A four hour journey from Bidar to Hyderabad by train, an eleven hour wait (with a famed biryani) and then an over-nighter saw us to the geometric centre of India, Nagpur. It has to be said that Nagpur is not an overly appealing city being somewhat industrial, dusty and dirty. Nevertheless, it was the only Test venue that fell close to our path and was to be home to the fourth and deciding Test, England miraculously being 2:1 ahead in the series. Par for destinations frequented only by visiting businessmen and local tourists, the price of accommodation was steep; not only that but, for the money, the quality was poor indeed: 700 rp ($13) for a grubby crumbling room with just a mandi (bucket) for bathing. Others we spoke to at the cricket were paying over 1000 rp for little better. Rooms listed at 400 rp were apparently all, always, taken (very possibly by us at an elevated price?) – outside of the cricket this would no doubt not be the case, but then why would you be here. That said, the locals were delighted to host exotic western tourists and every day – even away from the cricket ground –
saw us posing for countless rounds of photo calls, some on a real paparazzi scale.
Day two of the match and by 7.30 we were finishing our chai at the railway station and just about to head for the Bardi bus stand when a young lad appeared and started chatting. He was joined by his father; they were also headed to the match and should we go together? On the bus journey it materialized that the grandfather was in hospital and dad would be visiting him at some point during the day. However, as we queued with the masses for 100 rp day tickets at the single make-shift turnstile (five-day tickets could also be bought elsewhere for 750 rp preventing daily queues, giving access to the pavilion and its soft shaded seats, but locked away from the fervid local fans), posed for photographs and had Indian flags applied to our cheeks for free, we suddenly became his guardians for the day and off dad tootled. Organization was not good and although the ground was practically empty there were no tickets available for the crowds patiently waiting. The teams were already out. Apparently, inexplicably, tickets were on their way from
Pune? Then a roar; no, an England wicket hadn’t fallen – tickets had arrived/been located/the ticket guardians had finished their breakfasts... Still there was no movement and the game was now well under way. Fortuitously, a bunch of students approached us offering their spare tickets if we’d care to sit with them, which we duly, happily, did.
England, on 199 for 5 overnight, scrapped to 330 thanks to Prior and a swashbuckling Swann. Then, to the horror of the crowd, Anderson bowled beautifully and the Indian wickets began to tumble. Coming in at number four the legend Tendaulkar was greeted with a standing ovation; ten minutes later he was headed back to the pavilion, the stadium stunned to silence. At close India were in a perilous position on 87:4; England were sitting pretty. Our little charge had been a pleasure, delighting in his celebrity status as friend-of-foreigners, and grateful dad appeared only mildly relieved to see his son safely returned after the game.
Late that afternoon, whilst relaxing with a beer on our balcony (even grim rooms have some plus sides) and watching the mayhem unfold on the road junction below us, we noticed a kite flying above
town. Then, as the sun sank lower and reciprocally the breeze strengthened, the violet sky became dotted as ever more boys and men took to the flat roof tops to launch yet another. A closer look at our near surroundings revealed dozens of lost kites hanging in trees, off phone lines and from advertising hoardings. Flying is not limited to the roof tops and taught strings can be viewed emerging from windows, whilst Ali was to fly one herself on Central Avenue, Nagpur’s main street.
Beggars – those that are mobile – are predominantly women with a shrouded babe in arms. This is, of course, a particularly effective strategy. However, many of the women bearers appear well appointed and well nourished. It is rumored that some of these women borrow a child for the day, whilst in one recently reported case the woman bought a baby for 100 rupees ($2) to use for the purpose. She was subsequently arrested as was, more tragically, the truly destitute woman who was compelled to sell her baby.
Day three saw improved organization at the cricket with tickets being issued well before the start of play. Embarrassingly, a
marshal hauled us out from the queuing crowd and led us directly to the hut issuing tickets, to be served immediately. The next five hours seemed interminable with Dhoni and Kohli resisting everything England could, literally, throw at them: a 175 run stand. Dhoni was eventually run out, but by then the Indians were in the dominant position. Faced with the mad scramble for buses at the close we left before stumps and missed England take a further three late wickets to once again grab the initiative.
Long story short, and after a wobbly start to the second innings, England batted with determination and resolve to obtain a draw and win a series in India for the first time since Gower’s captaincy back in 1984; impressive indeed.
A rather endearing and genteel practice seen throughout India (and to a lesser extent in other parts of Asia) is that of male friends, children and adults alike, walking hand in hand. It’s a sad indictment of our western preconceptions that such an unselfconscious act of friendship actually merits comment.
With its tiny, stall-lined, winding lanes and temples spilling down the hillsides to the bathing ghats
on both sides of the holy Narmada River, Omkareshwar has been described as a mini Varanasi. Part of town lies on an Om-shaped island, the northern end of which sits at the confluence of the Narmada and similarly revered Keveri Rivers. From Ganesh guesthouse (very much the western hangout of choice with rooms from 200 rps) you can sit out on one of the roof terraces gazing below to the near ghats, the brightly coloured long-tailed taxi boats moored on the Narmada and across to the steep rise of the island beyond. As dusk gathers great swirls periodically disturb the polished river as leviathans rise from the deep to snatch a floating food item. Then, at dawn, the tranquil peace is shattered with thunderous crashes as acrobatic langurs dash across the rooftops.
Being one of the twelve holiest sites for Shiva devotees (inadvertently we appear to be doing the tour), Omkareshwar is a dry town. Whilst alcohol is taboo, charas certainly isn’t with sadhus and yogis contentedly puffing on their chillums, and bhang sold openly from pan stalls. Although it lacks Varanasi’s mystic lost-in-time air it is definitely a chilled place to kick-back for a few days,
take some dusty walks across the hilly island and gorge yourself at Prasadam on Kaju (cashew nut) curries, tomato masalas and heavenly tandoori rotis.
Sari-clad and made-up Hijra are encountered on many train journeys; these may be transvestites, transgenders or, very rarely these days, eunuchs who in no uncertain terms expect some baksheesh. You may be woken from your rocking slumber by claps in your ear or even by a violent shaking to be faced with a painted man demanding ten rupees; many take rejection poorly. Apparently donating to Hijra (and many locals do) brings good fortune, but we stick to donating a few rupees to the ragged urchins who crawl along the filthy train floor removing litter – at least the money isn’t going on cosmetics.
Next, a cultural stop at the caves, but Ajunta or Ellora was the question? The former are older and have frescos, although the latter may be grander. To tell the truth we’ve never felt a particular urge to visit either in the past, but it would have been peevishly shoddy to be so – relatively – close and not see at least one of the
World Heritage listed complexes. Ellora won out and we amazed ourselves at easily spending four hours hiking between, and wandering around, the temples chiseled - over 500 years - into the escarpment face. Indeed, the musical cave (no. 10, Buddhist) with its ribbed vaulted ceiling and wonderful sonorous acoustics, and the Kailasa temple (no. 16, Hindu) – the world’s largest monolithic structure – alone were worth the 250 rps entrance fee; whilst the elaborate carving of the Jain section is stunning. If these temples had been constructed in vacant space by placing ornate stone on ornate stone they would be mightily impressive, but the spatial foresight, planning and skill required, to excavate into a solid wall of rock and in your wake leave such majesty defies belief.
Several buses and a train took us to Nasik, another holy (read veg-only food and alcohol-free) town with extensive ghats and hoards of pilgrims. Christmas morning saw us queuing for Tatkal (withheld short-issue) train tickets; in so doing Ali got chatting to the lady next to her in the line (ladies-only queues are far quicker) and we were subsequently invited back to her home to meet the family over tea
and snacks. Later, alone, Christmas was celebrated only with sweet lassis; no chicken, let alone a turkey joined the party: spicy baingan bharta, featuring a new favourite vegetable, bringal, was - almost - compensatory.
In many towns and cities obtaining a room without a television is almost impossible. Of course when you are compelled to have one it does, at some stage, get watched. An extremely common advert for !dea mobile phones features a cast of characters singing an annoyingly catchy ditty; this has caught on majorly and most days, much to Ali’s delight, you’ll pass children or youths in the street singing “Hello honey bunny, you’re my pumpkin pumpkin”.
From Nasik it was a lengthy and convoluted journey to the duty-free enclave of the once Dutch territory, Diu. This necessitated heading west to Mumbai (train and suburban trains), then north through the white patchwork of Gujarat’s cotton fields to its capital Ahmadabad (sleeper train), south west to Junagadh where we paused for two nights (train), south to Una (train) and finally a bus to Diu.
The people of Gujarat are extremely welcoming. Within three days of entering the State we
had received free tomatoes and chai (the vendors both refusing payment: “You are our guests, welcome to Gujarat”), plus an invitation to lunch at a fellow passenger’s farm.
The cigar-shaped island of Diu lies just off the south coast of Gujarat and is connected to the mainland by bridge. Its eastern third is isolated by an imposing wall and situated at its tip is a once impregnable fort with tidal moat. The Dutch colonial architecture, huge white churches, quiet, almost car-less streets, siesta-fond locals, and preponderance of bars with associated Indian alcohol-tourists (extremely well behaved), make Diu stand out from the rest of Gujarat like a sore thumb.
Arriving in the run-up to New Year guesthouse prices had skyrocketed; the one exception being the Sao Tome Retiro situated atop the retired shell of St Thomas’s church. Here the clientele is almost exclusively backpacker. Occasionally a few locals climb its precipitous steps to experience the view from the arched roof above the terrace hangout, or visit the old church (now museum) with its carved wooden effigies of saints, below. Meanwhile the backpackers lounge on the elevated terrace (scarily without any fencing) quaffing the cheapest beers in India,
munching on cheese/tomato toasties (food options are limited at Sao Tome) and reveling in the tranquil, un-Indian, peace. Some may venture as far as the beach several kilometres away for the odd swim, but many find it hard to do more than spin another travelling yarn, gaze at the views or turn another page. Ali and I were blessed in having the most elevated room of all: made entirely of stone with a vaulted ceiling and port holes for windows, and situated on its own private veranda overlooking all. Behind our bed was a flimsy panel (where there was once a window on high at the end of the knave?) that could actually be seen from within the body of the church some 50 feet below and from behind which we were serenaded by the spooky echoing coos of roosting pigeons.
Among the motley New Year crowd, most of whom stayed for a week, were a couple of French artists (one of whom was bitten by a dog and had to start anti-rabies shots), three Canadians (two of whom were not sold on and would not be returning to India: “How do you deal with the staring”?, the other
sporting a well-thumbed handle-bar moustache), three South Koreans (who took an age in our single shared toilet/shower), two Germans (one an organic agriculturist just finished working as a cotton consultant, the other travelling around on an old Enfield Bullet), two Aussies (who kindly swelled my ragged wardrobe with cast-off shirts and a pair of Havaianas , a Filipino baba (religious teacher/drug fiend) named – unimaginatively – Zen, plus his German and Slovenian disciples (the former appearing somewhat of a depressive, the later a drugged-out husk), and us Brits. Six of this number saw fit to wear turbans. Indeed, we have spent less memorable New Year’s Eves (it was certainly the first where we’ve danced with Indian transvestites) and bottles of Port Wine supplemented with vodka of dubious origin make for fine sangria. Amazingly no one fell to their inevitable death.
An on-going and self-inflicted saga is hair-cuts. Not Ali’s – I hack a few inches off her locks every other month – but mine. Years ago it was oh so easy when I simply tied it up like Als. But now, in its receded sadness,
it is used to being shaved every couple of weeks. For ten months we had this covered - that was until, in a bleary-eyed state, I plugged the American clippers into a Sri Lankan socket without the voltage converter: flash, whiff of burning, dead… So, here in India I have to seek out barbers, with clippers. It sounds relatively straightforward, but rarely is. Thus far I’ve had ancient clipper failure (although I was assured it was my hair’s fault: too soft) and a power-cut, both of which resulted in me traipsing around the respective town looking for an alternative whilst the abstract designs on my noggin received quizzical glances (ok, this is India – I attracted an enthralled, bemused crowd). I’ve endured the rash rapid cut (no mirror, so I was unaware of the little random hillocks until Ali finally informed me) and the painfully slow cut, where, instead of removing an inch swathe per swipe, the clippers somehow left three parallel lines of no more than a few millimeters, necessitating a million-and-one sweeps, somewhat akin to colouring-in an A4 page with a biro.
Before leaving Gujarat we decided to visit the Kachchh region near the Pakistan
border, in particular the cities of Bhuj and Mandvi. In all honesty we needn’t have bothered. Bhuj is pleasant enough, but indifferent; whereas Mandvi’s ship building claim to fame appears to be largely history (most of the aged grey-beamed hulls have not seen a mallet in many a moon) and its great swathes of beaches are featureless (the nearest town is more of a Margate with the donkeys replaced by camels). Mandvi is also home to over-priced accommodation options, the “best” of which – Rukmavati – has polite but cold owners, extortionate breakfasts (plus you needed to fry your own eggs as the lady was unsure how to perform such a feat - go instead to the market square for toasted masala-stuffed rolls at one tenth of the cost), and has the nerve to charge 5 rp per item for you to do your own cold water hand-washing (we did a mountain – surreptitiously – out of spite). Mandvi’s one saving grace is the bizarrely named Zorba the Bhudda, although the locals know it as Oshos; here the limitless thalis are divine. Really, they are truly divine We stayed an additional night solely for
a repeat feast.
Whilst on the subject of food: India continues to delight with recent mentionables in Aurangurbad (a bar near the train station - New Punjab Hindu Hotel: spicy chicken mirch masala, chicken maratha, and methi curries with soft delicate chapattis), Mumbai (bar near the train station: succulent chicken tikka and tandoori chicken), Nasik (Panchavadi Pure Veg Family Restaurant – definitely not a bar and nowhere near the train station: magnificent dozas and our discovery place for baingan bharta), Junagadh (Geeta Lodge: for a really special thali), Diu (O’Coqeiro: great seafood curries and Portuguese puddings). And, hands-up, the latter two were recommended in Lonely Planet...
As the train drew out from some station on the outskirts of Gujarat en-route to Rajasthan we passed through a corridor of plastic; really, the earth was almost invisible through the carpet of bags, wrappers and bottles. And it struck me just how little we are moved these days by such a spectacle; I don’t look twice at a cow munching contentedly on a yard of polythene and merely hurry on passed the street-side mini pyres and their noxious smoke. That said,
it never fails to gall us when some supposedly intelligent fellow passenger we are chatting to on a train sees fit to add to the track-side woes. Certain States do have drives to limit plastic waste and most snack vendors still serve-up takeaways in newspaper parcels, but I wish there were more water re-fill stations as drinking-water bottles are now the biggest scourge.
Alighting at Ajmer, pre-dawn in shorts and flip-flops, we discovered that the few extra hundred miles north had had a massive effect on the temperature: it was freezing. The sleeping masses in the station were hidden under piles of blankets and those wandering the platforms/waiting rooms/booking offices were similarly enshrouded. We stood shivering until the reservations desk opened, booked a ticket for the following week to Kolkata, then trekked across town to the bus stand.
Pushkar has changed, as you might expect after a hiatus of 23 years, but this Brahmin-rich town, with its sky-blue-hued houses and temples encircling the holy lake, still has a vibe. There are far fewer hippies imbibing bhang lassis and many more mainstream travelers, but accommodation is still as cheap as it gets (and the standard so much better than
years ago) – Raj Moon on the far side of the lake is a diamond with rooms from 130 rp. Obtaining a good curry takes effort, being far easier to score some hummus or falafel. And it still abides by strict rules. Noticeboards in hostels list the big no-nos: no alcohol (beer, including Thunder 10000
at a staggering min. 8.7% - max. 15%, can be bought under the table, for a price); no drugs (special lassis feature on many menus, plus offers of other extras abound); no meat (this is the only taboo that is absolutely impossible to obtain); no male-female embracing in public and shoes to be left a minimum of 30 ft from the bathing ghats… Got chatting to some local tourists bemused as to why westerners would feel the need to hang around for more than a day and just had to say that it is difficult to explain…
Anyways…. We’ll be moving on to Chittagarh and then Bundi in the next few days before crossing the country to Kolkata and onto Sikkim for some snow…
An illicit beer calls.....
A flat 100 photos this time.
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