Well, the jury is out on India…one week into the trip here and I have very mixed feelings about the place so far. It’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into by choosing to come here but wow, more adaptation on my part required. It could be that we’ve been travelling so much in only a few days that there hasn’t been time to sit back and absorb it all. Also, it’s been unseasonably cold, which has been unexpected (there shouldn’t be only a 10 degree temperature difference between Calgary and Delhi – that’s just not right). Another seven weeks will make or break me – the odds are pretty even right now as to which way it might go!
January 23… I arrived in Delhi after an uneventful flight from Colombo. The sun was setting as we arrived at the gate – a deep blood red colour, enhanced by all of the pollution hovering over the city. Pretty, but this much smog can’t be good for anyone. The prepaid taxi from the airport to the hotel cost 320 rupees, or about CA $6 for the 45 minute ride. The ride to the hotel seemed death-defying at
every corner but it has since become evident now that this is the only way Indian drivers navigate, regardless if they are driving a bus, car, tuk-tuk or bicycle – the timid need not apply! To their credit, the drivers seem to have an amazing spatial awareness to the other vehicles, bicycles or animals they share the road with – no accidents to report yet, although there are many dinged and dented vehicles. And yes, cows are sacred here and they don't move for anything or anyone!
January 24… I spent a couple of hours this morning on a tour in one of the many slum areas in Delhi, an area called Kathputli, near the Shadipur metro station. It was suggested by Adele from the Sri Lanka tour, who had visited a few weeks earlier. The organization running the tour is looking to improve the plight of children in this slum by providing education and meals – it is a staggering undertaking as the poverty and conditions are quite unimaginable to most of us. The guide took me to the area where they have set up a small school – unfortunately, we didn’t end up staying very long, as
a fight broke out between a couple of the women in the house next door – next thing we knew, bricks were flying and we beat a retreat to other areas of the slum. There are very limited sanitation facilities within the area, homes are very small, often just a room or two for a family, yet there were satellite dishes and TVs in some homes – it perplexes me as to how they are able to afford such things, when children are in rags and there’s not a lot of food.
I met the group with whom I’ll be travelling with for the next two weeks. There are 11 of us – 5 Australians, 2 from Great Britain, and 1 each from Ireland, New Zealand, Switzerland and Canada. Our guide is Bhagi, originally from a village near Jaipur in Rasjasthan. It will be interesting as only myself and Helen are doing a 25 day trip – the others are only taking the 14 day tour. We will leave them in Agra to meet up with a different group on February 5.
January 25… January 26 is Republic Day throughout India (celebrating the introduction of India’s constitution in
1950) and many of the main monuments in Delhi were closed for advance preparations along the parade route for security reasons. Bhagi took us into Old Delhi via the metro. What a dichotomy – the very modern metro (only 10 years old) vs the old streets of Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk. Metro fares are very reasonable by western standards – a ride from near our hotel into Old Delhi was six metro stops and cost 15 rupees – all fares are distance based. The train was jam packed with riders – approximately 1.5 million people ride the metro daily. I counted the number of stops on the Metro’s blue line – there are 44 stops from beginning to end!
It’s amazing to me that that this area of Old Delhi has not gone up in flames – take a look at a few of the photos to see what kind of an electrical nightmare exists in these narrow, winding streets filled with throngs of people – unbelievable! I suppose many of the building structures are brick or stone foundations but even still, it’s an accident waiting to happen. As we passed the through the streets, we saw chai
(tea) and food vendors, flower sellers, barbers… the list goes on. It was also interesting to see what kind of stuff was being transported to and fro on the back of bicycles or carts – bricks, gas tanks (presumably empty!), cardboard, milk jugs, people – anything goes.
We stopped at the largest mosque in India, Jama Masjid, built by Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame) during the mid-17th
century. It holds 25,000 people within its massive red sandstone walls and has two, 40 meter minarets overlooking Old Delhi. After visiting the mosque , we headed for Chandni Chowk, one of the main thoroughfares in Old Delhi and packed with cars, tuk-tuks, shops and people. It was along this street that we stopped at a Sikh temple, Sisganj Gurdwara. This was an eye opening experience, as it is not only a temple but also provides meals to anyone of any faith who comes by throughout the day. We visited the kitchen – I’m not sure where you get pots that enormous - they were making huge quantities of rice, dahl, a vegetable curry of some sort as well as roti, an Indian bread. I like the inclusiveness of the Sikh
philosophy. The "food kitchen", for lack of better words, was manned by volunteers and run with military precision – they probably fed a thousand people during the time we were present.
We left for the train station around 6 pm to catch the overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi, approximately 800 km to the southeast. We knew the train was already delayed by an hour, and it turned out to be closer to two hours late before we embarked. I think there are 19 platforms at New Delhi station – as you might expect, it was a madhouse! It was made even more chaotic by the Republic Day long weekend as well as the number of people travelling to Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela – a multi-week Hindu pilgrimage in January- February, held every 12 years. They are expecting around 40 million pilgrims to visit Allahabad during the festival. That’s Canada’s entire population (plus a few million more) all gathering at one city on the Ganges – mind boggling!
January 26… We travelled in sleeper class, 3 bunks per side facing each other, and 2 more along the side, and were spread out among the carriage. Not the
best sleep ever, and the toilet facilities left a lot to be desired. That said, at least there was one Western-style toilet in each carriage – the other 3 were the more common squat type. After a 16 hour train journey, you can imagine how the toilets reeked! Due to further delays after we left Delhi, we arrived in Varanasi around 1 pm, nearly 6 hours after the originally scheduled arrival time. Apparently, late trains are a common occurrence here.
The hotel in Varanasi was quite nice, but relatively far from the action along the river. There wasn’t too much time to relax before heading out to the bazaar area for a quick visit and then out the ghats for the evening prayer ceremony (Aarti Puja). Aarti means light (in the sense of a divine, shining light) and the ceremony involves a lot of fire, incense, smoke and ringing bells. It was quite an assault on the senses and I’m fairly sure the photos don’t really do it justice.
January 27… Off to the Ganges for a river cruise and overnight tent stay. We sailed, then rowed after the wind died, east along the Ganges. We were split
among three boats and had a kitchen boat accompanying us as well. The river looked relatively clean here but you still won’t find me taking a dip! After lunch served on the river (delicious), we continued on until late afternoon before setting up camp on a sand bar. A pick-up game of cricket ensued – Indian locals are equally ardent fans of this game as the Sri Lankans. The sunset was beautiful – all the pollution and haze in the air makes for great colour. After a late dinner, it was off to the tent to sleep.
January 28… OMG, it was COLD overnight! Seriously, it was near zero, with a heavy dew. I forgot socks (obviously not thinking when I packed), so my feet had absolutely no chance of warming up and I won’t lie – I was quite miserable, even with three wool blankets. My tent mate, however, had it even worse, as she was ill with a stomach bug of some sort – not a happy tent, ours! On the bright side, I was up for the sunrise, which was quite lovely.
After breakfast, it was back onto the boats to continue the
journey to back to Varanasi. They had to row the entire way, as there was absolutely no wind to speak of, so it took longer than anticipated. The boat ride was a pleasant enough journey, I suppose, but too long. However, it did provide a welcome respite from the noise and honking horns of the city for a few hours.
Back at the hotel, it was time for a rest before heading the train station for the next overnight train trip, this time to a city called Kanti. It was the same sleeping situation as before. We left nearly on time but still managed to arrive 4 hours later than planned. Funny sight (and no, I didn't get a photo) while we were waiting for the train was a bull meandering along our train platform. Only in India.
Did you know that if you pull the emergency cord (found in every seating area), the train stops (somehow it’s tied into the braking system)? This is how people riding the train get off near their villages when there isn’t a scheduled stop! Every time this happens, train staff must investigate and reset the emergency cord, which takes around 15
minutes. Not hard to see how come things get delayed if it happens 10 or 15 times during a journey, and the culprits are long gone. I felt sorry for the two locals in our compartment, who were on their way to Bangalore – they had another 24 hours or more of travel ahead for them. I’m getting more and more inclined to fly between destinations when I’m travelling on my own in a few weeks… I’m not finding Indian rail travel very relaxing or glamorous at all!
January 29… We transferred to cars and journeyed to the next hotel, located near Bandhavgarh National Park. After a quick lunch, it was off to see if we could spot any tigers in the Park. Sadly, no tigers were spotted by either jeep, although we did see a few varieties of local deer, wild boar and a few birds. I suspect that the time of day (mid-afternoon) had a lot to do with not seeing any tigers – they’re more likely to be out and about in the early morning or late afternoon / evening. Our permits weren’t for those particular times however. On arrival back at the lodge, it was
straight to bed for me. I obviously needed the sleep, as I slept for nearly 13 hours straight. Two train journeys and a cold night in the tent, all with intermittent sleep, over 4 nights, had done me in.
Impressions so far:
• It's loud, noisy and crowded offset by occasional pockets of calm and beauty
• The incessant horn honking is going to drive me crazy!
• I wish we'd had more time to wander around in Varanasi to get a better feel for the place
Update for Khajuraho and Orchha to follow in a day or two.
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