Going west

To continue from last time, we went from Siliguri in West Bengal to Varanasi. This involved a two-stage flight, the first on AirAsia, who pissed us off greatly on our flight to Bagdroga by rigidly enforcing baggage rules. They were fine this time and the second stage of the flight from Kolkata to Varanasi was in a half empty Air India plane. All very jolly.

Varanasi was STINKING hot. In fact, the whole place was like a hot brick that barely cooled down overnight. The temperature was comfortably over 40 degrees every day we were there. The only time to really enjoy the place was at dawn or dusk. Most of the action took place at dawn and that was when it really worked its magic. I have said before, when people have tried to allude to what is really India and what is not, that there is no single place that sums it up as it is remarkably diverse. But there is something in wandering by the side of the Ganges at dawn, with the ghats and buildings clustered on the bank, that is quite enchanting. Like something out of an old history book of India, how I might have imagined the place as a kid. Travelling by row boat down the river at dawn was simply mesmerising. I had expected the place to be swamped by western tourists but they were considerably diluted by Indians. In fact, the place was not a western tourist trap at all in the way Goa or parts of Kerala are. The street scenes were not as harrowing as I might have thought. We certainly saw a number of cremations and the transport of dead bodies wrapped and carried on stretchers. But this was not as openly graphic as I might have thought. Varanasi is a very holy city for Hindus to be cremated and an even holier one in which to die.

Despite the spectacle, it was a relief in some ways to escape the place as it was essentially like being in an oven. It was dry heat rather than the oppressive humidity of Kolkata but hard enough, nonetheless. I’ve experienced this before and you just have to grin and bear it, venturing outside in small journeys and allowing time to rest up and re-hydrate in between. Overall it was quite some place. The ghats were a source of endless interest and the narrow back lanes were a fascinating labyrinth where it was very easy to get lost.

From Varanasi, it was a large jump to Amritsar. It was a disjointed two-stage flight again that involved a long layover in Delhi airport. By some fluke, we had managed to get premium economy on one leg which was pleasantly comfortable. It was impressive how the onboard staff could get all the food and drink out on such a short leg. I remembered visiting here years ago and visiting the famous Golden Temple which is an impressive religious monument. Amritsar was, on the surface, a friendlier place and, except for the day we arrived, blissfully cool. It was great on the second day when grey skies appeared and rain fell. It was a comforting feeling. I have seen hardly any rain in last year and while many would think this was a blessing, I think you need to have some balance in seasons and weather. The first place we visited was the memorial park where the 1919 massacre at Jallianwala Bagh took place. This was quite a hideous episode where an unarmed and largely peaceful crowd were fired upon by British commanded troops. The commander at the scene, General Dyer is not well looked on in history. He chose to deal with the situation without regard to the amount of bloodshed and only the structures in the area prevented the deployment of armoured cars which would have caused even more mayhem. A very unpleasant reminder of British rule, that despite apologists emphasising some of the few positive aspects, was essentially vicious and self-serving.

The Golden Temple had also seen more action in previous years when it was stormed and heavily damaged by Indian troops during the infamous Operation Blue Star in 1984 in response to its occupation by militant Sikhs. This led to rebuilding some of the temple complex which, although much of the damage was repaired by the government, there was a preference to rebuild much of the tainted area. I avoided handing in my shoes at the shoe booth, you are not allowed to wear shoes inside the temple area, by putting them in my shoulder bag. I did not close it too well which turned out to be a mistake. They were spotted by a passing pilgrim who relentlessly hassled me. I knew you couldn’t wear shoes but didn’t realise that this included not bringing them inside the temple at all. I was reported to the temple guards who duly escorted me to the shoe depository. It is an impressive complex. An adjoining museum has a gallery of pictures detailing some of the hideous and tortuous punishments meted out to and by the Sikhs over the centuries. The Sikh men in particular look quite dignified in their turbans and impressively cultivated moustaches. I’m still unclear quite how the women fit into all of this as they don’t appear to have such distinctive dress rules. They are required to cover their heads but this usually done with a chunnai scarf but women also wear turbans sometimes. There are five requirements for Sikh dress including special underpants.

Amritsar mobile (4)Amritsar also had a network of narrow lanes that threaded through shops and workshops and this made for a fascinating walk. While the place had a generally friendly feel about it but there were few westerners about and that seemed to create more staring than usual as well as a higher number of selfie posing requests. I can tolerate a high degree of staring but sometimes it is a bit hard. For instance, occasionally a waiter in an uncrowded hotel will linger and stare at every bit of the foreigner’s eating habits, much like you’d watch an animal at the zoo. It is usually disconcerting and somewhat annoying. As for the selfies, I am amazed at how many selfies someone can actually take but it is a national pastime in India and any tourist site in the country will be surrounded by Indians pointing phones at themselves. I have to admit that the need of many people to take a picture of themselves standing next to a foreigner is a mystery to me. I guess they show them to their mates but I can’t quite see the attraction. But it is a fact of life here. I’m not sure how many pictures I appear in but I am stored in quite a number of Indian phones.

Next it was to the final leg of the two-month travel finale in India as we headed to Rajasthan. First, we flew to Jaipur which is a place I visited about ten years ago. Not that this was a long layover. We headed straight off to Ranthambore National Park the next day in the hope of going on safari and spotting a tiger. I was caught short on my research here as I thought all that was required was to turn up and all the touts, hotel staff or hawkers would duly set us up for a safari. It wasn’t that way at all. The whole business was run and controlled by the state government and was a bit of a schamozzle. You were required to book online, I discovered, and there was limited space available. I had hoped to stay a couple of nights and get a few safaris in a “gypsy” (jeep). Not so lucky. First, the hotel manager came knocking at the door of our room offering us a rather overpriced ticket on a “canter” – an 18-seater 4WD. We walked through the village armed with sticks to brandish at packs of threatening dogs, to the official ticket booth. The rudeness was quite appalling and only one or two helpful people eventually clarified what was happening. No gypsy available as they were booked ages ago. Only one safari ride available which was the following morning in a canter. We did manage to book that online, thus avoiding the 33% commission on offer at the hotel. The hotel staff were helpful in other ways but it still involved a trip down to the ticket booth at 5:30am so I could show the online booking and be allocated a vehicle. I then had to travel back to the hotel on the back of a motorbike to wait for the safari vehicle to call by and pick us up. Typical Indian red tape.

Tiger pic 2So, in the back of an 18-seater being bumped around uncomfortably we headed off.  To make things more complicated, the park is divided into zones. We luckily got on the canter to Zone 6 which is a high tiger spotting area. After being bumped around for an hour and a half and seeing very few animals of any sort we stopped next to a watering hole. At this point I had given up all hope of seeing a tiger and couldn’t wait to go back to the hotel and on to Jaipur. A gypsy pulled up close by and clearly reported seeing a tiger as our driver took off at breakneck speed. While there were other vehicles present, we finally did see a tiger emerge from the undergrowth. It was an impressive beast. Beautiful, like all the big cats, and certainly the largest cat I have ever seen. It made up for some of the stress of getting to the place and on a safari.

With improved spirits but still weary from the early morning wake up we returned to the hotel and made as swift an exit as possible back to Jaipur. I had abandoned the idea of a second night at Ranthambore as there was little point, with no prospect of further animal spotting. The hotel we stayed in had a heritage style and lovely grounds with a murky swimming pool. There was a large stone wall across the road form it where, legend has it, leopards sometimes sit and wait to spot their next meal We didn’t see any, but I’ll settle for the tiger.

Back in Jaipur we limited our activity to taking another trip to see the pink city and one to the Panna Meena ka Kund, a so-called step well near the Amber Fort.

SteppystepsNow we are getting nearer the end of the journey. A one day lay up in Jaipur where we rested up and prepared for the next stop at Pushkar. The travelling can be a bit hard at times but it is nothing like the sort of gruelling travel I did as a young backpacker in these parts. Age and more money has seen to that.

Kolkata and beyond

From the south we headed to Kolkata. I first arrived in that city when I came to India in 1976. It was called Calcutta then and was entirely different place. As I’ve said before, India and the world were different places then. I remember suffering a bit from culture shock despite having been travelling in South East Asia in the previous months. I thought it was great at the time and was not disappointed after my lengthy absence. It had a bit of a different vibe to Mumbai and in many ways was rather more pleasant. The old yellow taxis gave it a Manhattan sort of feel. I was surprised to see them in such abundance. Based on the old Ambassador cars they really added to the atmosphere of the place. Interestingly they had “No Refusal” written on the side. I took this with a grain of salt and see I was probably right to do so. In theory they use the meters and although on our first ride the driver did so, all subsequent experiences were different. This included reneging on the original deal when we were already inside and setting off.  I did push back against this by shouting “Stop the car and I’ll give you 20 rupees!” It worked every time and the original deal was reinstated. After this we mainly used Uber and Ola – not always easy hooking up with the ride but considerably cheaper and no hassle about the fare.

Kolkata (8) (2)These hassles aside, the place was a treat. The sumptuous Victoria Memorial was on a Taj Mahal like scale. I barely remembered it from the first visit but it presented magnificently and was set in lovely parkland. We also loved the Indian Museum. It had some old and crumbling exhibits but the building was brilliant, this is so often the case with many of the museums in India. Often these are small with quite eclectic collections but housed in lovely buildings. The Indian Museum is on quite a different scale and a wonderful place to visit.

It must be added, that although Kolkata was fun to explore it was also hideously hot and humid. I was best able to stand up to it and spent a bit more time walking about. It was hard however keeping adequately hydrated as I became drenched in sweat. I photographed some of the lovely old buildings expecting to be shouted at by some guard. Many of the loveliest old buildings house government departments and that usually means photographing them is banned. I was chased off at one point but just carried on everywhere else as brazenly as possible, thinking that if they stopped me so what? There is an obsession about photography in India. Many things are exempt from any forms of photography. Often quite innocuous buildings or particular parts of museums. There is usually a charge added on at museums for cameras. Then sometimes you are only allowed to take photos with a mobile phone not a “proper” camera. It can be annoying and often seems arbitrary and stupid but that’s the way it is. Sometimes playing dumb or being sneaky gets you past this.

I also ventured over to the Central Market near where I had originally stayed all those years ago. I would be instantly pursued and harassed by some young lad as soon as I entered the place. They would list everything they could think of: “do you want pashminas, handicrafts, carvings…” the list would go on. Then in more hushed tones they would say: “Do you want hashish? Heroin? Morphine? Speed? Cocaine ..?” again the list would go on. Then: “You want girl?” And in even more hushed tones: “You want boy?” Anyway, the place burned down some years ago so it is unrecognisable today. So, life goes on….

I left Kolkata thinking that I had not really had as much time there as I would have wanted. It’s probably nicer at street level than the great city of Mumbai and has the reputation as a cultural and intellectual centre in India. A friend who spends quite a bit of time there on business had a few suggestions for places to eat and visit but we only got to a few of these. But there is always another time. From Kolkata we headed to Darjeeling. This involved a flight and a three-hour drive. We were finally caught having cabin baggage that was too heavy by AirAsia. It was an annoyance and cost us about $A30 (£13). They’ll probably do it again the next time we fly with them.

Darjeeling, a famous old British hill station, was far less touristy than I expected. Most of the tourists are Indians and we saw only a few Westerners. The town was hardly over developed for tourists either. What we did encounter was something we hadn’t seen for a while: rain. In fact, we got caught in a huge downpour and our flimsy umbrellas were of little protection. The lower temperature meant it was quite pleasant to walk. I had booked a ticket on the narrow gauge “toy” train that these days is pretty much a joyride. The day before they sent me a text saying it was cancelled. As the weather the next day was fine, we chanced going to the station and were rewarded with a ticket on the next train up the hill. I got covered in large coal dust but thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It brought back memories of my late father who was a huge steam train fan. He would have greatly enjoyed it.

Then it was off to Sikkim. I had always wanted to go there after I read about it as a kid. In those days it was an independent kingdom but that changed in 1975 when India decided to depose the king and take over. Sikkim’s strategic location abutting the Chinese border may have pushed India in that direction.  I should probably have researched the trip a bit better and left time to get a permit to visit Lake Chengdu. As it was, we needed a special permit to visit Sikkim which was a bit of a nuisance to acquire. It involved going to two different offices where stuffy old geezers wrote details in books and issued stamped forms. In the end no border soldiers looked at it but the hotel needed to see it before you could check in. But we were blessed with the weather in Gangtok and got great views of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak after Everest and K2. It was really nice in Gangtok and the drive up there from Darjeeling was beautiful. Getting out proved a bit trickier. I hadn’t really accounted for the largest democratic exercise on earth – the elections for Lok Sabha – the Indian central parliament. This has received quite a bit of publicity in other countries. Over 900 million people eligible to vote and 15 million new voters since the last election in 2014. It is staged over about five weeks but unfortunately kicked off on the day we were planning on heading south. It appears that the advent of the election brings in all sorts of restrictions. Alcohol was not sold in the days preceding it and on the first day itself nearly all transport services were suspended. After some searching, we found a taxi driver willing to take us. After nervously waiting for the next day, he’d obviously farmed it out to a friend. We ended up with the guy in the picture. He looked about twelve years old, but was twenty, and drove like a maniac. He was a nice guy however and thankfully arrived in one piece.

Driver from GangtokI write this while sitting in a hotel room in Siliguri, a not particularly notable town but one that is a point between Gangtok and the airport at Bagdroga. Tomorrow we have a two-stage flight to Varanasi. Our time here gets shorter but as we are doing so much it all seems so long. It’s going to be quite a change. Now we go back to the great heat of the plains and away from the relative cools of the hills.

Fond of Pondy

Fast forward to India again. From Kandy we had headed south. First to the Udawalawe National Park for a safari amongst the elephants, monkey and birds. It was nice but again it was a bit of a shit fight with the other armada of vehicles. Eventually these seemed to disperse and we were left to wander in relative peace around the park. The park has its problems with the conflict between foraging elephants and the farmers who live around its perimeter. There appears to be some stress on the animals themselves whose opportunities for feeding themselves appear to have diminished. Elephants are large animals who eat a lot and can be a threat to humans when their lives conflict. This has escalated in recent years in Sri Lanka with over 375 people killed by wild elephants and over 1,100 elephants killed by humans within the five years to 2018. I have seen this in Africa before. Often it is the big businesses that own safari parks not really sharing that wealth around. Therefore, subsistence farmers bear the brunt of animal incursions.

From there we went to the southern city of Galle. This gave us an opportunity to have probably one last trip to the beach which was nice. We stayed in the Fort area which was a lovely area based on the old Dutch colony. Certainly, it was a lovely spot. See the pictures here.

Sri Lanka was a pleasant place but I am not overwhelmed but a huge desire to return. I would certainly recommend it to those who find the prospect of India daunting. It is altogether a far tamer and more benign place.

So, from Sri Lanka it was back to India and a flight to Chennai followed by a three hour taxi ride to Pondicherry. I have long wanted to come here. It is the main part of the old French India. There is still some influence left here. The old colonial town, White Town, is lovely, There has clearly been some effort put into restoring the old buildings and to emphasise its Gallic past. The result is rather nice. There are some very tasteful restaurants and boutiques and overall the place is lovely. It has to get a nomination for one of the most pleasant places I have visited in India. The only downside to this seaside town is that it lacks a beach you can swim on. It has a seaside promenade but this faces a sea wall. Notices ban any thought of swimming. We visited the neighbouring new age town of Auroville which I have to say was largely underwhelming. It has a fair presence of westerners with about 40% of the resident population being non-Indian. There some photos of Pondicherry (colloquially known as Pondy) here.

Pondicherry (68) (2)The French had a presence in India for several hundred years. There were apparently a number of reasons for the French withdrawal from India. The areas under French control were disparate and tiny. Times were changing and old-style colonialism was unpopular and outmoded. France had been hammered by the Vietnamese in Indochina and had come to the realisation it wasn’t the power it was anymore. A number of European countries had tried to carve out empires in India with the Dutch being ousted by the British, who appeared to tolerate the longer-term presence of the French and Portuguese. The latter were of course duly kicked out by the Indians in 1961 as their fascist regime had clung on desperately to its colonies until the mid-1970’s. Even the Danish had a few goes but were small and often disorganised. I feel an over-reliance on Wikipedia as a source here but it provides a fairly accurate overall picture.

Pondicherry (258) (2)We needed a new power board and were pointed in the direction of a local department store called Pothys. As we made our way to the electrical section on the fifth floor we passed through a dazzling selection of sarees. They made for a very colourful two floors. Quite a stunning scene. The shopworkers seemed to think it was a bit strange that we were quite taken by it. Obviously, they see it every day. The purchase process following typical red tape laden procedures.   The shop assistant comprehensively tested he power board by taking it out of the package, taking me to another desk and demonstrating that each power socket worked. Not bad customer service. He then typed up a sales invoice and directed me to the payment desk. I duly paid and had the sales invoice stamped four times in two different colours. I then had to go to another desk where another shop assistant officiously grabbed the stamped sales invoice (grabbing bureaucrats and frontline staff are another feature of Indian life), and then stapled the invoice to the plastic bag that was in front of him with the purchased power board. As soon as he had stapled the invoice, he then instantly ripped it off (leaving a hole on the side of the bag) and matched it with another shorter version receipt. He then stamped the two pieces of paper twice each with a blue stamp at dizzying speed and shoved the receipt and shopping bag at me with a look that reeked of resentment. Perhaps I was a little bemused and amused at the whole process at the same time. I was disappointed that he kept the sales invoice with the most colourful stamps on it but you can’t have everything. Red tape is a way of life here. It can be infuriating at times when you are stuck in a needless process but quite entertaining at others. I must admit I kind of preferred Pothys to David Jones or Marks and Spencer. The customer service was attentive and the colour of the place was seductive. The overstocked interior and the armies of sales staff reminded me of older times. I’m not been condescending here. I love these little things that this country throws at you. They come often in the most unexpected places and during the most trivial of tasks.

So, from here we leave the south. First to Kolkata and then even further north to Darjeeling and Gangtok. What a lovely part of India it has been. I haven’t been to Kolkata since 1976 but it was the first place I landed here and so significant as the first time I discovered India.