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Published: February 23rd 2005
Delhi, yes Delhi...errrm...don't like it. We arrived early morning after another night train, so not a great deal of sleep and with Rachel not feeling very well, probably not the best preparation for one of the world's most hectic cities, but still. I left Rachel to practice her angry teacher look at the ludicrously unsubtle pickpockets and went to try and book our onward tickets to Amritsar in the Punjab. After asking at one counter I was directed over to the other side of the station, an official looking guide approached me and led me this way and that before telling me that tickets weren't available for our chosen train but he knew someone who could help...two and a half months in India teaches you a thing or two but I decided to see if I could negotiate a ticket with his contact...I was told that the only way we could get to Amritsar that day was to pay R2,000 each in an AC carriage, now I new this was a scam since we'd paid less than a sixth of that for a longer journey on the same class. I decided to take a look at the computer screen that was
Volunteers prepare vegetables for the free dahl and pickle
giving so much sorry information...I never imagined that the Indian Railway booking screens would look so much like Solitaire. His sheepish grin said it all, I complimented him on his professionalism and wished him all the best in my own tired, frustrated, angry way.
I eventually got the tickets we needed from a polite lady in a ticket booth just behind where I had left Rachel. You get to learn this in India as well - continually frustrated to the point of almost throwing the towel in and then you'll come across the most charming and helpful of people, just where you didn't expect them.
We reached Amritsar later that evening and just collapsed in the hotel. The following day was miserable and damp, only the second time we'd seen rain since arriving in India, we decided to hold off on seeing the Golden Temple gambling on better weather for the next day. After a brief trip around town we retired to the hotel pub for a quick afternoon beer... At 11pm they said we had to leave and started compiling our bill. There was a lot of commotion around the till, eventually the bar staff all looked
across smiling and laughing, saying we'd beaten their all time world record number of beers. We still had to pay.
Our gamble paid off, with fuzzy heads we made it to the Golden Temple on a dry day. The place is amazing, and seems to revel in it's own unique, powerful and very welcoming atmosphere. The temple itself, centred on the Amrit Sarovar lake, is the spiritual home for all Sikhs, it houses the Granth Sahib (holy book and last Sikh guru) during the day, it is transferred here from the nearby Aka Takht building early every morning and back again every evening in a colourful and noisy ceremony, we decided pretty quickly that we wanted to return that evening to see the ceremony. There's a dining hall that caters for thousands of people each day with free dahl, rice and lime pickle, an army of volunteers do the preparation, cooking, serving and washing up. Rachel insisted on giving a little in return and sat down with the chapati makers to roll out a few rotis - they seemed generally grateful, probably more so for the fact that I didn't attempt it.
That afternoon we shared a jeep
Border patrol guards
Just before some serious foot stamping
to the border crossing with Pakistan, Palin made us aware of this in his recent Himalaya series. The flag lowering ceremony is a bizarre experience where you sit on terraces very close to the border, able to see across to the similarly seated crowd on the Pakistan side, music blares out and an MC encourages you to make enough noise to drown out the "opposition", then the border guards compete in a strange foot stamping, speed marching competition...the flags are lowered at exactly the same rate (so as not to assume, or concede, any superiority), the gates are then slammed shut and that’s it. Apart from more loud music and hundreds dancing on the road.
Back to Amritsar and putting the book to bed. We thought we'd missed it as there seemed to be few people around, but when it did start hundreds of men appeared from nowhere, all lining up along the causeway to take their turn in carrying the book. The whole procession takes around ten minutes and is a vivid spectacle ending as quickly as it began.
We returned to Delhi by train the next day. We'd selected our hotel and jumped in a rickshaw
to get there. You're always aware that touts will tell you that your hotel is a building site in order to direct you towards their money-earning venue...we didn’t expect to arrive to see our hotel was, really, a building site...our helpful tout was honest enough in saying that had he told us at the station we wouldn't have believed him - eventually we found a place. We had to stay for four days this time, Rachel was still unwell and unable to leave the hotel room for a couple of days. I took a look around some of the city and decided that it wasn't so bad after all, we visited the red fort on our last evening to watch the Son et Lumiére show, in Hindi, we understood every word.
Another train journey, another rickshaw journey into town and we were in Agra, arriving at night in the middle of a Muslim festival in full swing. After quickly checking into our guesthouse, and taking a look at the rooftop view of the Taj (unimpressive), we went out to investigate. I asked a few people what the name of the festival was and got several different replies, so can't
tell you that, the main theme seemed to surround the sword...dancing, fighting, swallowing all of this was happening at any of about ten places in the narrow streets surrounding the Taj. Huge pa systems were blaring out, we eventually settled where a large crowd had assembled to watch a guy be lifted by two bamboo poles clamped around his neck (the picture describes it better, two minutes later the same guy lay down in the road over four fluorescent tubes while his "friends" rode a motorcycle over him (not strictly traditional, but good to watch). Again we seemed to be the only western faces around and were constantly ushered to the front of the crowds to get the best view, this seems to happen everywhere and can prove embarrassing - you're happy to wait your turn as long as there's a queue....don't get me started on queuing.
Next morning after taking a look at the Taj from the rooftop in daylight (unimpressive) we went straight to the Red fort. Another formidable structure dominating the centre of the city and again improved upon by several generations of rulers, it is big and is similar in style to the Delhi fort,
there are great views of the Taj further down the Yamura river. Its impact doesn't really compare though with some of the forts in Rajasthan.
So onto the Taj Mahal, you pay, in Indian terms, a huge amount of money to see this tomb. Throughout India, tourists pay anything from ten to fifty times that asked of the Indians I guess this is fair in principle but a little more consistency wouldn't go amiss. The enormity of the structure is well hidden from you until you pass through the entrance archway, then it hits you (very impressive). The main tomb is seventy metres tall, but it still doesn't seem it until you focus on the dwarfed people walking at its base. We hadn't eaten all day, and I was feeling a little faint but I was taken aback with Rachel's response when I asked her "Will you carry me?"...tears and all sorts, very strange. That evening we went out to celebrate with one of our best meals so far at Zorba the Buddha restaurant, yes really.
Our next stop was Varanasi, difficult to describe, a very holy city that seems to be just about taken over by tourism
and commerce but still clings on to it's real purpose. The narrow alleys of the old town, around the main ghats are congested and filthy (remember this description follows a very long Indian acclimatisation period), the ghats themselves are a combination of mass worship, meditation, bathing and death. The burning ghats, where the dead are taken for cremation, is an extraordinary sight, ten or more pyres are alight at any one time the burning torsos visible to all...new bodies are carried in all the time ready to be lit by the eternal flame. Small children, pregnant women and small pox victims aren't cremated but are sunk, using heavy stones to the bottom of the river. We were told that the holy nature of the area meant that there was no smell from the burning bodies...not sure about that.
Since our plans for trekking in Nepal had been hit by the present political situation, we had brought our flight to Singapore forward and had to push on to Kolkata, so we caught an overnight train. Train travel in India must be one of the most enjoyable forms of travel anywhere, the people you meet are the most friendly and generous.
They're genuinely interested and pleased to talk and, as a tourist, its often the closest you get to proper conversation with local people...we've been given home cooked lunches or had food and drink bought for us, been invited to weddings and to stay in family homes all while watching another amazing part of the Indian landscape flash by.
Our Kolkata trip was a little different, our only companion was a Dutch guy called Maurice, just as genuine and interesting he had a real passion for India, and was kind enough to let us store our packs in his room for our last day. The three of us arrived at Haora station expecting the usual battle with touts, porters, hawkers, beggars...nothing. We asked directions to the ferry and were pointed in the right direction...strange. We caught the ferry across the river, one beggar, very polite and thanked us for the small change that we gave...stranger still. We approached a cab but were told that there was a queue and we should go to the taxi at the front...we did, that taxi driver gave us a fair price...the city was clean...we were starting to think that we'd unwittingly crossed an international
Shortly before this shot (not very good at the action ones) this chap's friend rode over him with a motorcycle...those are fluorescent tubes exploding.
border, we liked Kolkata.
With a morning spent looking for engagement rings and an afternoon watching some cricket, Rachel and I said our goodbyes to Maurice, Kolkata and India and headed to the airport. Singapore next, surely just the same as India.
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