Day 34 : Lahore – Amritsar

Friday 26th October

Another early start after our rest day and time to say goodbye to Pakistan. Although the journey to the border took less than an hour the early start was needed to offset the time wasted going through customs. It took over an hour to officially leave Pakistan; all our bags had to be carried through even though no one attempted to check them. Once we were clear it was time to say goodbye to Bilal who was incredibly popular amongst the kids on the bus unlike Vali who seemed to annoy them. After thanking him for his insight into Pakistan history, politics and culture we exchanged hats, his Afghan for my winter woolly hat. It was very good of him to let me have his hat because he new I wanted to buy one and was unable because of the crowd in the bazaar in Quetta. This was the only place I saw them for sale whilst in Pakistan. Bilal informed me they are hand made by villagers on the border with Afghan. The wool comes from local sheep, is hand woven and then hand made. I’m really pleased with it.

After being thoroughly checked by the Pakistani customs it was then the turn of the Indian authorities just down the road. It was not very long before we were unloading all the bags again. There was a marked difference between the two borders: gone was the strong army presence, replaced by officious beauracrats who showed no compassion for the traveller and incredible incompetence once again. We were herded into groups, filled in a single form which did not have enough space for the answers and did not include questions that needed to be filled in. After Leighton had explained what spaces and margins to use on the form and which new questions to write in, a wasted journey with our bags to a conveyor belt which was stationary and a quick grope round the outside of my bags by uniformed man we were in India. It only took three hours to get through and at times was as ridiculous as the antics the two countries get up to every night when closing the border. We were informed it could have been a lot worse. The appalling time wasting, beaurocratic incompetence and nasty and belligerent attitude towards travellers has been a constant since setting out. It seems to me travellers are the new gypsies.

Fifty miles down the road in Amritsar and things looked no different. The countryside looked the same, it was just as hot (35 degrees), there was just as much litter everywhere, the people looked the same and we were still looking to exchange for rupees. At the border the Bank of India exchanged dollars and Pakistani Rupees but not my pounds sterling. Is this what three hundred years of British rule means to them. Perhaps it’s repayment for giving them such a good system of administration.

My first impression of Amritsar was why would four million poor souls stay in this sea of squalor, dusty unsurfaced roads, open stinking drains and the most appalling congestion and pollution imaginable. It took two hours to find the hotel, roads were closed, traffic at a stand still, few we asked spoke no English and the rare one who did did not know of our night’s abode and an enormous flyover in the construction stage which ran for miles and miles down what seemed to be the only main road and reduced everything in this human hell to shear, heartbreaking chaos. Very early into our time in India I had noticed stone sign posts painted yellow at the top giving distances to towns exactly like the ones in England during my childhood. Signs are not something Amritsars has many of and the ones evident are not to be believed: it seems it is common practice to turn the signs round if they get in the way of wide loads and leave it to someone else to turn them back.

The hotel was ok bang slap dab in the middle of all this mess. It is amazing how hotels with all mod cons sit in the middle of such deprivation. Although our room was below ground with windows the air condition had a vicious efficiency lacking at border crossings and which made the room fridge obsolete: beer cooled to ice just happily lounging on the bed.

After a quick cooling down in the room we set out into the seething mass of life swirling around the hotel to find the Golden Temple. We were told it was literally a few minutes from our accommodation and all we had to do was join the flow outside as it made its way right up to the gates. It reminded me from the distance like Wembley Way on Cup Final Day: white wall ahead with domes and a mass of supporters (Sikhs) making there way in expectation of things to come to an army of din made by motorbikes, scooters and the indomitable rickshaws all sounding what ever device they have for moving those on foot.

Once at the gate we removed our shoes and attempted to enter, me supporting my new teams hat (Afghan Albion) to know prevail. A man in an orange turban carrying a rather sharp spear sent me to a plastic barrel containing orange head scarves whilst instructing me with the help of his weapon to get rid of my hat. I was just feeling quite pleased that my new head piece folded so neatly and slipped inside my short’s pocket when another character out of the old Tango adverts, also carrying a spear, tried to pull my hat back outside my pocket but for what reasons I was unable to understand. Anyway I held my ground and my hat and at last made it inside.

Everytime I am fortunate enough to see one of the great man made wonders of the ancient world the same thoughts fill my head. In short how can they make this master piece presumably using the labour of the ancestors of those filling the streets outside and in the process solving all the problems associated with such enormous tasks and not be able to solve the social and economic problems lining every street and corner in this town. At least they should have provided examples of fine town houses for those living here but no, wherever the eye looks there’s only shacks, make shift tents and awnings, filth and squalor. Rickshaw men lay asleep in their vehicles by the wayside exhausted by the days struggle.

As we enter through one of the outer gates the actual temple sits in the middle of the water reflecting all its glory to men, women and children all around genuflecting either by touching the ground, kneeling and bowing or just sunk in prayer. Further round men strip down to a white loin cloth and standing knee deep in the water pour buckets of water firstly over one should and then the other to cleanse themselves.

On first inspection of the temple, what seemed gold leaf is in actual fact gold plating: the walls and the domes are encased in a metal overcoat of gold. The interior is no less grand with ornate gold railings, plaster and carpets surrounding a holy figure sitting in the centre facing musicians playing traditional instruments. As the crowds neeled down in prayer to him a man in front of him used a scraper type instrument to push the money being throne on to the central floor into a container. It was difficult to see and get a feel of the place for the mass of bodies slowly moving along and carrying us back outside. Upstairs another figure sat reading presumably from the sacred book and again he was surrounded by comfort. Above him on the roof a series of gold plated domes. Everywhere the people carried little food containers made out of palm leaves and at the exit of the temple large cooking pots provided them with a kind of gruel combination of meat, fat and wheat. It didn’t look very appetizing to me and I refrained from trying.

The whole temple complex is covered in polished marble and kept incredibly clean. Anne asked me to sit and have my photo taken with the temple glistening in the quickly setting sun when another spear carrying sentinel approached me and told me off for doing something wrong. I can only assume he was a photo lover. The whole place was an haven for birds with minarets or towers being occupied by what looked like parrots. Once outside again, I was struck by the peace and tranquility of the inner area. Why can’t they treat their own environment with the same reverence applied inside?

Our next port of call was a gardened area where in 1919 over two thousand Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus were massacred by the British government for demonstrating for independence. As we walked round the fountains, monuments, bullet holed walls and the sacred well where one hundred and fifty died at least three people asked me where I was from and didn’t seem to mind when told them England. Only much later in Delhi an Irish lad from Ozbus 1 told me if he was English wouldn’t admit it round here.

Made our way back to the hotel for a supposed forum meeting. We were told we’re not going into Tibet, China and Laos due to extreme weather conditions but re-entering India and heading for Calcutta and a flight to Bangkok. Quite a few are not happy about this and feel there was never any intention of going that way. The bus has been going back to England from Calcutta from early days in Europe even though Mark told me just before we left it was going on a boat to Darwin. However, as compensation the group are being given a free flight round Mt Everest which is of course great for someone like me who’s on the bus because he can’t stand flying. Needless to say I shall be watching from Katmundo, extreme weather permitting.

Day 35: Amritsar – Delhi

Saturday 27th October

Getting out of Amritsar was just as farcical as getting in. We followed unfinished flyover for a couple of miles before turning back on ourselves and then back again. I don’t think we were sure that we were heading for Delhi until a sign appeared quite a few miles down the road. This was another expected long day and if the previous days experience was anything to go by then we needed to add another couple of hours for luck.

Sue keeps telling me that this is an amazing country with growth rates of 6 percent and the seventh largest economy in the world. This certainly isn’t my observation; the whole journey to Delhi some 480 kilometres took from 7.00am until 8.00pm at an average speed of just under 37 miles per hour. This technological wonderland travels at the speed of the slowest rickshaw and when you take in to account that those are powered by men who make me look like a spring chicken then I’d say commerce is certainly not running down the superhighway. I have to say they don’t have beer guts though which is hardly surprising when you consider the loads they carry. All carry one, two or three people as standard but some carry loads that would kill a westerner of half their age. Bicycles pulling trailers piled high and outwards with furnishings, metal pipes twenty feet long and fire wood and farm goods of all description. I even saw one carrying what looked like the wooden case of a grand piano. When these champions of keeping the economy rolling are not trading they are cycling around pestering every pedestrian as they tout for business and in doing so hold up all the traffic. Of course it is not just down to the rickshaw to hold things up in the city. This is best done by the sacred oxen taking a snooze or slowly making its way down the middle of an arterial junction in the middle of rush hour Delhi. I’ve only been in the capital one evening and I’ve seen a horse, cows and an elephant all walking alongside four lanes of honking, fuming, not go going anywhere traffic so it must be common. I think economists are fooled by the shear volume of noise energy that India omits every minute of every day. Every bus, lorry, car, motor bike and motorized rickshaw toots its horn when coming up to another vehicle, overtaking, waiting behind or just parking. I swear the young driver of a jeep we were travelling in today in the Corbett Reserve tooted a fallen tree that was protruding into the road by a foot and no more. The noise pollution is horrendous and invades all aspects of life whether you’re in a restaurant or café with the exception of religious sites such as the Golden Temple.

Last week in Lahore I was dragged through the bazaar kicking and screaming. The whole market consists of clothes and mostly women’s at that: no computer stuff, electrical, photographic or anything of interest. Here in India the high street is very different. Most of the towns we have passed through from Amritsar to Delhi and then on to the Corbett Tiger Reserve have consisted of second hand car, bike and rickshaw parts. It’s amazing how one shop sells tyres, the next wheels and the one after that engines and so it goes on. All advertise Netwire or Vodaphone but no one sells them.

Day 36: Delhi – Corbett Tiger Reserve

Sunday 28th October

Found out last night that those who were most unhappy about not going to Laos, Tibet and China had booked themselves on a tour taking them through these countries and left this morning. Mas and Mac were returning to the bus in Bangkok but Dave was heading on to Vietnam to meet up with Natalie and then going back to Ausie to sort out her divorce which was getting complicated. Beside them Scooby, Barry, Ben and Doc (Fergal) were leaving to spend a few days in Goa. Sue, Noreen and Mary were heading off to Rajpur and Ted and Gordon were staying in Delhi. So we set out at 7.00am with our depleted numbers for what was expected to be a long journey. However, the journey was fine with enough room on the bus for everyone to have a double seat. We made what we thought was a strange decision to stop in a village to have lunch at an outside café. Samosas washed down with bottles of coke surrounded by all the male village population who could walk. Managed to start a conversation with a group of young lads who got closer and closer until Anne and myself were the only ones left totally surrounded by 30 to 40 villagers. All the others had returned to the security of the bus. The young lads told me through their interpreter that they didn’t have time to play football, hadn’t heard of David Beckham (thank goodness), didn’t go to school and strangely were curious about and liked our names Anne and Peter.

The countryside from Delhi was flat to the horizon and squalid by the road with miles of shanty huts and tents interspersed with shops and stalls selling life’s necessities i.e. Car parts etc again. As we got closer to the reserve the scenery changed with lovely rolling hills in the distance and squalor by the road.

We arrived at the Corbett Camp with plenty of light some three and half hours before dinner at seven. We would have been even earlier if we could have found the place and spent forty five minutes stood by the road phoning and waiting for someone from the camp to meet us. However, for a change no rushing to wash and dress before eating. We were sitting in the middle of a camp with flatlets at the bottom of the site, bungalows, with tents inside of them, on the outskirts and a round, thatched roofed bar come diner at the top of the site and all set in a beautiful garden area. Trees, hedges, shrubs, flowers, birds and butterflies everywhere. It looked, smelt and felt like paradise. Normally I would stop there but not on this occasion.

Two hours later we were still sitting surrounded by our bags waiting to be allocated our rooms. The rooms were not ready and although no one else was booked in double rooms were converted to hold four on floor mattresses. Firstly we were shown to a very pleasant, if not a little, minimalist but clean room with air condition and roof a fan. But before I could put my bags down the manager came and we were moved to one of tents inside a concrete bungalow. It was damp and wreaked of deet, the sink was smashed which didn’t really matter because there was no running water from either the hot or cold taps and this was costing an extra £30 a night on top of what Ozbus had paid. I was not well pleased and Anne using her diplomacy managed to upgrade to a second story flatlet with balcony looking out on the most beautiful Indian farm scene for further 40 a night. The scene won me over instantly but I was now paying an extra 10 a night for the same type of room we were originally allocated before the manager stepped in. Our room down stairs had now become a four bedded room with the use of floor mattresses. Our room was beginning to lose its attraction, no hot and a trickle of cold water, no toilet paper and no electricity to the air condition unit but it did have the view to die for.

Things got worse at the bar, a bottle of Kingfisher beer cost 150 rupees or nearly 2 while Cocola was only 30. Things were beginning to improve as we sat by a roaring fire in its purpose built pit in the middle of the garden. The food when it came was ok consisting of a selection of curries: chicken, veg and a drinkable lentil one along with rice and naans. After dinner we were presented to Lauren’s new game called ‘ok whose got my wallet’. Then it developed into ‘I know someone has it and is playing a game with me’. This was then followed by ‘This is no longer funny guys’ Instead of letting our food settle everyone, except me and the lads being accused, were scouring the garden area with torches looking for any sign of Lauren’s 30 and credit cards. In an attempt to bring things to a head and flush the prankster out I suggested calling the police. By the time they came in the early hours of the morning we had been in bed for hours. This was the earliest night (10.00pm) Anne and myself have had since getting married. Lauren it seems was awoken by the police who had caught the culprit a young Indian lad who we think worked at the camp. After returning the wallet the police preceded to carry out justice by beating the hand bound, naked lad with the long cane and showing no concern for the lad’s screams and crying and the astonishment and disgust of those listening.

Day 37: Corbett Tiger Reserve

Monday 29th October

The happenings of the early hours came to light, to the rest of us who had slept through it, over breakfast at 5.00am before our first safari in the reserve to find Tigers. The six hour ride (6.00am to 10.00am and 2.00pm to 5.00) through the park on the back of a jeep was awesome. We knew there was little, if no, chance of seeing anything burning bright but all of us felt it was worth paying the £34 per session to say we had done it.

I can’t really do justice to this beautiful habitat of one of the world’s most endangered animals. The forest consists of Teak and Banyan trees, Latana bushes which although a mass of beautiful little orange flowers are a weed and causing problems and of course the wildlife. Within a few hundred yards of the entrance we sat looking at and being looked at by Black Face and Macaque monkeys who showed no fear whatsoever of our presence. Spotted and Nanchak deer’s grazed nonchalantly as cameras clicked and the guide explained what they were. However, the real gems of the reserve are the birds.

Before we came I looked the park up in The Lonely Planet and discovered that there are more types of birds here than in all of Europe. Unfortunately neither Anne nor myself can remember all the types we saw even though our guide identified them all in his Bird’s of The Indian Sub Continent book. It is a bind having to change from sun glasses to reading ones and back again everytime he pointed out another. I should have written them down each time but I’m sick of writing while bouncing about. I do remember the Crested and White Breasted Kingfishers and a yellow billed one, Crested Hawk, Tree Pikes that made a din like Monkeys, a pair of magnificant and very rare Great Horn Bills, Bul Buls, Rose Ringed and Green Parakeets, a large Vulture which I think was also a crested but not sure, a Wagtail slightly bigger than ours in England and with a longer tail. Although the nearest we came to a Tiger was a couple of footprints it was well worth the cost.

On returning to the camp it seems another police beating had taken place and witnessed by Das who’d stayed behind with what we think is a bus virus and spreading. He’s the third after Ben and Jim. This time the incident took place in a little separate room in between the bungalows.

Also waiting on our return was Zoe, Andy and Mike with buckets of bottle beer they’d bought in town. The manager come owner did not look well pleased after the money he’d made from drinks the night before. Even the price from an off licence was extortionate at 100 rupees. After few arguments about hot water, non-working air conditioning and a rather big ugly spider under Katie’s sink, another meal of chicken, veg and lentils we settled down to get drunk. Went to bed at 11.00pm and immediately fell asleep after such a long and lovely day but with no thanks from the money grabbing owners of the camp.

The place is run like Faulty Towers but without Sybil. Everything in this place is designed to maximize the owners profits. The water is turned on after the complaints but only to be turned back off again a half hour later before many of us had had a shower. The toilet rolls have about a third the amount paper in a normal roll and is are taped down with red tape. Tea bags only appear at breakfast after they have been asked for, as is milk and sugar, knives. All three meals have been exactly the same presumably to avoid any waist i.e any leftovers go in the pot to be warmed up the next time. A young lad sits in the outside toilets handing out tissue and towels and the best trick of all they never have any change at the bar so beer is invariably rounded up to 200 rupees and water doubles 50.

Day 38: Corbett Tiger Reserve – Agra

Tuesday 30th October

It was confirmed at breakfast that we’re not going back to Delhi, thank goodness, but instead going straight to Agra for two days instead. Also heard another beating this time in the kitchens behind the dining room as we were having breakfast. Sound of cane smacking bare skin very hard and whimpers and pleas. I’ll be glad to leave these awful people who run this place. It says a lot about what I’ve seen so far of this country. I expected to be ripped off in Pakistan and not in India. Everywhere we go the prices are English and we have to argue to get basic facilities and services; not what I expected at all. We could understand the beating over the theft, in some ways a short shop shock is better than court and prison and it is their custom, but the ones in the kitchen are not the best way to encourage tourism.

The journey today is long again, it really does make a mockery of the information we were given before setting off that there would only be a few long journeys. However, the scenery is quite different from the one to the reserve. The line of shops, stalls, shacks and poverty are replaced with farmsteads, many thatched, with yards full of oxen, belly flop flat on the ground from the heat of the day and flapping their long ears to cool themselves and in the process disturbing the dust, the insects and the birds. Alongside are the cows, goats, dogs and people all quietly sharing the spaces between little igloo shaped thatched stacks of straw and pats of dung neatly reshaped and laid out in handmade patterns which add a pleasant artistry to this every day scene of poverty.

Dung seems to play a very important role everywhere. Yesterday from our balcony we observed the workings of the two little farmstead nestled by a dried up river bed. While the farmer of the larger of the two ploughed one of his strips using a wooden plough pulled by two big white oxen the women occupied themselves with the dung. I have noticed how people here spend an enormous amount of time and effort sweeping the soil/ floors around their shacks and tents with twigs tied together. I assumed they just needed a flat surface to sit on or work from but the women on the two farms seemed to be working to a larger agenda, at least, it looked as though it did but who knows what individuals do after generations of poverty stricken boredom. Firstly one woman from each farm carefully and painstakingly, in backbreaking fashion swept all of one field. While they were doing this others carefully placed piles of fresh dung strategically spaced out on the fields in question. Once this was complete a woman poured water from a bucket in small patches to wet the ground and then slapped a helping of dung and started to spread a thin layer of wet mixture across the field. This process took them hours and one of the women actually smiled at Anne as she watched her through the binoculars as she mixed the dung and water with her bare hands before spreading it with a large flat kind of palette knife. This process was long, arduous and precise and therefore had an important purpose but what I don’t know. I think the fields were rice fields because they were divided into about 15 foot strips segregated by raised furrows or mounds so if flooded they would hold the water. The process may be a way of creating a hard baked surface that protects and nourishes the soil and then makes it easier to plant the rice crop when the time comes. But probably not.

These little medieval farmsteads kept giving way to yet another bygone scene this time from early pre-industrial England: steam powered threshing machines. The black smoke puffing little wonders seemed to be fulfilling an important role threshing sugarcane to pulp.

I said the day was going to be long but I was exaggerating what meant was very, very long. Set out at 8.00am and arrived a 8.00pm just twelve hours to cover 400 kilometres. In order to miss going back through Delhi we took a grade 2 road and paid the full price covering the distance at an average speed of 25 mile an hour. I had to stop writing because of the bouncing and jerking about the bus was doing.

The hotel Tara Palace ships its guests out to a restaurant up the road because its owner owns both. This didn’t make sense to me either. The hotel had a large dining room and prepared and serverd snacks later on. It was without doubt the most expensive and the worse meal we’ve had so far. Because it was so late I decided to have something lightish and settled for Tikka Afghan and Anne had a vegetarian specialty containing seven farm freshly vegetables. Mine was cold and consisted of 6 chicken pieces surrounded by slices of tomato and cucumber and came without the chutney sauce. Anne’s, Zoe’s and Caroline’s on the other hand were disgusting. Anne’s looked like a cow pat and tasted how I imagine one would taste and was uneatable. The date paratha was dateless and after trying and failing to convince Anne and Katy they had ordered the bread below on the menu he admitted they had no dates. We actually thought that the uneatable dishes consisted of a strange vegetable that should taste like that but when we asked the waiter to taste it his face told us we were wrong. Even after taking Anne’s meal off the bill it still came to 800 rupees which is not much in English terms but in India its a months wage. I’m afraid to say this country is leaving a bad taste in the mouth.

Day 39: Agra

Wednesday 31st October

Heaven! We stayed in bed till 10.00 for the first time since leaving England. Breakfast was at last nights restaurant and so we decided not to go. I went down to the reception to order two teas and the head waiter from the restaurant was trying to get people to go with him but to no avail: once bitten twice shy. The two cups of sweat, milky, ginger flavoured tea were pretty bad but nothing compared to last nights meal.

After a leisurely morning we set off to walk to the Taj Mahal some 600 yards from our hotel. The heat and the distance were not barriers but the people pestering us to buy from them made it akin to walking through treacle. We were pestered all the way.

When we got to the entrance we met Colin and Claire who told us we could probably do it in 20 minutes. It was only 11.30am and they’d done the Agra Fort and the Taj since breakfast. The entrance fee was 1500 rupees, for two after the extra costs for being foreign and taxes were added, however, it did include a bottle of iced cold water and shoe covers for inside the mausoleum.

Once inside we were nearly trampled to death by an hysterical crowd following two Bollywood stars who’d been filming some advert. Not a good start but things did get better. I had wrongly assumed that the Taj stood in the countryside outside Agra and not surrounded, once again, by the shacks, shops and tents. When you see these icons on the telly they never show the mess that surrounds them. The whole site, however, lived up to its reputation, the gardens and surrounding red sandstone walls and gates were impressive although it was probably the wrong time of the year to see the gardens.

The area leading up to the mausoleum was packed with tourists but surprisingly not foreign ones. The famous marble seat where Princess Diane was photographed was packed with Indians having their own version created by professional photographers. It’s ironical that the very people who supposedly drove her to her death in Paris have their own little niche thanks to just that one picture. Mark asked me later if we’d taken our photos on the seat and seemed a little shocked at my reply. Needless to say we hadn’t.

Even the number of tourists couldn’t detract from the sheer beauty of the building. The white marble dome and minarets are much bigger than I expected and standing barefoot in their shadow looking out over the river Yamuna was a very pleasant way to spend an hour. What really made the two icons at Amritsar and here in Agra for me is the wildlife. The Taj is constantly being circled by Red Kites while the trees and bushes in the surrounding garden is a haven for green Parrots and what look like little Chipmunks. While the tourists stand in awe at one of man’s great monuments they miss the graceful display going on above their heads. Although the size and quality of the craftsmanship displayed in the white marble is magnificent I have to say it is a little extreme for the love of one woman. It was built (between 1631 – 1652AD) by the Emperor Shahjehan for his wife and it took twenty thousand workers over twenty years to complete. I read, later in the day, at Agra Fort that the Moghul Emperors like Shahjehan had an harem of 5000 who were handsomely paid for their services which is something I didn’t know. I just wonder what was so special about this one. Anne made the observation ‘it must have been a long wait for your turn’.

Left the site at 3.30ish to satisfy our stomachs: not eaten since the night before. Just outside the south gate we found a rooftop restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet, and a post office that probably hasn’t changed since my dad used it in the 1930s, including the same three personnel who showed no interest in the French couple from Paris returning after backpacking in China and South East Asia and ourselves both queuing at the little arched window for stamps and talking quite loud. The rooftop restaurant was excellent and a tray of a veg and lentil curry, Nan bread, fried rice, tomato salad, yoghurt, a sweat and a cup of coffee cost 80 rupees or £1. It was worth double just to sit high above the squalor of the street and watch the monkeys stealing food from below and sharing it on the rooftop opposite us. This was the kind of food, service and price I expected but sadly is rare in the parts of India we’ve travelled. It is now up to Lucknow and Varanasi to change my view.

After yet another death defying trip round buses, bicycles, oxen, camels, cars and hundreds of rickshaws both manual and motorised we were deposited at the Delhi Gate entrance to Agra Fort. I have to say this is more my type of building, not only does it have the proportions and the quality of craftsmanship of a Taj Mahal but a real purpose for existing. Men should occupy themselves with power and glory and leave love to the women. As I turned, after paying the mad rickshaw man, the shear size of the fort’s brilliant red sandstone battlements took my breath away: stretching out on both sides from the main gate into the distance and rising 70 feet above an enormous moat which is now concreted.

Walking round and reading the various plaques it seems the fort and Agra was the centre off the Moghul Empire. I heard an old guide say to his group the fort is the biggest on the Indian Sub Continent and was commisioned by Emperor Akbar the grandfather of Shahjehan in 1565 who spent their time ruling this enormous area from this fort and the one at Lahore which was the last fort we visited in Pakistan and also built from beautiful red sandstone. The enormous site sits glowing red high above the Yamuna River and facing the Taj Mahal which on this occasion was barely visible due to the thick strip of pollution drifting across the middle of the icon. The scene on the river as we stood there has probably not changed since the early 17th Century with young boys wading neck deep into the middle of the river to cast nets. Further down on a bend their peers kept an unwatchful eye on oxen cooling off and dam-like surrounded by orange flowers and rubbish discharged further up stream.

The fort had a lovely feel of warmth, security and luxury about it with fountains, gardens consisting of beautiful red flowers in full bloom but also neat patterned beds like Victorian vegetable patches but containing small coloured plants like radish leaves, rooms, dormitories, mosques and a very large and ornately multi-arched meeting place in the central courtyard. Standing here as the sun went down the noise of Parakeets was deafening. Again the skies above were full of Red Kites and as the sun set behind the Moti-Masjid a white marbled mosque resembling a white pearl a pair of owls silently changed one tree for another above our heads and the biggest bats I’ve ever seen darted about to feed on insects. As the fort changed from a red glow to a red silhouette the heat from the stone floors and walls rose and quickly became unbearable and we left hurriedly to beat the pending sauna and a large school party making its way to the main gate and who were making more noise than the green feathered occupants. As we came through the gate sellers of all description descended on us with bat-like accuracy and for a few moments I could empathize with the poor insects inside struggling to survive. As we made a quick get a way in a motorized rickshaw Anne had to throw a small marble elephant, which had come down from 350 to 50 rupees, back into the anonymous hands waiting for money and I tried to explain to another in vain that I didn’t want to take a guide book of the fort to Australia with me. The trauma didn’t stop there, as the agreed 60 rupee rickshaw ride left the bustle and chaos of the town and took us out into dark suburbs not before seen I began to fear for our safety. Just when I thought he was about to reap revenge on us for the way we handled the beggars earlier the cart bounced up a bank and back onto a main road we recognized. It’s hard to image how they can make a profit from a twenty minute ride but 60 he quoted and that is what he asked for. I was so relieved I gave him 100. Inside the hotel Jim related his story outside the Taj and told us how one individual had reduce the price of twelve postcards down to 10 rupees just to make a sale.

We were still stuffed from our rooftop feast and so we went with John Paul and Claire for a drink to a beer restaurant very close to our hotel. Here we found the cheapest beer so far: Kingfisher light 80 and the stronger Kingfisher and Haywoods 5000 at 90 rupees. I took 4 bottles back to the hotel for the pending fancy dress Halloween Party.

Anne did very well to construct a ghost costume for herself and a Batman one for me. A little hot in the gloves and I decided looking in the mirror it was not so much Batman but Delboy without that plonker Rodney. The party got going about an half hour before we went to bed at 12.00. Thee best part about the night was John had arrived at the hotel late. I was remonstrating with Anne about my Batman mask because the eye slits were too tight and needed enlarging when I suddenly heard John doing likewise with a porter about the lack of toilet the paper in his room. I took him some from our room as the porter scuttled down the stairs.

Day 40: Agra – Lucknow

Thursday 1st November

As usual we found our seats on the bus and I then went through my now daily routine: firstly take PDA and folding keyboard out of my day bag, secondly connect two together using bluetooth, three place my leather bum bag round headrest in front of me, four place PDA upright with screening sticking out of the big pocket of bum bag like a little monitor and six place keyboard on little blue cushion and both on my knee. Unfortunately the PDA and keyboard don’t always connect for some reason and then I’m left writing one to two thousand words like you would a text. I am finding that this is causing repetitive strain injuries to my thumbs and fingers and my elbows and so I’m trying to avoid having to do it this way.

Today they did connect instantly but the morning running up to this point hadn’t gone so well. We were up and about at 7.00am and were driven to the bad restaurant for a breakfast of hard boiled eggs, toast, bananas and an apple I took for later. The same rickshaw was not so happy to take us back trying to get money out of us for what was a free hotel service. As I explained this to the driver I was approached by a small, very dirty, boy hands in prayer wanting money. I had no change so offered him my apple which he took with a smile and crunched as we drove away. Once on the bus after more arguing about the rickshaw cost we sat for 35 minutes waiting to go while Leighton tried to find a map of today’s route. I can’t believe that we’re driving across one of the largest countries in the world using a boys school atlas turned to the map of India which only shows the main roads. Hardly surprising it took 12 hours to drive 400 kl to Agra. Leighton lost his cool a couple of days ago saying the same thing to me. I don’t know whose responsibility it is but the company should have made sure we had sufficient maps for all the countries. Instead we waist time asking street corner urchins the way to towns they have probably never heard of, at least not with our accents and most certainly never been to. I am not well pleased with this aspect of the trip; very amateurish.

As we eventually headed off 30 minutes late Anne gave me the morning’s first bit of gossip. Firstly the party ended about 3.30am and the gang made more noise returning to their beds than my snoring, running up down the corridors, screaming and shouting and waking the others in the group sleeping with exception of me thankgoodness. It then emerged, this morning, that they’d urinated in the garden and on the rooftop area presumably in full view of the Taj Mahal and broken two garden chairs which is the reason why it’s now in the public domain. The owner brothers of the hotel and the grotty restaurant who never miss a money making opportunity demanded significant recompense for the damage whilst the culprits, still in their fancy dress pyjamas, lay asleep at the back of the bus. I had wrongly assumed this was the reason for our delay not knowing about the problem with a map to Lucknow.

The best part of the journey was sitting and talking with an improving John. He told me about his prostate operation and how impressed he was with the hospital and staff in Lahore. I think I have written about how he went private and what it cost but I’m not sure because it is so long now since I uploaded anything and it’s really hard to check using such a small screen. He’d carried on with the saga explaining how’d he been trying to have the operation for the past two years in England. Same old story; had an appointment booked and told them he was going away for two weeks before but would be back for the op. Returned to find it cancelled because they said they couldn’t contact him. Given new appointment 3 months later but by then on his way to Oz with us. Anyway he came out of hospital feeling great and returned to our hotel in Lahore and was ably assisted by Bilal’s company who arranged flights and transfers to Agra. Unfortunately, he thinks, he got food poisoning in the hotel and spent the day before and the journey in serious discomfort. He arrived very late after being driven from Delhi airport who it seems also kept stopping to ask corner street urchins the way.

We eventually arrived in the famous town of Lucknow at rush hour and were very quickly bogged down in a sea of rickshaws, literally thousands. I thought to myself I wouldn’t want to be besieged here by them all blowing their horns in unison. The slow progress did, however, allow me to view a brand new poster adverting the latest Royal Enfield motorbike. It must be a very familiar brand name over here looking at the rifles being carried by guards on duty in every store, petrol station and bank. One walked past us in a shopping mall late last night and in his turban and loose fitting garments he looked like something straight from the Northwest passage. It looked so old I wouldn’t want to be near it if it’s ever fired.

Found the Hotel Gaamti, named after the river that flows through the city, and although it looked as though it had seen better days it did have the distinction of being the first hotel, at least in India, with other guests. It also had what was supposed to be an English type pub bar. I had yet another bottle of light Kingfisher while Anne went for the very exotic gin and tonic. At least the Kingfisher came instantly and not in stages like Anne’s drink. The gin arrived reasonably promptly and then after I explained to the waiter with mime thrown in ‘gin’ glass firmly raised for him to see and replaced on table, ‘tonic’ imaginary bottle of tonic held firmly, top removed precisely to hiss sound and then poured into gin with gurgle noise and finely ‘lemon’ pronounced slowly and cut on table and dropped in glass with splash sound. Five minutes later waiter placed a glass of lime juice cordial on table. After a No! No! No! I calmly pronounced t..o..n..i..c again in my best Sheffield accent he went away this time to return with a bottle of bitter lemon and in a reasonably clear voice said ‘sorry no tonic water’. We both agreed a bottle of wine would have been easier but at 12 pound a bottle it was not worth taking the chance especially since we had at last found beer at 80 rupees a bottle. I really enjoyed the bar session and three beers which are over 5% strong.

After some dinner in the hotel restaurant we went for a walk to find the shopping mall not far away to buy a new battery and simcard for my camera. We had to leave the mall as it closed at 10.30pm having purchased three tops for Anne. Much more interesting than looking at boring photography and electrical stores. Had another beer this time in the hotel garden until driven inside by midges. The last thing I remember is watching Anne write some more postcards and a birthday card for Amy and thinking how lucky I am to be here in Lucknow 150 years after the siege and The Indian Mutiny that followed. Amazing to think that Independence and Partition, 60 years ago, had their roots, 90 years earlier on the streets outside our bedroom.

Day 41: Lucknow – Varanasi

Friday 2nd November

Left the hotel after a good breakfast and made our way as every morning through the congestion and smog of the city this time past Marks and Sparks and McDonalds. Amazing even the main dual carriageway taking us out of the city suddenly broke down into a series of potholes, deviations and chaos. I am beginning to think this country is the arsehole of the world: the most appalling infrastructure, poverty, rubbish and street sellers and it is the latter that are getting me down.

Can Varanasi be any different? I very much doubt it. We arrived to surprise surprise street rubbish everywhere, stinking open sewers, human deprivation of all kinds and congestion to rival anywhere else on this sub continent. In the middle of all this was our hotel an absolute haven of peace and tranquility. The front was very ordinary and quite modern but once inside the walled grounds everything was calm and tranquil. The central area was green grass with a path running through the middle with borders of terracotta pots being painted by an elderly Gardner squatting as he moved from one to the other. At the far end of the path was a 1920s white colonnaded building containing the dining room, massaging parlors and the swimming pool to the rear. To the right of this building was a little gem of another white building but probably 19th Century. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to be in use but was the focal point of the garden complex.

On arriving we were ushered into the dinning room for a buffet. As soon as the food was finished the lads quickly made for the swimming pool and after settling in to our room we made our way out into the garden for a drink and some relaxation.

Day 42: Varanasi

Saturday 3rd November

Today’s a landmark. Firstly we are at the half way point. Secondly days like this have been quite rare on this trip i.e. free to explore. This is not just because of the gruelling schedule but an accumulation of factors, the main one for me being the lack of self confidence in my ability to survive out there without the support that travelling in a large group provides. But today we found ourselves away and alone and very vulnerable and gullible.

After the experience of last nights massage I decided to have an hair cut and shave, another service within the confines of the hotel’s grounds. One look in the mirror told me I needed it, I hadn’t seen my electric hair clipper since Bulgaria and Anne assumed probably correctly that I’d lost it. I made my way to the barber’s chair only to be directed to an office occupied by three women in saras. One asked me what I wanted and suggested, looking at my appearance, the full works, although at this point I was completely unaware what it entailed. The second lady took my money for this major operation, a staggering 80 rupees or £1 and the third made out a chit or document to take back to the barber who stood quietly at the door looking on incredulously as though still trying to come to terms with the bearocracy of this land. The actual operation took less time than the administration if you count the comments about my appearance and the transformation this ‘very gud barber’ would perform. It started with a large pink comb and a pair of scissors similar the ones my mum used to cut wallpaper back in the 60s. However the similarity ends their, this man wielded them like one of the three Musketeers. As I looked on in amazement he reduced the back and sides, nothing on top to work with, to a No 2 with a series of strokes strait out of a fencing manual. The only lull in this two minute process came as he dipped his first two fingers in a bowl of something, wiped the contents round the back of my ears and with his cut throat created a niche for them to sit snugly in. Then came the longest activity, the ritual application of soap. This extended from a point in line with the space he’d created for my right ear and all the way round to the left and involved four or five applications of soap with a large floppy brush had again similarities to my mums wallpapering skills. He then produced the nearest thing to a modern tool, another black handled gem, cut throat but with a removable blade. This again involved a series of well tried and tested cuts which finished with his finger gently inside my mouth pressing my lower lip out in his direction so he could remove the last thin line of soap still hanging to my face. This last process was quickly repeated reducing my lower face and chin to the texture of a baby’s bum. After each cut he wiped the contents of the blade onto the back of his hand until the size of the pile warranted being deposited in a small white pot which reminded me of the butter dishes once commonly used in Devon cream teas. After a few wipes of a towel I was lulled into believing this master class was over, but not at all. His attention now turned to spraying my hair with some sweat smelling liquid and enriching my face with oil before massaging my neck and shoulders. This little exercise was interspersed and concluded with a combination of slaps to the top of my head. Anne who had joined the class just after the scissors round sat behind me, her face smiling at me through the mirror. A quick shake of a bottle which very much looked and smelt like India’s answer to Old Spice and a few dabs and rubbing movements and the upper part of the operation was over.

He took my hand, I thought as gesture for me to stand and leave but before I moved it was obvious he had other intentions. In no time at all with the aid of a scalpel type instrument he reduced my finger nails to ten perfect little arches. Once he’d done the same to my toe nails he wiped me down and with a well earned satisfied smile released me back into the real world of the three smiling, waiting, female administrators. All agreed that their assessment of his skills were justified and the transformation from shabby old man to clean one could be improved further if I would only pay for a full massage. Only Anne’s intervention and assessment about the one that we had the night before played on their competitive spirit and thus distracted them long enough for me to escape. Also Noreen suddenly appeared at the door wanting the full works and the three headed back to their passion: administration. If you’re wondering why I’ve spent so much time trying to give you a flavour of my experience then you need to understand that this was my first visit to a barbers for thirty five years and I have to say if I’d known it was so cheap I’d have gone years ago. A haircut, shave, manicure, pedicure and head massage and all for a quid.

I had first used the need for a hair cut to escape the clutches of the hotels tourist guide Tripiathi’, pronounced like japaty, who was pestering me (Mr Peter and Anne, Mrs Peter) to muster up enough of our group to visit the Gov’t Centre for Silk Workers and a night trip on the Ganges or Ganga to see the Ghats or steps where the living wash and the dead burnt. As I escaped the grasp of the barbers three admirers Triapathy pounced once again and persisted, no matter what my excuse, until we agreed.

The visit to see the area where India’s finest silk products are made was very interesting and bore amazing similarities with the carpets in Iran. Both were designed and hand made on hand looms within Muslim communities. There were designs taken from memory and ones punched into cards which are then followed by the loom and also the salesman capable of making a sale from a history lesson while using the old Muslim custom of offering prospective customers refreshments. Needles to say we left spending £40 on shirts, pillow cases and the gifts. It could have been worse and indeed it was about to.

We escaped our guide with the intention of finding a camera shop to buy new memory cards. He said goodbye to us after instructing a totally unconcerned rickshaw driver to drop us at the best and poshest – chose my word selectively hoping it would have some meaning to a native and not just those travelling to India – camera shop in down town old Varanasi and not to charge anymore than 25 rupees. Firstly he looked disgusted at the 30 rupees I offered him and rightly so the journey took 20 minutes and had more obstacles than the Toure de France. Unfortunately all my other notes were 500s which I tried to explain to him through gesture but I had to leave him hands clasped in prayer still wanting. On turning away from him he’d got his own back the street and area looked no more up market than the one we’d come from.

Before I could explain to him about the lack of camera shops a voice rang out in good English ‘Camera shop down there’. We turned round and got our first glimpse of Ras the young man from the back alleys of ancient Varanasi. The shop sold Konica roll film, no cameras but sourced an SD card via a runner in his sixties. I knew he must be going to another shop and buying them and adding cost but finding it would virtually impossible. Also as I sat waiting, there was always the chance that Ras would get fed up and leave but unknown to me Anne had embraced him in conversation about post offices and sending parcels home and in the process of promises was sold a package which included the visit to a GPO and a festival taking place today down on the ghats.

The programme started with a walk down the old back alleys leading past old Hindu temples, ‘holy oxen and holy shit’ as Ras remarked and recesses where spices, vegetables and artisans wares were sold. All eventually led to his brother’s silk shop. Surprise! surprise! After another 30 quid spent we carried on with our programme carrying a parcel of goodies, well wrapped and ready for dispatch.

Our journey through the maze of little stinking alleys continued until we came out onto a raised area over the ? Ghat and stood staring out on a surreal picture of stacked tree trunks by the side of the Ganga. The stacks of wood which were arriving by boat and being unloaded and chopped along the grain by a frail looking underfed worker, using wedges and a sledgehammer, whilst others loaded the newly cut trunks on their heads and carried them to where they were needed gave the scene a work environment and not a religious one. Ras told me I could take photos of the old buildings but not of bodies because this would upset the families. I made it quite clear I had no intention of trying to do so. We’d heard earlier of Americans paying $1000 to be allowed to take shots of bodies close up. I think you’d have to be of a special mindset to infringe on someone’s grief and passed it off as another story to discredited yanks further. At this point Ras introduced us to an Untouchable saying he could better explain the whole of process of the ceremonies which have taken place here for over a thousand years.

We followed the Untouchable into a building used as a refuge by the very old waiting to die and holymen sent to help and be trained. As we entered the top room two very old women, sat crossed legged on mats and greeted us begging, hands in prayer as an holyman stirred a saucepan boiling over a wooden fire sitting in a hand made clay fire pit. Passing them by we walked out onto the roof and found ourselves directly looking down on a scene that as not changed for over a thousand years.

The squalor flowed out of the narrow alleys and down and into the sacred river which stood wide and deep and slowly but noticeably flowing to Calcutta. The Ghat was built on a bend in the river and the far bank stretched across a sandy beach the width of the water again and left dry after the swelling monsoon floods. Flat bottomed, wide beamed, wooden, sailless boats, rudders at the front, rows at the bow designed and tested over a millennium, some stacked with cargoes of wood others empty slightly pulled on their moorings.

The Ghat or steps rise and give way to a terrace and then rise again to two square stoned, outside areas, roofed to give shade from the heat of the day. One contained the eternal fire that has burned constantly for a millennium with a single orange flower placed at each corner just outside the reach of the fire’s flames. The level behind and rising up to the shops and guest houses providing cheap accommodation consisted of Pagoda shaped roofed temples in need of attention.

The covered outside area has a number of people, presumably families, patiently waiting to take their loved one down to the water’s edge to be submerged before burning. As we look down three golden silk wrapped body forms rest on makeshift wooden stretchers wet from their last meeting with Ganga. Our knowledgeable guide explains it takes two hundred and forty kilograms of wood and two to three hours to burn one body. He points to a white parcel burning fiercely enclosed by a large boy scout shaped fire saying that is a man. Pointing to an orange ball shaped object slightly protruding from the fire says that’s women. All arrive wrapped in the silk which is then discarded, folded and laid on the floor after the journey into the river to reveal a male in white or a female in orange. Anne asks about children and is told they are pure and so don’t need purification by fire. Neither do holymen who abandoned their families for God and snake victims have to be floated on palm leaves until the poison leaves their body and so on. I’m conscious of the time and the fact we have to be back to the hotel for 5.00pm and the night sail down the river. But stood there staring over such a scene the time seems irrelevant and as we are led back down a level and confronted by the same old women as before my mind is trying to take in all the facts and images: the bodies burning, the oldest son head shaven with just a tuft at the back, 240 kilos of wood to burn one body, the bones that don’t burn – men’s chest area and women’s thighs –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *