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.

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