever imagine being assembled in one place. Hundreds of stalls are selling bangles of all colours and descriptions. Most of the women in the market were wearing black burquas - with only their eyes peeking out. The place was abuzz with activity because it is wedding season here and everyone was looking for a bargain. The photo of the Charminar was disappointing but I have posted it here to give you an idea how beautiful it looked against the dark sky.
As we walked down some of the small lanes in the Laad Bazaar, we came upon the area where kites are sold. January 14th is the beginning of the festival called Sankrant and the kites will soon be filling the skies. There was a small boy watching me as I took photos of the kites and the spools of coloured string. He asked me to take his photo and I happily agreed. I couldn't help but think of the small boy in the book THE KITE RUNNER. If you haven't read this engrossing book, you really should consider picking it up. It is impossible to put down again.
Sunday was a quiet day for us, Anil stayed back at the guest house and I ventured out on my own to come to the internet cafe and work on my journal. When I came back, Anil was all excited. He read in the local paper that Casino Royale was showing at a theatre in central Hyderabad at 5:00 p.m. and as it was the 7th day of 2007, we felt we really should go and see 007. When we arrived at Prasad's we were surprised to see a Multiplex as modern as any we have in Canada. There are about five screens and an IMAX theatre along with dozens of high-end shops. The complex is on three levels with the cinemas on the third floor high above the international food court and the mezzanine. We ate lunch at the food court. I tried the dish that Hyderabad is famous for, biryani (chicken cooked in rice and saffron) and Anil had a wonderful thali (tray with assorted South Indian specialities). I always thought that the portion sizes in North America were huge but neither of us could come close to finishing our meals.
I took a photo of the climbing wall erected near the front entrance. I thought of my sister Donna and her family who are all into climbing. We settled in to watch the film and enjoyed it despite the fact that mobile phones were ringing and being answered all around us. Thank goodness everyone was speaking in Hindi or Telegu because I found it less distracting that way. We did notice that all the racy bits of the film were edited out, it made for jarring scene transitions and now we will have to rent the DVD to see what we missed. On the way out of the theatre I noticed a group of five burqa-clad women at the foot of the escalator. They were staring in amazement at the moving stairs; obviously the first time they had ever seen an escalator. Although their faces were completely covered by their head scarves and veils, it was plain to see that they were delighted with this new discovery. Their body language (hands to their mouths and doubled over at the waist) spoke volumes. They made me smile as I shared in their fun from a distance.
For our last day in Hyderabad, we decided to travel 30 or more kilometers out of the city center to see Ramoji Film City. I don't know if you are aware, but India is the biggest producer of films in the world. There are over 800 films made in India each and every year, in several different languages. Ramoji is much like Universal Studios and Disneyland combined. We thought we would see some live filming but the tour mainly consisted of travelling on open air buses through the 2,000 acre complex full of gardens and replicas of many of the famous sites in India. There is a street with mock houses and when our guide sang small snippets of famous film songs, all the young girls on our bus joined in or giggled with delight. While we were in Nagpur, we rented the film "Rang de Basanti", as terrific film about a group of young non-actors who are hired to act in a documentary about the freedom fighters who became martyrs for India's independence from the British. In fact, the film is India's entry for the Oscars in the Foreign Language film category. We passed a replica of a roadside tea stall that was used in the film and suddenly the film studio had greater meaning for us. We certainly will be rooting for RDB (as it's referred to here) when the Oscars are awarded in March.
The Ramoji Film City is not a place I would recommend to anyone on a tight travel timeline, but as we had a day to spare before out flight to Chennai, it gave us a glimpse of an entertainment option that the locals are delighted to see. The most memorable thing about our trip to Ramoji Film City was the fact that we travelled the 37 kilometers in an autorickshaw. When we passed by a policeman directing traffic, our young driver suddenly pulled out a tattered khaki shirt and hurriedly threw it over his shoulders. It was then I noticed that all the auto drivers were wearing a similar shirt over their long-sleeved shirts. It seems that this is an official uniform of sorts, but our young hip driver would much rather been seen in his funky black shirt - it probably cost him a week's earnings.
It's a terribly long way to go and we were planning to come back to town on the local bus, but when we emerged after four hours inside, we found our auto driver waiting to take us back to the city. He explained that he was so far out that it would cost him at least a liter of gas to get far enough into the city to get another fare, that he felt he would just wait for us. The ride back was a nightmare. We hadn't considered the fact that we would be in an open auto through the worst traffic that Hyderabad has to offer. The journey lasted over an hour and a half, much of it stuck in traffic with buses and auto spewing nauseating smoke. I wore the cloth face mask that I had purchased in Hanoi and Anil put his cloth hat over his mouth and nose in a vain attempt to lessen the amount of soot we inhaled. We vowed never again to take an auto for such a long journey and happily gulped down hot masala chai (tea) to cleanse our throats and clear our weary heads.
After working on this entry at the internet cafe, we walked all the way up the Banjara Hills to our guest house. We stopped along the way at Hyderabad House for some typical local dishes that had been recommended to us by our sister-in-law, Neeta. She told us to try an eggplant dish, Bagar-E-Baigan, that is different from the style we are used to seeing in the north. She also told us about a Hyderabadi sweet called Qubani Ka Meeta, made from apricots. Both were delicious! Anil was telling Neeta that as a child, he hated it when his mother served eggplant. She would cook it in two different ways, one called Baigan Bharta and the other known as Poonchwalla Baigan. When his mother would cook one style, he would always say it was the other that he preferred. Neeta laughed and suggested we try the Barar-E-Baigan so that now Anil would have three different baigan dishes to refuse to eat. As things usually go, Anil now loves both dishes that he hated as a child, and now has another to add to his list. Thanks Neeta for the great advice!
Tomorrow we leave for Chennai and the ocean breezes. The Bay of Bengal beckons. We plan to spend the next couple of weeks along the coast visiting Chennai, Mahabalipuram and Pondicherry. Now don't those names sound exotic?