“British Airways. It’s like being there already”. And so it felt as the flight to Delhi took on the feel of a gigantic flying corner shop – all turbans and saris and bellowing children. There are always some who question the sanity of getting inside a tube of metal to be transported at 600 miles per hour and 33,000 feet for over seven hours, but its never bothered me much. If you want to see the world in a different way, and travelling 5,000 miles from home certainly helps, then you might as well get on with it.
I am always less enamoured with night flying. Flying over the Black and Caspian Seas, Tbilisi and Baku, I would certainly relish a look. But then there’s a great thrill in arriving in a new city in the dark. It’s not until the morning that you realise the landscape you’re in – in my case eight floors up in the Taj Hotel in the diplomatic enclave in Delhi.
It was a bracing view over the rolling trees and landscaped gardens, somewhat reminiscent of the Tuilleries in France. In fact, the whole of New Delhi was landscaped in that sort of style by Sir Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker in the early 1900s. They bickered for twenty years about where everything should go, but they finally got it down with some spectacular results. I set off to the president’s residence with my guide Punam. The view down the Rajpath (that’s the King’s Road to you and me) is not dissimilar to the Champs Elysee, with the India Gate creating an arch-style framing effect at the end of the hugely-long straight road.
We trundled on to Old Delhi, where the massive Red Fort and its mosque hove into view. Shah Jahan built this lot in the 1600s, along with the Taj Mahal. Off with your socks and into the main square which can house 20,000 comfortably – the population of the city at the time of building. Here the Eurasian eagles and black kites swirl in large numbers at high altitude, swooping down from time to time on some unsuspecting pigeon. Back in the UK I had recently flown Harris Hawks on a falconry day, but these guys were nearly twice the size – and doubtless many times more difficult to tame.
If you want to get stuck in to a foreign city, there’s no better way than to dive right into the densest market, so we grabbed a rickshaw and in we went. In places the streets were so narrow that the roofs of the buildings on either side touched each other. And here you had all of India in one view: vegetables, silver, spices, outfits of every type, fireworks left over from the recently celebrated Diwali, every form of transport, and of course the noise. Tooting your horn is a national pastime. So is shouting, but nothing really seems particularly aggressive. The worst I saw was a smart old man slapping a dirtier looking guy for running his bicycle wheel into his trousers. There was no retaliation. He obviously knew his place. Even though the caste system has technically been abolished, the majority of people still know where they stand. Or fall, as the case may be.
Most important Indians get shot at some point, so I went to pay my respects to Gandhi at the crematorium. Then I legged it to the National Gallery of Modern Art. Unlike the Tate Modern, much of the work looks as though it could have been done hundreds of years ago, but I did enjoy some of the Picasso-esque work by Jamini Roy. Next up was the Bahai House of Worship, more familiarly known as the Lotus Temple because of its shape. It is very like the Sydney Opera House, but in the shape of a lotus flower in 27 petals – nine each for the bud, the bloom and the halfway bit in the middle.
Although beautifully done, to my eye it wasn’t a patch on Humayun’s Tomb, knocked up by the wife of the second Murghal emperor in 1565. Returning after exile, he was so pissed off that his vision for the city had been completed by someone else, he destroyed everything except the mosque (because his religion forbade it) and the library (because he liked books). The two remaining buildings killed him anyway, because he fell when rushing down the library steps to his prayers. The tomb is often referred to as a poor man’s Taj Mahal and you can see the resemblance – massively imposing from the outside – but I’ll reserve further comment until I see the real thing.
The Mehrauli archaeological park was the centre of the Sultanate in the 1100s. This place is really old, and has a massive tower in it that is beginning to lean. It’s called Qutb Minar. It’s unpronounceable but it’s more impressive that the one in Pisa. And the surrounding mosque is quite weird because they destroyed lots of others to build it because they were short on materials and labour. So the result is a complete hotchpotch of styles with some bizarre results – very enjoyable.
The next day I was off to Udaipur, perched on three man-made lakes in Rajasthan. From the air you can watch the landscape dessicate and in the space of an hour the scorched red earth is everywhere. For centuries these guys have been fiercely independent. They were so bolshy with the Moguls that they rebutted invasions and refused matrimonial overtures over and over again, thereby earning their ruler the right to be called a Mahayana – that’s one up from Maharaja, and seriously important. His queen, by the way, is the Maharani, which has been one of my favourite curry shops in Clapham for twenty years.
Nothing I ever ate there compared, however, with last night’s meal. I was ushered into a rail carriage of the Orient Express, and treated to one of the best meals I’ve ever had: chicken consommé, Camembert soufflé, steak tournedos, and a cheeseboard, interspersed with wonderful min-chapatti and paprika butter. In fact, some of the delicacies are fantastically original. As I write, sipping an encouragingly tall bottle of Golden Peacock lager, I have been given a plate of bar snacks that would kick the arse off anything in the UK: tiny slivers of potato fried in mint and chilli. Yum, yum.
You need more socks than you think when you come here – assuming you visit a few mosques and temples that are still in use. Today I was strolling round Jagdish Mandir, a 17th century temple in Udaipur. Here you have to get to grips with the four steps of Hinduism – demons, animals, people, heaven – and work out where you stand in relation to Ganesh, who is an elephant, Garuda (a big mythical bird), and a range of other characters. They are carved out of a variety of local materials, notably polished marble and slate, and ornately decorated with gold and silver.
Then I took a stroll round the massive City Palace. Nailed together over five centuries, this thing is about the size of Basingstoke and considerably more interesting. Lavishly decorated interiors include ivory doors, intricate mirrors and fine motifs: glass peacocks, and reliefs on the walls that owe a little to the inside of Nefertiti’s tomb. Plus a lot of bedrooms for the scores of concubines the Mahayana could use to ease whatever sexual frustrations he may have had. On the other side of town, you can take a delightful stroll around the gardens he built for his Maids of Honour (Saheliyon Ki Bari), where all the fountains operate simply by being 15 metres lower than the lake that feeds them.
But the piece de resistance is surely Jag Nivas, the Lake Palace, scene of Octopussy fame. It’s now a hotel and it looks like a majestic ship floating gently on an idyllic lake. I had, of course, arranged to stay in it – well, there’s no point in visiting such awe-inspiring landscapes only to slum it. Outstanding it was too. If God is in the details, then maybe he lives here, and given that they have thousands of them, maybe that’s a reasonable bet. Tessellated mirrors, ivory, glass inserts, intricate carving – it’s all here, and usually just on one doorway. Apparently they regard every guest as a god in India, and it certainly takes a while to get used to being waited on hand and foot all day. In a strange way, I don’t really feel comfortable with it.
Holy Cow! I’m on the road from Udaipur to Jodhpur and it’s livestock city. Cattle, sheep, goats – great herds of them in the road – fruit bats, warthogs, water buffalo, donkeys, dogs (some alive), camels, and a few people too. We are driving through the Aravelli Hills, which the locals are determined to claim as the oldest mountain range in the world. Given that the Indian sub-continent broke off from Africa, crossed the ocean and smashed into Asia to form the Himalayas, this may well be the case. Anyway, we snake through a faintly Andean landscape to visit Ranakpur, a massive Jain temple made entirely out of white marble. It has 1444 pillars of the stuff. Funnily enough, though, it wasn’t nearly as big as I expected from the pictures.
Unlike the Umaid Bhavan Palace in Jodhpur, which is larger than Berkshire and probably taller. It is also my hotel. It has 347 rooms and if you forget something, believe me, it’s a day’s march back to your room. The location is truly extraordinary – massive echoey halls bedecked in tiger skins and water buffalo heads – perched on a hilltop befitting a maharaja. I suppose it has to be experienced once. But there are a lot of buts. The place is full of tossers, other than the staff who are wonderful. A group of eight American ladies thundered inappropriately into the dining room and declared “there are only four men in here!” They then went on to demand ‘non-spicy’ food and talk bollocks all night.
In the bar, I was incapable of failing to overhear the Englishman chatting very loudly to the German bird who had “left her homeland to find herself, only to realise her heart lay at home”. Oh dear. When he had finished discussing her various spiritual needs and finished with the “maybe it’s because I’m a musician…..”, I knew he just wanted to get her knickers off. As one of the appalling Yankee women was demanding only chicken breast in her non-spicy curry, I opted for Subz Pani (scooped potato barrels) and Murgh Firdausi (a damned good chicken curry), with all the trimmings and no inane questions. Rock on.
When you travel on your own you forget how much you can pack into a day. I have completely failed to mention the spectacular breakfast overlooking the lake in Udaipur, the size of the swimming pool at Umaid Bhavan, the brusque all-naked massage by the cheery Indian fellow, and the gin and tonic, which cunningly tasted of neither gin nor tonic. All of this was wonderful by degrees, unlike the total twat who is holding court at the table next to me. Standing over six feet in traditional Indian dress but actually an Etonian by the sound of it, he has the rapt attention of the American ladies. “Of course, one of the most amazing battle stories is that of the Bengal Lancers, or was it the Jodhpur Lancers, anyway…….eight wounds before he would sound the retreat….blah, blah, ladies……”
I awake to the sound of screeching peacocks in the ornamental gardens which sweep down the hill to the railway whose blaring horns could keep you awake if you weren’t so amazingly relaxed. It’s a stunning sunrise over red sandstone, with the massive fort on the hill providing the backdrop as the birdsong soundtrack kick-starts the day. The first job of course is to get to the fort, something that all previous invaders have had big trouble doing. This thing is truly impenetrable. Its walls are 45 feet thick and it’s higher than a high thing. The gate is even covered in spikes and round a tight corner so that if you charge at it on an elephant you just bounce off. There are a few cannonball indentations, but they look no worse than acne.
So here I am, perched on top of the blue city – all the houses are indigo coloured. Jaisalmer is the golden city because of the yellowy sandstone, Udaipur was white, Jaipur is pink. They’re basically colour-coded round here so if you lose the plot on a big night out you can remember which town you’re in. Mehrangarh Fort is amazing – packed full of interesting artefacts and in a truly unique location. It was the first oasis you come to after a couple of hundred miles of dessert, so you really had to respect the guy in charge. In the museum there are 3 in 1 weapons (sword, dagger and pistol), ornate palanquins (chair-like apparatus on which royalty are carried by ten or so flunkies), and dumb bells that the queen used in 16th century aerobics. There are highly detailed paintings that prove that Jane Fonda wasn’t as original as so many Clapham housewives thought.
We drove out of town. “Dead body!” shouts my driver. He was right. It was a funeral procession. We drove for four hours through the Thar Desert to Jaisalmer. It’s a never-ending battle between the road and the dunes that try to engulf it. We’re thundering along in our trusty Ambassador Classic, dodging the herds of camels and a convoy of army tanks. It’s border country here, and they don’t get on well with the Pakistanis. With partition in 1947 they started shipping Hindus and Muslims around and it’s been chaos ever since. We took a comfort break past Pokaran at a place called Manvar, where a moustachioed soldier with a turban and a handlebar moustache saluted me and showed me to the toilet. A couple of guys were loitering on the wall in the shade. When I emerged to resume my journey, one of them let fly a thunderous fart. The major briskly saluted once more and I was on my way.
My mission was to catch sunset at the Sam dunes. Which I would have to do by camel. Sounds authentic and very ‘back to nature’ doesn’t it? My arse. Hundreds of tourists were there, and the place was crawling with irritating gypsies trying to sell you warm lemonade and Jew’s harps. To cap it all, the sunset over the dunes was nastily silhouetted against several houses and a run of pylons. I’ve seen much better in Egypt and the Atacama. The guys made a rather feeble excuse about the best dunes being nearer the border, but the government would not permit it. There was, however, a consolation. With the camel ride not more than an hour, my testicles remained in tact, unlike those of the Abyssinian eunuchs who attended the Maharani round here. “Why were they always Abyssinian?” I asked. Apparently, they use to castrate their kids and they made it a way of life for generations. Rather limited on the career front you might say.
“Dad, dad, I want to be a fireman!”
“Sorry son, you can’t”
“You’re a eunuch son”
I was about to take a shower when there was a knock at the door. “I have chicken!” announced the chirpy Indian. “Well done,” I replied. “How does it come?” This was the chef at my curious little hotel back in Jodhpur. Punningly called the Inn Season, it was a little oasis of calm in the centre of the city – cooing doves, frollicking squirrels, a couple of puppies playing, a swimming pool in walled gardens, and apparently a chef who cooks to order. Give him an hour’s notice and he’ll do the honours, family-style. The trip back from Jaisalmer was a bit flat – both geographically and mentally.
Certainly, we encountered a herd of several hundred camel crossing the road and, sadly, a dead Indian Kite in the road, its wing arcing up in a funerial fan as though it were waving goodbye. But on balance Jaisalmer was not as enchanting as I had hoped. The city itself, which I had been round in the morning, smelt of shit mixed with disinfectant. It was a continuing struggle, but the shit usually won. There are 4000 or so homes inside the city walls on top of a hill, most of it hundreds of years old, so it’s hard to keep things sanitary when there’s a cow parking a sloppy one on every second corner. I was shown round a number of havelis, posh ornate houses usually owned by rich merchants into opium, and on several occasions I was offered carpets and pashminas. Do I look like the kind of guy who would buy a rug? Maybe.
Strange thoughts occur as we pass our fourth hour of desert. Why does your sweat smell of spices when you’ve had no option but to eat curry for three nights in a row? Are the Aryans that invaded India centuries ago the same as the ones Hitler was so excited about? If so, where are the blue-eyed blonde people? And is that why the Hindus arrange their rice into swastikas when they pray? So many questions.
Indeed, I have a large one of my own and part of my mission on this trip is to prove or disprove a theory that I have held for some time – namely, that Indians are Welsh, and vice versa. Try this little exercise before you declare me barking mad. Try saying popodom in a Welsh accent. Now say Llanelli in an Indian accent. I think you’ll agree they are quite interchangeable. Once you get the hang of it, you can spot the links everywhere: the Gower peninsula was named after Gwalior, Dhakardiff needs no explanation, and Pwhelli Naan is a staple the world over, usually served by Tarka Dai, who will either be a Sikh holding a rugby ball or a male tenor with a turban. They are an awesome combination: their use of the cobra at line outs causes uproar and their close harmony singing can disturb any temple within a five-mile radius.
Flying from Jodhpur to Jaipur was an experience. The airport smelt of sewage, outside and in. Security was multiple: first your bags go through a metal detector. Then you go through one. Then they frisk you and run a metal detector over you. Then they look inside your bags. Then, just before boarding on the tarmac, they frisk you and ask you to identify your baggage. The women are sent into ‘Ladies Frisking Booths’ for the privilege. Whether this is Pakistani paranoia or standard practice I don’t know. At the Rambagh Palace Hotel in Jaipur, I decide to take a massage. The guy is halfway through his routine when he points to my genitals and says “Mind if I do here?” What the hell – in for a rupee in for a pound. So he bats my balls around for a minute or two and I’ve been walking gingerly around for the last half hour with a strangely dull ache in my loins.
The hotel is heaving with activity all to do with a massive advertising conference of all things – I spent 20 years in the industry and I came here for a break. It’s a small world, and on inspecting the delegate list I discover that the guy who relieved me of my employment in the mid-nineties is one of the ‘keynote speakers’. How droll. I have been deemed ‘surplus to requirements’ three times in my life (well four if you count my marriage), and one of the bastards rolls up here. Small world or global village? And if that isn’t a bit of geographical serendipity, when I checked my e-mails an hour later, one of them was from an old colleague informing me that the very man in question had been fired the day before.
So it was with a feeling of immense circularity, particularly in my testicles, that I strode purposefully to the landscaped gardens for a peaceful read in the sun. The calm was briefly broken by a massive squawking of a flock of parrots (or perhaps the collective noun should be squawk – I don’t see why not if there can be a parliament of owls and a murder of crows). As I looked up I could see the reason for the commotion – an India kite had swooped down with a view to commandeering an afternoon snack. The fastest birds of prey can reach speeds of 200mph when they are in full attack mode. That’s enough to smash out a falconer’s front teeth and knock him out if the bird misjudges the dive, so grabbing the odd parrot is a doddle by comparison.
Reflecting on my experiences so far, I’m inclined to think that a couple of them have pushed their way into my top ten favourite places in the world. This may well change by the end of the trip, but at the moment it reads something like this.
1. Easter Island; sitting in an extinct volcano that is now a lake full of reeds, staring vaguely out at the Pacific Ocean.
2. Torres del Paine, Chile; either standing on a glacier 26 miles long considering the enormity of it all, or viewing all the glacial lakes from the Mirador del Condor.
3. Putre, northern Chile; 6,000 feet up staring at a volcano that looks like a huge breast with snow on it, flanked by lakes populated by Llamas and flamingos (naturally feeling quite light headed due to soroche or altitude sickness).
4. Sydney Harbour Bridge; standing on the very top, staring vertically down on a cruise liner 400 feet below.
5. The Great Barrier Reef; swimming with sharks and groupers in ten foot of water off Lizard Island – yahoo!
6. Jodhpur Fort; truly magical view of a thoroughly blue city, from a brilliant palace majestically decorated with jewels.
7. Grand Canyon; sunset on the Bright Angel Pass. I slept at the bottom of it. Actually I didn’t sleep much – too many things kept running over my sleeping mat.
8. Udaipur Lake Palace; definitely the ‘most unique’ hotel I have ever stayed in – an island that feels like a ship.
9. Chicago; my favourite US city – amazing architecture, home of the blues, and a fantastic cultural collision of German, Irish and Italian. Now that’s a social life!
10. Haardanger Vida, Norway; bizarre black volcanic mountains, similar to what you might expect in Iceland. Home of my childhood and coming up fast for a re-visit.
I have now spent a week on my own. This is a sensation I have experienced before when I went round South America for a month – it’s the short term equivalent of the seven-year itch – the seven-day itch. In the first week of a break you basically get your act together – eat what you want, sleep when you want, enjoy the peace and quiet, debrief yourself on all the issues in your life, and soak up your new surroundings. Then the pattern sets in. You become bored with hotel food, aggravated by details like begging and the repetitious mantra of some of the local guides, and you want to move on. This is where a new rhythm needs to kick in, and I am at that stage now.
Jaipur is not as enchanting as it’s cracked up to be. The buildings are painted pink every four years, but it isn’t clean and there are two million people causing general mayhem. There is a small oasis of calm in the City Palace where you can re-trace some history and see the huge ceremonial costumes of Madho Singh, who was over 7-foot. He certainly was a bit of a maddo, because on a visit to Britain in 1901 he bought Granges water with him in the world’s largest urns over 5-feet high. The Hawa Mahal (the Palace of Winds) should be a delightful pink fascia, trellised and ornate, but it is now surrounded by hideous shops and filth, so it’s a big disappointment. The Jantor Mantor next door is an interesting gigantic observatory. The Maharaja believed that the bigger you built your instruments, the more accurate they would be, and he was right – being able to predict the time accurately to within two seconds on a sundial. Who says size doesn’t matter?
But the scenic stuff is reserved for Amber where palaces, forts, garrisons and temples, half a dozen of them, vie for position on the slopes overlooking the impressive Maota Lake. The elephant taxi up the hill is a pleasant experience in its own right so long as you don’t mind running the gauntlet of the salesmen on the way. The views are breathtaking and the all-mirrored Maharaja’s bedroom is something else – those guys must have had a whale of a time with as many women as they wanted and mirrors all over the place.
I have made significant inroads into the swastika/Aryan riddle. Basically, when Himler and his cronies were scouring the globe for a decent logo and some role models, they alighted upon the swastika, which they pointed the other way to represent evil rather than good, and the highly successful central Asian invaders, the Aryans. The blonde hair, blue eyed stuff is a load of twaddle – they were dark haired swarthy types, more of your Afghan design. All the rest was twisted Nazi propaganda.
I was also particularly intrigued by the Zoroastrians, because one of my mates is one and I knew nothing about them. They fled Iran in the 9th century and worked their way down to Gujurat and eventually Mumbai, where their gang, the Parsi community, is regarded as rather brilliant. Apparently they are often named after their trade, which makes sense because my friend’s surname is Plumber. All this is a fantastically diverse country that is about 2500 miles north to south and 1400 miles across (I still don’t do kilometres, and I definitely drink pints).
Dining experiences are infinitely varied. There’s nothing wrong with a table for one if the ambulance, sorry ambience, is right. Good service, decent food, and a bit of background banter, are all part of the mix. But as soon as you throw in Americans, it all goes wrong. A party of ten last night deserved to be thrown in the nearest river. Not content with shouting very loudly, inaccurately quoting the supposed achievements of their president in fighting various foreigners, and prowling about constantly instead of eating, they turned sarcastic when one of their dishes was later then the rest and mock-applauded the waiter when he bought it. I’d have thrown them out, but unfortunately the customer is always right, even if they are ignorant yanks.
Indian wine is borderline. I can’t quite make up my mind about it. The white has a retzina-like quality to it, and the red gives the residual impression that if you had more than a couple of glasses it would be like redecorating the inside of your mouth with maroon Dulux weather shield. If you’re in a small hotel with restricted cuisine in India, or if they are just laying on a buffet, it’s effectively curry or nothing. So if you have a run of those, you could end up with three or four in a row, so tonight I have opted rather obscurely for penne carbonara. It feels a bit weird but, curry fanatic that I am, I think I’d be in some trouble if I ate the stuff non-stop for a month. The ones in Rajasthan are fairly pokey, the chillies are lethal in their own right, and my laundry already smells of the stuff. Sorry, too much information.
Moving on, Agra. Home of Viagra (only joking). That’s where I’m off to tomorrow. It’s in Utter Pradesh, as in “that’s a load of total and Uttar Pradesh!” So it’s goodbye to the proud people of Rajasthan. My verdict? Top marks for Udaipur and Jodhpur. Jaisalmer you could give a miss, and Jaipur is marginal but for the Amber Fort which makes it worthwhile. I appreciate that’s a bit clinical, but that’s my view.
On the road to Agra is Fatehpur Sikri. To get there we drive through a rural landscape not unlike Normandy – relentlessly flat on a seemingly endless tree-lined and straight road. The wildlife differed a little: water buffalo, kingfishers and the odd baboon. And the cottage industries apart from agriculture were quarrying red sandstone and brick making. The most sickening sight though was that of the so-called dancing bears. Apparently people go to the Himalayas to capture sloth bear cubs, bring them to these much hotter areas, and drag them around with pierced noses and mouths. It’s a truly abhorrent practice, which reduces their life expectancy from twenty to less than ten years. All I can say about this is that the bears (I saw five) conduct themselves with a lot more dignity than their owners. All credit to my guide when we were approached by one at a roadside stop. He sent they guy away and I asked him what he had said. “I said that you are abusing the animal and we do not approve sahib.” Absolutely.
We thundered on past the dubiously named Guru Krapa Hotel to Fatehpur Sikri, abandoned capital of the Emperor Akbar in 1585. This guy wanted to keep sweet with as many religions as possible, so he married a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian, all of whom had their own dwellings here. The stonework is infinitely detailed in places – Persian artisanship which frequently makes red sandstone look like woodwork. The Mughal emperor was so open-minded he even allowed carvings of some animals (strictly prohibited by Hindus). His narrow-minded brother, however, scraped them all off on a visit, which in my mind is just as bad as the graffiti culprits of modern times.
Once again I am very sad to report that the surroundings of this fantastic place are an absolute disaster. Lorries, filth, pollution, terrible inappropriate modern developments – it breaks your heart. My guidebook, printed in 2002, quotes the population of India as 705 million. Billboards and papers I have seen now say it is one billion. The thing is horribly out of control. With 40% of the people illiterate, nearly half of them cannot even tell you what a condom is, let along decide whether to use one. Jaipur has 2 million. Agra, which I had pictured as reasonably sedate, has 2 million and is a complete shithole. Everything everywhere smells of excrement. So it wasn’t a great surprise when the battery operated bus to the Taj Mahal smelt like the stairwell in a National Car Park. The idea is admirable – that no petrol driven vehicles are allowed near such a crucial UNESCO heritage sight – but the execution is woeful.
So here I am at one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Quite what the other six are seems to be a rolling debate. The old school go for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Coliseum, Rhodes, Alexandria and so on. Now apparently Stonehenge is in the mix and the Sphinx has muscled in alongside the Pyramids. The place is a mausoleum and so in my book deserves a bit of quiet respect. Instead it is heaving with literally thousands of people. I ask my guide whether they are packing in because it is closed tomorrow (always on Fridays) but apparently it’s always like this. I was strung between a massive respect for the environment and dismay at the baying hordes. It’s hard to articulate – of course everyone should be able to visit, but they shouldn’t treat the place like Disneyland. People were rushing about, leaping into restricted areas, lifting up grilles to the tomb area, playing chase, shouting, and generally being a pain in the arse. All this in a tomb!
The building itself is every bit as beautiful as you would expect. Imagine if Shah Jehan had fulfilled his wish of building an equivalent black version on the other side of the Yamuna River, connected by a silver bridge. Anyway, what you can’t see from the guidebooks is that the Taj Mahal is flanked by red sandstone buildings – a mosque, a guesthouse, and gatehouse – all in perfect symmetry. The contrast of red, white and green grass, coupled with reflected water and a sunset, is breathtaking. It took 20,000 workers 22 years to complete this place and when you examine the detail and the splendour you have to admit it really was worth it. I do, however, think that they need some ingenious ideas quite rapidly to minimise the impact of visitors. Inside the tomb was packed and unruly – they need to limit the number inside at one time. The standard of behaviour was inappropriate – they need more staff. And thousands never go inside, so how about building an area on the riverbank where those only interested in the profile of this great building can view it from a different angle? Just a thought. In the event, many would be as well-served visiting Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi – the same design and, when I visited, I had the whole place to myself.
Back at the hotel, which is functional in relation to some of the palaces in Rajasthan, there is a pleasant atmosphere created by charming groups of over fifties from France, Germany and Italy who have clearly got together with mates to engineer a dream trip to the Taj Mahal. Big respect to all of them for not staying in their respective equivalents of Watford, and coming out to experience another world. This is something my mother, who is over 70, does all the time. China, India, Canada, you name it – she just gets up and goes. In my opinion, assuming the basics of reasonable health, adventure is all a state of mind. You can stay in Hemel Hempstead if you want to, but then it’s pretty likely that your breadth of experience will be limited…..mainly to Hemel Hempstead presumably, and if you’ve ever been to the ice rink there, that surely can’t be a good thing.
Agra Fort was almost identical to the Red Fort in Delhi – same design, same red sandstone, same enormous outer wall which goes on for a mile or two. They have an outer moat, which they filled with crocodiles and poisonous snakes, and an inner one with leopards and panthers in it, not to mention the guards from a massive garrison. The monkeys scamper about like Tolkien’s Gollum, while the kites and eagles swirl overhead. Shah Jehan kept building things and we can now reap the benefit, but the last eight years of his life were spent in captivity in the tower here after he was locked up by his son. Actually it was more like house arrest because he had a pretty idyllic pad to wander about, plus a great view of the Yamuna River and the Taj Mahal. There is also a baby Taj – the sonically challenged Himad-ud-Daulah’s tomb – built by his daughter Nur Jahan in the 1620s. Once again the inlay work with semi-precious stones is exquisite, and you can see how the Persian craftsmen were beginning to perfect the extraordinary skills they deployed on the real thing.
I was really looking forward to my first ride on an Indian train, the Gomti Express from Agra (well, Tundla, an hour away by car) to Lucknow, former cultural capital of the north and scene of much of the chaos connected to the Indian mutiny in 1857. Unfortunately, this is where everything went wrong. At Tundla station, my guide returned grim-faced from the ticket booth.
“Train is delayed over 8 hours” he reported. There then ensued a Brian Rix like farce where we walked to a selection of platforms, offices and booths for extended and very earnest conversations in Hindi. There was one other train tonight but it was full. I could catch one in the morning. There was no question of spending a minute longer in the station. It was really disgusting, with flies and the stench of sewage everywhere, plus the engine oil. And all the floors were stained orange from their rather nasty habit of chewing betel nut and gobbing it out every minute or two. I asked how long it takes to drive to Lucknow. Seven or eight hours, “depending on road condition”. We then spent half an hour in a phone shop getting permission from head office to do this, and charge me 8000 rupees (over £100) for the privilege.
I wasn’t entirely prepared for the massive endurance test this journey would represent. I’ve been on a few dodgy road journeys before; four hours from the Haitian border across the Dominican Republic in the back of a knackered New York cab; ten hours in Chile from Punto Arenas to the Torres del Paine; and eight hours in a coach from Chaneral in the Atacama with hordes of smelly Peruvians. But this one rocketed straight into top slot as the most harrowing and uncomfortable. We were in a fairly sparse Daewoo on a road, which for the most part was a dirt track. No sooner had the driver gained any speed than we would smash into a succession of potholes. I must have seen at least 5,000 lorries, most of them in front of us. For the first few hours, an endless stream of obstacles had to be negotiated; people, bicycles, tractors, water buffalo, dogs – all totally unlit. And the diesel and dust was overpowering regardless of what we did with the windows or the air vents. If you can imagine being shaken vigorously for nine and a half hours (that’s how long it took in the end) whilst having sand and diesel fumes pumped at your face, you’ve got the rough picture.
I knew it was coming. We’d have to stop at some point for personal relief and food. Negotiating the usual smell of sewage was no big deal; it was the food I was worried about. I had a naan, some rice and the merest hint of dal to give it some moisture, washed down with bottled water. The meal for two cost £1.20. As we rattled on, overtaking lorry after lorry whilst still ducking the wildlife, we came across something quite unexpected at 2 o’clock in the morning: a huge traffic jam. It was so massive, all the lorry drivers had turned off their engines and lights, and gone to sleep.
On arrival I had to persuade the hotel cashier to sort me out so I could pay my man. At 4.30am I was just falling into bed when there was a knock at the door. The driver was standing with a pen and paper. “You write down my quality of service please”. Yeah right. I scribbled something and bade him goodnight. In the morning I work up with stomach cramps and bolted for the bathroom.
“Early arriving is not subject of matter – safety is thing”, declared Ajay the following morning. He was filling me in on the treacherous nature of the journey I had undertaken the night before. “Good you go long way round. Short cut not safe.” I was too knackered and bent double to ask precisely why. I elected to go round Lucknow in the morning so that I would have the rest of the day to crash out. Once again, the population is large at 3.2m, but everything here was much better spaced out. Ajay described the inhabitants as lazy artisans, and we were caught in the rush hour for work just before 11am. There isn’t really much to see.
We went to the Residency, scene of a massive 85-day siege in 1857 after the rumour spread that the cartridges the Indians had to lick had pig or cow fat on them. Cows are sacred to Hindus and pigs are dirty to Muslims so they were all up in arms – literally. 33 acres of buildings are either riddled with cannonball holes or destroyed completely. There are a lot of mosques around, and the biggest is Bara Imanbara. Strangely, the place was built as a famine relief project cooked up by a generous ruler (Asaf-ud-Daula) in 1784. There had been appalling drought so he provided employment for 10,000 people to get this done. It’s a classic large Hindu mosque on one side, with a huge cupola-covered hall on the other, which claims to be the largest in the world (164 feet long) to be unsupported by pillars. A mini version of the place, Chhota Imambara, is round the corner and is much more delicate.
The Amritsar Howrah Mail is a train and I was due to catch it at 10.55 but this time I insisted my man rang ahead to check that it existed. It claimed to be on time so we went to Lucknow station which had the usual smell of urine but was several notches up from the rank squalor of Tundla. In the event, it was an hour late but I was grateful that it was there at all. It was a bunk bed suspended from a ceiling above two others occupied by an Indian family with two young kids. So here it was. On a beautiful sunny day I was destined to spend five and a half hours on a shelf with only three feet of clearance to the ceiling.
My only connection with the outside world was a tiny window 2-foot square down at ground level, but I could only see rushing dirt and the feet of people on platforms when we pulled up at stations. And so, in the time-honoured style of long distance travellers, I fell back on my repertoire of whimsical, time-consuming pursuits. Naming as many brands of beer as possible from A-Z (225 is my record). Scrutinising the train timetable in infintessimal detail – this one contained a plain-speaking advertisement for Moods Supreme Condoms: “They have specially placed dots on the surface to massage all her right spots!” And of course reading up on my future destinations. I also had a copy of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, in which he crosses Asia by train in the seventies. The poor guy had been on the same train as me, although he seemed to have enjoyed considerably greater comfort. The safety notice on the train read as follows:
- In case of theft on trains passengers can avail assistance of guard, coach, attendant etc to prefer reports
- Ticketless travel is fine up to RS.1000 or imprisonment up to 6 months or both
- Please do not spit in the coach
- Please do not use transistor radio without earphone
- Consumption of alcoholic drinks prohibited
By now the five and a half hours had turned into seven. It was dark, there were no station announcements and I couldn’t see out of the window – not that any station was signposted anyway. People were sloping off to the ends of carriages to smoke or relieve themselves in those outstanding toilets where there is no flush and you can see the track beneath you. I took a stroll myself to find someone who could speak English and was reassured – sure enough, another hour or so to go.
On arrival I was met by a cheery fellow who failed to mention his name, and whilst negotiating my luggage across the lengthy and crowded platform I managed to step in an exceedingly deep water buffalo turd, (yes, there was one on the platform, a water buffalo that is) which I later discovered I had cunningly transferred to the carpet in my hotel room. That was after I had walked in and squashed a cockroach to the wall with the heel of my shoe. By now the dung was liberally distributed around most of Varanasi. I was still tittering to myself (the last resort of lone travellers – a sort of hysteria kicks in after a week or so) when the guy arrived at my door to collect the laundry. It was Trevor Macdonald. Bong! Tonight, soiled undergarments in biological meltdown disaster. Bong! Missing lingerie saga – staff accused. Bong! And finally, a monkey in Uttar Pradesh that can iron its own trousers.
To restore some sanity to the proceedings I opened the mini bar: coke, water, 7-up. No beer. I went to reception to ask for it to be re-stocked. “If is delivered to room we charge, even if no drink.” Right. “How many bars do you have?” “Two we are having.” I went to the first, which was small and full of fat Americans, one with his camera hung round his neck. I went to the other and it was full of fat Americans so I ordered a bottle of Royal Challenge, added it to my list of beers, and sat down to ponder the day.
My idealised version of Indian rail travel had been blown to smithereens. The first train didn’t exist – the Gomti Express (neither express, nor, indeed, Gomti) was again announced today as being ten hours off the pace. And the Amstrad Howler (sorry, Amistrar Howlah) had been a death camp on wheels. I had had visions of leaning out of the window admiring ever-changing landscapes drifting by. What I got was Connex Punjabi for re-offenders. Such a shame, and sadly I will never travel on an Indian train again unless a loved one is dying and there is genuinely no alternative.
So here I am in Varanasi. I shall refrain from dubbing it Very Nasty until I can glimpse it in daylight, which I will with a start at sunrise tomorrow when I get up at five to take a boat ride on the Ganges. My cheery man wouldn’t have won any sales awards with his very honest observation “not really much to see – just holy city”, but you never know. Travelling alone is a curious, rejuvenating experience, and I’m not talking about a night on your own on a conference trip to Birmingham. I mean a sustained escapade with extensive communication gaps so that you get into your own rhythm. Elation at the sheer freedom of it all transmogrifies into routine boredom, delight at changing environments, and a massive sharpening of one’s senses. You start to notice every detail and – here’s the curious thing – whilst many of them are irritating at the outset, they eventually become a source of great hilarity. Hence my new-found ability to endure a massive rail journey cooped up like a battery hen and still come out smiling.
I was not smiling at two o’clock in the morning when I awoke with what my father used to call the screaming habdabs. They were back with a vengeance so I cancelled the dawn trip and called for the doctor. I was extremely grateful that this had occurred in a comfortable venue with good facilities. He checked me over and put a needle in my backside to halt the vomiting. But I was determined to see the Ganges so I patched myself up and took a rowing boat in the afternoon. The river is a peaceful contrast to the Hong Kong style chaos that surrounds it. It’s pretty filthy and they burn the dead bodies at one particular ghat. The holy men chant, people swim, the water buffalo bellow, and the monkeys hurl abuse from the trees on the shoreline. Strangely though, it’s all a bit unremarkable and if it weren’t for its religious significance I don’t think you’d give it a second glance.
What is worth a second glance, without doubt, is Khajaraho. By now something of a pattern is emerging which I found rather disappointing. When researching my trip, I had formed (without really meaning to) an impression of the context in which I would find the remarkable sights of India – the temples, tombs and forts. And so far in every case, with the exception of Udaipur, I had been dismayed by the crap surrounding them. So it was a pleasure to arrive in Khajaraho (population 10,000) and find amazing Chandela temples surrounded by beautiful bougainvillea filled gardens and hardly a soul in sight. A lot of people come here to observe the supposedly erotic carvings on the sides of the rather phallic temples, put together in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Of course one’s reaction to these rather depends on how liberal one is, and one’s degree of sexual enterprise. In no particular order, there is group sex, soixante-neuf, oral, homosexuality, masturbation and bestiality. There is probably sodomy as well although it’s hard to tell when things are carved in stone. The woman being mounted by a goat leaves little to the imagination, nor does the soldier fucking a horse. Anyway, the details don’t detract from the beauty of the place any more than the crass behaviour of the German couples being photographed hopelessly attempting to re-enact some of the more complicated manoeuvres depicted here. Better success was being had by a pair of mongooses who were hard at it round the back of one of the temples. “Much sexual energy here”, my guide observed. I was to be vexed for some time by the whole business of precisely what is the correct plural of mongoose. Mongoose? Mongeese perhaps? I was subsequently put out of my misery by a Trivial Pursuit questions a few months later – it is indeed mongooses.
Back at the hotel, the staff were crowded round the wide screen TV watching India v Australia in a one-day final. These guys are mad about cricket, and I sat in the bar watching them soak it up. The contrast in attitude between here and the big cities is very marked. So far, all the taxi drivers have driven with the horn permanently on. In fact, since no one pays a blind bit of attention anyway, I’m convinced that it makes no difference whether there is constant tooting or total silence in Indian traffic, the bulk of which (water buffalo for example) has little manoeuvrability. But they are obsessed with honking, and even the lorries have HORN PLEASE written on their backs, unless that just means they have recently visited Khajaraho.
But I digress. I am intrigued by the list of services in my room. Under Health Club it says:
Threading: eyebrows, upper lips, chin
At 50 rupees per body part you’d be nuts not to give it a go don’t you think?
Reading the papers in India always produces a chuckle a day. Regular violence combined with twisted English produces wonderful results. ‘Man chargesheeted for housebreaking after preparation for hurt and theft in a dwelling house’. ‘He alleged that Chaudhary had broken into his room, assaulted him and thrown away his household items in order to compel him to leave the room’. ‘Sat Prakash was gathering information about movements of bad characters and other ruffians’. And so it goes on.
The matrimonial ads are even more hilarious. ‘Wanted tall, handsome match from well settled business family for very beautiful fair 24/165 cms smart, talented MBA girl belonging to reputed Garg family well settled in exports’ is fairly standard stuff. Some get quite specific: ‘Match preferably MSc Math and Science for 28 ½ /167 MBE and having one year Web Designing Diploma for IBM’. Quite early for an MBE one would think. Some are highly specific, bordering on the over honest: ‘Suitable match for Punjabi Arora beautiful girl slim legally divorced vergin 32/157/B.Ed belongs to business family.’ Being a virgin in her thirties might make the boys think twice, and may also explain the failure of the first marriage.
Returning to my room for a shower, there is a short history of Khajuraho on the wall, which catches my eye. It’s fairly bland except for the note at the bottom: “Our tame poet was asked to write a few lines on Khajuraho. This is what he produced. (He has since been sacked).” Over dinner I am having some difficulty concentrating on Kipling’s India. The Californian trauma therapist is telling her life story to the couple on the next table. It’s very boring: “You should have seen the people in the houses Eugene – no electricity!” “Don’t worry, Merv will be back – I’m all cart and he’s on the boofay!” In walks a sixty-year-old Dolly Parton who looks like she got a bulk discount on plastic surgery, and sits down next to the hard-pressed 70 year old who probably funded it. The thirty-something girl threesome who have followed me from Varanasi order beers, a full curry, extra nan, and puddings in rapid succession, which would explain the broad backsides all round.
The oldie women want to go shopping and the guys don’t. “I got all the junk I need” announces Dolly Parton’s hen-pecked provider, as the piped music in the background plays nasty versions of Lionel Richie’s Hello, Elton John’s Blue Eyes, and Bridge Over Troubled Water. It’s a familiar scene in this part of the world. I have nothing against Americans per se, but I really wish they, or any other visitors, could approach a new country with a little more imagination. I have overheard countless conversations on my travels, and never learnt anything new from an American. The Indians are earnestly discussing politics. Lots of English, French, and Italians are discussing the local customs and traditions. But the Yanks…ah well, they only bomb a country so they can find out where it is! There, I’ve said it.
It’s at this point that I finally discover the meaning of something my dentist said to me when I was ten: “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but I now realise that he was praising my courage in letting him drill my tooth without an injection. What he didn’t know was that I hate injections. So a Kipling poem written at the end of the 1800s that was quoted at me in the 1970s has finally made sense in 2003. Kipling would have been proud, or appalled – I never met the bloke so I don’t know.
Tiger time: Bandhavgarh
We set off in the morning for Bandhavgarh National Park. This is where I ‘go jungle’ in a four-day attempt to view a tiger in the wild. I am highly realistic about it, and am working on the assumption that I will not see one in six attempts at two different venues. It’s an eight-hour drive which would fill most comfortable Westerners with horror, but I’m actually quite used to it. We strike out in our intrepid Hindustani Motors Ambassador Classic – it’s basically a 1956 Morris Oxford – over the massive Ken river, past miles and miles of pink flowered besram (poisonous to cows), through the diamond mining towns of Panna. It’s becoming mountainous for a while until we are on a 100-mile plain in the middle of Madhya Pradesh.
The road is little more than a rutted dirt track for miles on end, and my teeth rattle in my head as they did from Agra to Lucknow. But this is better because it’s in daylight and I can watch the landscape gradually transforming into something not dissimilar to Tuscany with its dusty groves and rustic herders. On through Sutna with its cement and tyre factories, occasionally having to take a ten-minute break at level crossings when the huge trains come through – one had over 40 carriages of freight. A car in front of us had the label ‘election’ observer (their quotes, not mine, which doesn’t suggest that they thought it was much of a fair fight).
On past the rice fields with the women working in their colourful lunghis. Some of the women were even construction workers at road works where I spotted a steamroller called the Ashoka Roller – definitely a candidate to launch heavy rock music to the Indian market. And finally we were there. What struck me immediately was that there was just as much human settlement and livestock inside the parks as outside, but apparently tigers associate cattle with humans and tend to stay away, so people just get on with things. I arrived covered in the fine terra rosa dust we had driven through all day, as was my luggage, which had been in the porous boot of the Ambassador. I headed straight for the shower. The sun sets at 5.45 and, as you would expect, it is extremely dark, especially when the generator packs up and all the lights go out. Even when they’re on the wattage is low.
Dinner is a pre-set affair with about twenty of us in a lodge, mainly French holding court, a few braying Germans, and a foursome from Devon making poor jokes in a West Country burr. I am served my mutton curry against my will and spend the remainder of the evening trying to pick bits of stringy meat out of my teeth with my tongue. I’ve never liked mutton, but I haven’t eaten all day and I need some ballast to make sure my malaria pills stay down. Actually it was goat.
My alarm call was the reserve generator firing up at 4.45. I was due to be up soon anyway so I dressed and got into my jeep in the dark. Here’s the rough drill on a tiger drive: The Park opens at 6.15 so by ten to six there is a queue of jeeps (“gypsies Meester Duncan” as my guide called them) outside the gates – about thirty or so. We were about sixth in the line. When they open it’s like Formula One ecotourism. Everybody wants first glance at any paw prints on the dusty tracks to follow any movements and kills during the night.
The trackers quickly rumble what’s gone on while I sit in the back totally clueless, then when they’ve worked out where the tiger is, they park the jeep and wait for the mahouts on their elephants. You hop on board and venture into the undergrowth and then suddenly POW! I am seeing my first tiger in the wild – two in fact, licking over the bones of a deer. All this within an hour of setting off. That’s like banging in a hat trick at Wembley in the first five minutes. The tigers looked up with a languid indifference as I sat slack-jawed and rattled off countless photographs. The power and grace, the gentle beauty – it was breathtaking. We headed off to let others see.
Suddenly there was a loud trumpeting from the elephants in the undergrowth. “Tiger has charged elephant,” commented my driver. We drove on. I saw langur monkeys, a crested hawk eagle, a beautiful metallic turquoise kingfisher eyeing the river for his breakfast, spotted deer, cute little spotted owlets tucked into their tree holes, peacocks, lapwings, and massive six foot square webs with yellow spiders in them as big as your hand. The sun rose over the misty tall grass that the tigers love so much for cover, but if you took out these extraordinary animals, it could have been a deciduous wood in Hertfordshire.
By 9.30 we were back at the lodge having scrambled eggs and coffee, where I engaged in some banter with the cheery Devonians. On the way back my luck had stepped up another gear. A cluster of jeeps had gathered and there had been another sighting: did I want to look? I was in like a flash and there, deep in the bamboo and banyan, were three cubs, one each under three trees. My mahout manoeuvred round and I was eyeballing the closest no more than five yards away. She yawned at me, licked her lips and scratched her head on the tree. They were totally relaxed and not bothered by the elephants that shuttled to and fro. They are very peaceful animals and they don’t get energetic unless they’re hungry or looking for a mate. So I suppose you could safely call that beginners luck. I had seen five tigers at the first attempt in three hours. I was smiling non-stop. A feeling of great privilege swept over me along the lines of “If I die now, I’ll die happy”. I sat in the sun in something of a dream like condition. I hadn’t dared to think that I would achieve my dream at the first attempt.
The afternoon drive was less eventful, with no tiger sightings. We knew exactly where they were (four down by a waterhole they often frequented) but they weren’t coming out and were inaccessible by elephant. Instead I sat back and enjoyed the other animals: thousands of dragonflies as big as your hand dancing over a lake, a four-foot tall lesser adjutant stork wandering in the long grass, a two-foot crested hawk-eagle stationary at close range, and gigantic vultures whose nests on the rocky cliffs are identifiable by the white droppings just like their condor relations I had seen in the Andes.
At one point by a lake I thought my guide shouted, “sand python”. It turned out to be a small sandpiper, which I was less excited about. You have to concentrate incredibly hard to understand a lot of fast Indglish. Half of the time it sounds like a jumbled patois along the lines of Paul Whitehouse’s Geordie Columbian football manager – you just can’t work out where you are. “Telecoms passanda scenario outboard motor hatstand internet gestallen sahib”. Absolutely mate, but only on Tuesdays. “Radio landset small hand cart custard intersperse differential cuddly toy pumpkin.” Yes, my friend had one as well but the wheels fell off. Honesty, if you say it fast with an Indian, or indeed Welsh, accent, it makes as much sense.
Concentrating on this, plus scanning the landscape for six hours is quite knackering, so I retired for a shower. By the end I was completely unable to see a particular kingfisher that my guide spent three minutes trying to point out to me. I just couldn’t see the bloody thing. Back at the lodge, one of the Americans wants to know when the power will be back on because he wants to work on his computer, and can they do his laundry? It’s a nature reserve mate, not a bloody hotel! Ah well, no irritant will detract from what has been one of the best days of my life. The majesty and splendour of the wild tiger viewed at close quarters. Even if I don’t see another now I’ll be happy. “I have many things I’d like to achieve in my life and one of them is to build a brick house with my own hands….” The Yank is blabbering on, but I’m ecstatic.
The next day I drive to Kanhu, another wildlife reserve six hours away. This gives me the chance to view the Madhya Pradesh countryside, hundreds of miles of rolling hills dotted with marvellous lakes and mustard fields, intersected by a succession of lush rivers. My driver is a man possessed. He achieves the trip in a record time of 5 hours and 20 minutes, and I know precisely how. Cranking the antiquated Ambassador to the max, he sits on the tail of every vehicle he can find with his horn full on. He seems disinterested in distinguishing between lorries, pedal cycles, pedestrians, cattle or whatever – he just ploughs on through. Single-track road? No problem. Hairpin bends? Doddle. Blind corner surrounded by dense forest? Piece of cake. He sweeps all before him: buffalo, farm workers, women, children at play outside their front doors, vultures stupid enough to be picking at carrion in the road. After sitting behind one particular lorry with his horn on for fully five minutes, we eventually pull past. He drew level and wound down the window.
“Why the @*x! didn’t you let me past you git?”
“Because we are on a single track road, dickhead.”
I didn’t need to know Hindi to get the gist of their exchange.
So, leaving a tornado of dust on the horizon, we arrive at Kipling Camp in Kanha, a little haven of England where everyone’s called Gemma and Violet, and I can have a conversation for the first time in a fortnight without resorting to kindergarten language. In the evening we had dinner over a campfire with candles in the forest by the river, which was a calming experience, and then it was up at five for a gruelling six-hour safari with not one tiger to show for it. The disappointment was offset in the afternoon when I had the pleasure of swimming with the resident elephant Tara, and scrubbing her down on the Banja River. At her mahout’s command, she would roll over to be washed, and then come out to dry herself and give herself a pedicure with a stick. She loved it and so did I.
The following morning I struck more tiger gold. As we were driving along our guide spotted a tigress in dense, hilly bamboo on the left of the road. We cut the engines and watched for a while. She was commanding all our attention when I heard a noise to my right, and there on the other side of the road was a huge male. He gave a cursory glance and disappeared behind a thicket of bamboo. Post monsoon is heavy mating season so these two were sizing each other up as potential partners. We waited another fifteen minutes or so and sure enough, the female crossed the road in front of us to join him. It was fantastic to watch. Purist tiger watchers claim that viewing from an elephant after one has been found doesn’t really count, so here was a ‘proper’ sighting from a jeep. A quick tally revealed that I had in total been scouring the landscape at both reserves for a total of 24 hours, and had seen seven tigers for a total of about ten minutes. Even that is a good strike rate. So I departed Kipling Camp highly satisfied and embarked on the six-hour drive to Nagpur, where I was catching a plane to Mumbai, formerly Bombay, in the state of Maharashta.
Bombay early doors
Getting up the following morning and pulling open the curtains I had a spectacular view of the Gateway to India, a large Arc de Triomphe look-alike on the seafront, from my hotel room in the Taj hotel. This would have been wonderful but for the fact that things had not gone according to plan in the small hours and my girlfriend had not arrived from London. The flight had been cancelled so I had the day to fill on my own. I took a stroll down to the gateway and within seconds I was beating off the hawkers.
“No thank you”
“Postcard of gateway?”
“I said no”
“You want postcard sir?”
“Fuck off or I’ll throw you into the Arabian Sea”
We took a drive around. The wide streets and palm trees reminded me of Barcelona, edged by distinctive colonnaded architecture. The contrast to all other Indian cities was huge. Here there was tarmac, traffic lights, road markings, no livestock, and a generally cosmopolitan feel in a megalopolis containing 15 million people – 2,000 arrive every day. Past the Victorian Terminus which is a great building and a working station (six million commute in daily), Crawford Market and the Stock Exchange, and up Marine Drive to Malabar Hill where there is a great view of the huge sweeping bay.
Unlike Rio there is no-one on the massive beach. It looks like a cross between Miami and Naples on a very grand scale. Up at the Hanging Gardens the vultures swirl overhead – their job is to eat the dead of the Parsi faith who believe that bodies should be returned to nature directly. I suppose if you’ve passed on you wouldn’t have a strong opinion on whether you were eaten by a bird of prey, but it doesn’t sound very enjoyable. The Hanging Gardens, with their topiary-filled walkways, are actually covering massive reservoirs that store millions of gallons of monsoon water to feed this thirsty city. We finished off at a house-cum-museum where Gandhi spent a fair bit of his time, and I filled in some gaps in knowledge about the man by scouring the sayings and photos collected here.
A friend who lives in Mumbai took me out in the evening – a coffee, a charity art exhibition and a fish supper – which gave me a bit of exposure to the local jet set. Everyone has a driver to take them round and the topics are the same as in the London bars – hairstyles, fashion, possessions and schools. Sarah did arrive that night and was suitably impressed in the morning as the sun rose over the Gateway of India. We took a flight to Cochin (Kochi – everything here has two names), which is a 1700-mile trip down the western coast, over the state of Karnataka and into Kerala.
This is a beautiful part of the world and in the bright sunshine I had a bird’s eye view of the lush coconut forests and massive rivers that carve up the landscape. Landing at the new Saudi-funded airport, we drove to Fort Cochin, a collision of Portuguese, Dutch and local cultures, to check in at the delightful Malabar House Residency. I was still pondering over the poster in the arrivals lounge (‘Painting tomorrow’s world today’ with a rather enigmatic picture of a duck-billed platypus) when we were whisked away by our highly enthusiastic local guide Stanley (our driver was called James, and the boss was Anthony so we felt right at home). There followed a charming but largely unremarkable tour of the tiny Fort Cochin area. St Francis Church where Vasco da Gama was buried until his body was removed. The unnervingly accurately named, but not at all PC, Jewtown.
Past the pepper exchange, original home of the local spice trade. Up to the Chinese fishing nets, which are supposedly one of the major attractions. “So how do they work?” we asked, staring at 20-foot high wooden frames with nets on, and thoroughly expecting an ingenious answer. The practical demonstration revealed, sadly, the true answer. They dip the nets in the water and that catches the fish. Still reeling from the pure genius of this solution, we visited the Mattancherry (otherwise known as Dutch) Palace. This was largely unremarkable apart from some quite decent Vishnu and Shiva murals. There had, however, been a cultural disaster of enormous proportions in the basement. In a town pretty short on venues and artefacts of historical value, a well-meaning local decorator had been in and utterly whitewashed over one of the most impressive 1550s murals in the palace. Ooops!
In the morning we took a 4 hour drive to Thekkady on the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which involves climbing 4000 feet through twisting, increasingly mountainous terrain. As we wind through coconut groves, the crops change to rice, rubber plantations with their orderly tapped trees, and huge tracts of tea, much of it owned by the Tata Tetley company. There is a steady flow of religious traffic coming in the opposite direction. These are but a few of the 30 million people who visit the pilgrimage centre of Sabarimalai every season. There are strict rules though – no women between 10 and 50, and you can only go if you have strictly observed a rigid 41 days of penance beforehand (and that means celibacy, wearing black and not shaving). Not surprisingly, that includes a high proportion of graphic designers form Camden who achieve that ‘penance’ every day of the year without even thinking about it. After a succession of deep coffee and pepper filled gorges, we arrive at Thekkady, where it is raining and the hotel has the feel of an Alpine skiing resort – stone floors and large proportions of dark wood.
Our early morning cruise on Lake Periyar for supposed game viewing turned into a pointless exercise that didn’t justify the early start. The artificial lake, which has swamped vast areas of woodland leaving petrified trunks poking above the waterline, was completely shrouded in low fog. Even when it lifted a little, the sum total of visible life was a couple of wild boar and the odd cormorant on a branch. All this to the annoying soundtrack of the braying Japanese who cooed and ahhed at trees, and studiously videoed grass and empty water. A one hour trip round a coffee and spice plantation later in the day was significantly more interesting – working out how all the spices we take for granted are grown. Did you know that green, white and black pepper all come from the same plant? Neither did I. We chewed cardamom, turmeric, ginger and cloves, and returned resolved to set up a proper spice collection at home based on what we had bought here.
The rain forest weather continued the following day with low cloud and drizzle. We drove down from the mountains through lower lying coconut groves to Kumarakom, an area that is very reminiscent of the Florida everglades with endless lagoons and palm trees. The temperature and humidity had risen significantly by the time we arrived at our garden retreat, an idyllic colonial-style pavilion with outlying cottages surrounding a lake. There was wildlife in abundance here: herons, multi-coloured dragonflies and butterflies in vast quantities, and a roost of several hundred cormorants that fizzed about until sunset. Just beyond the grounds was a vast lagoon that could easily be mistaken for sea, but other shores were just visible in the distance. It was as flat as glass and the edges were full of the notorious water hyacinth, which clog the waterways by forming a huge green carpet wherever you look. This was in fact Lake Vembanad, the biggest in the Kerala backwaters. The colonial building turned out to be Baker’s Bungalow, built by an English missionary 123 years ago, and now a luxury hotel.
The following morning we experienced four seasons in one day. A spring-like dawn gave way to blistering sunshine. Then the heavens opened and we were engulfed by a typically violent tropical storm with its horizontal rain and mixture of sheet and fork lighting. The timing was perfect, as it coincided with our boarding a kettuvallam, a 20 metre boat with a prow like a Viking long ship, that was to take us through the backwaters for 40 kms to Allepey (or Alappuzha) the following day. Kettu means bundle and Vallam means big boat, so that explains that. We were welcomed aboard with coconut juice straight from the shell and jasmine necklaces, and then sat back to enjoy the ever-changing waterscape: first the lake with its sweeping cormorant formations and punting fishermen, then the complex aquatic alleyways surrounded by paddy fields and palm trees.
This is effectively a street system entirely built around water. There are ferry bus stops and signposts, with houses along substantial stretches as with any street. There was plenty of wildlife to spot on the way: kingfishers, eagles, paddy birds, herons, and the apparently harmless water snake. It’s a really tranquil way to observe the local life too: the women doing their washing, the kids belting a cricket ball into the water, houses being built, and the school kids waving as we trundled past at low speed powered by a very modest 25 brake horsepower Yamaha outboard motor. We forged on through increasing rain, and by night fall at 6 o’clock we moored up to see the locals light their temple – over 2000 candles on the outside giving the impression of a latticework of fairy lights, only this was manually done. A further brief trip downstream in total darkness seemed mildly treacherous, with the pilot armed only with an umbrella and a tiny torch, but the crew seemed relaxed and soon we were moored for the night, with the rain gently pitter-pattering on the wickerwork roof of the kettuvallam.
You might hope for a modest lie-in on a Sunday morning, but on the waterways this proves impossible. After an extremely sweaty night in the small bed where my toes poked over the end and the mosquitoes fizzed around outside the net, I was awoken by a mixture of sensations. At first I thought it was the light. Then the gently lapping water. But it was neither. It was some bloke chanting incessantly across the water. He had begun his incantations at about 6.30am by the sound of it, humming and aahing in monotonous Hindi rhythms. Interestingly, this is a predominantly Christian area, so there is a fusion of Hindu idolatry and Catholic smells and bells. We later visited a temple that highlighted this ideological collision and in fact our guide was very proud of Kerala's 100% literacy record which he attributed to the number of schools established by the Christian missionaries.
I had no choice but to get up, and it was completely worth it. Four kittens played on the bank where we had moored, and we ate Spanish omelette as the sun glittered over the backwaters. I had long since forgotten my wailing alarm call, and soon we were underway again. The guy steering the boat sits at the front in his lunghi and tugs a rope with a bell on it with engine instructions for the man at the back with the outboard: three for go, one for stop, two for neutral by the sound of it, with a few adjustments made by a bamboo punting pole when docking. The wildlife continued to come and go – seven kingfishers on an electricity cable particularly caught the eye – and our privileged bank side vigil continued to reveal the workings of the local people. Laundry, washing the pots, collecting water, cricket, construction, and of course marching to the temples where someone was wailing every few miles. By now it was hot sun, and everything looked a little different from the drizzle-soaked scene of yesterday.
We ended our journey at Allepey with a little sadness. It was a delightful antidote to the onslaught of civilization and a charming part of the trip so far – definitely a highlight. Then abruptly it was back to the bustle and grime of a road trip to Kochi Airport. We thundered past the hand painted roadside hoardings: ‘Cool shirts and suitings. Surprisingly Indian!’ ‘Raymond. The Complete Man.’ ‘Wills Light. I always get what I want,’ with an eighties man pointing and winking at you. And the commendably honest local lottery called Get Rich Games. The speed warning notices are rhyming couplets: speed thrills but kills, no hurry no worry. And every mile or two an outlet has an alarming name such as Khyber Fast Food or Anus Family Restaurant. Kerala, the land of coconuts is delightful but it was time to move on, this time to Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It used to be called Madras, the benchmark for curry strength throughout the UK after six pints of lager, or ten depending on your preference. I can’t really see the lads going out for ‘a few sherbets and a Chennai after’, but you never know.
The hotel in Chennai was billed as art deco, but turned out to be neither. We made the best of it by digging in to oversized pints of Golden Eagle lager and indulging in some Chettinad cuisine: fantastic pepper chicken. Information about what to see in this city is a little cagey. It’s a big area with 8 million people but the sights aren’t particularly famous, and I was about to find out why. The guide was an Indian Ronnie Barker and we were familiar with his full life story within minutes of meeting the man. A failed lawyer-cum-tourist guide, he proceeded to lecture us and anyone else who would listen on the merits of Hinduism and how you should conduct yourself.
Bored to distraction and incapable of slotting in even the occasional question, we arrived at the Kapaleeswarar Temple. The signs were already there – if this was the main attraction it was going to be a very mediocre tour indeed. The massive tower at the entrance, the gopura, was completely covered in scaffolding and dried palm leaves. There were some highly coloured shrines in various states of repair, but the effect was in the main ruined by all the surrounding crap – a lamppost right in front of one, electricity cables dangling across what might otherwise have been quite attractive icons. Ronnie was still going full tilt as the priest briefly interrupted his incantations to take a call on his mobile, and we headed off past Fort Saint George to the San Thome Basilica. This was a waste of time. It was an unremarkable 100-year-old church and the builders were in. Nothing to see here then.
On past the second largest beach in the world (Miami claims the crown although it doesn’t smell so acutely of sewage) to the National Art Gallery and Museum. Built by the British over a hundred years ago, this is exactly what you would expect of an antiquated museum that has seen no enhancements since its inception. A range of stone carvings from temples all over India had been plundered and were crudely cemented to the walls. The snakes in formaldehyde all looked pretty much the same, and the stuffed animals were all the same colour as the chemicals used by the taxidermists had made them all turn brown. There was brief respite in some 10th century metalwork sculptures of Shiva and her mates, and some modern art including our favourite Jamini Roy.
And that was basically it: a massive city with a square root of 'rock all' to see. It only remained to drive back to the hotel through the now traditional filth and smell of effluent, just in time to witness an Indian wedding attended almost exclusively by some of the fattest people in the world. This was a rather revolting contrast to the leanness of all the good people I had seen in the rural areas, and I could be seen wincing in the lift mirrors as some of these giants tried to lever themselves in before exceeding the recommended weight it could carry.
The next part of the adventure was a complete contrast: driving down the Coromandel Coast in brilliant sunshine with the Bay of Bengal to the left on a spanking new road. Through a hundred miles of low-lying paddy fields, salt flats and coconut palms, interspersed from time to time with massive expanses of water. On raised areas of road, surrounded by glistening water, this was like driving down the Florida Keys to Key Lago. The usual selection of roadside signs flashed by: ‘Pondicherry. Give time a break.’ ‘Extra benefit cement.’ Plus the usual livestock blocking the road – cows with massive horns and a noticeable increase in the number of goats.
As in Kerala, the men all wore conventional shirts with lunghis, creating an overall impression of businessmen in nappies, and the women brightened up the predominantly green landscape with their strident purples and oranges. Raj, the driver, tried to highlight various things on the way with his patchy English. His full name is Maharaja, which to me is as presumptuous as calling a child Jesus – you wouldn’t want to set expectations too high of course, just name them after the son of God and see if they can live up to it. After a brilliantly enthralling drive we arrived at Pondicherry, a quaint French-influenced town 100 miles or so down the coastline from Chennai. A lot of the street names are in French and the place had the feel of a Cote d’Azur town. We checked in at the Hotel de l’Orient and took a stroll along the beach, fending off beggars and tuk-tuk drivers in the weary manner one adopts after several weeks in India.
On the way back from Pondy, after a reverse version of the wonderful drive, we stopped off at the 7th century Pallava city of Mamallapuram, often confusingly called Mahabalipuram. We never did quite establish whether these were the guys who invented ‘a bit of a pallava’ – if so, there was no particular evidence of it here other than the usual hawkers and the detritus that surrounds places of supposedly great interest that is always just cropped out of the photographs in the brochures. Here there are a series of caves cut straight into the granite rock, massive bas reliefs depicting elephants, cobras, bulls and lions. And if you nose around the back you can work out how they did it by examining work in progress: yard-square chiselled chunks that have yet to be pulled out of the hillside. In fact all the work here is unfinished, suggesting that the person commissioning it either died or got very bored before things were complete, a bit like the Easter Island Moai that remain attached to the rock from which they were being cut.
Ronnie was back, and he prattled on incessantly without pausing for breath or allowing questions. Krishna’s Butter Ball, a massive boulder that is a 30-foot optical illusion because it is actually a rectangle, raised a smile; it is nothing to do with Krishna, it isn’t made of butter, and it isn’t a ball, so I’m sure the Trade Descriptions people would have a view on that. The same is true in UK politics with the Lord Privy Seal, who is not a lord, nor a privy, and certainly isn’t a seal. The highly-eroded Shore Temple might once have cut an imposing figure on the shoreline, possibly even on an island, but the ravages of time have left it as a pale shadow of its former self – a good location but attempts to protect it from the encroaching sea could have been more sympathetically and imaginatively handled.
Overall Mamallapuram is worth a visit if you are in the area, but it doesn’t warrant being a specific destination of choice, which is a shame because my vision before visiting was that of a ‘must see’ coastal site. We headed back into Chennai for another burst of squalor. The route in from the south takes you past some of the worst depravation: shanty houses loosely cobbled together from palm leaves, tarpaulins and bits of iron, in endless rows beneath railway lines and next to open sewers. The streets here are paved with something, but it certainly isn’t gold.
Flying out in the early sun over the northern Andamans, I was reflecting on our 3-day visit. It had been particularly likeable because it was not geared toward a western notion of a holiday (the ‘Club Med’ syndrome). Despite being in Room 101, there was nothing to dislike and the locals were charming. Sarah was wrestling with the plastic packaging of her in-flight croissant. She breached it and it flew onto the floor, leaving the Indian to her left sniggering to himself. He tried to open his own, and it too catapulted onto the floor, so we were all laughing.
Our cheery disposition was soon curtailed though by the effect of Kolkata, whose utter grimness was to engulf us steadily from the moment we arrived. The airport was shrouded in thick fog, but as time wore on we realised this was actually a permanent pollution haze that the sun could not penetrate. We drove through the sort of squalor that one expects of a megalopolis with 13 million people in it, to visit a well-preserved Jain temple. As in all the previous places I’d seen run by this lot, their control of the money and jewellery makes them a very wealthy bunch, and the upkeep of their places of worship shows it. Here there were manicured gardens, a well-stocked fishpond, and a main shrine decked out in mirrors, chandeliers and semi-precious stones. It was probably the cleanest, best-kept place we were to see in the city.
We drove twice over the massive cantilevered Howrah Bridge. Thankfully it was a Saturday because during the week 2 million people cross this monster every day and it is totally clogged. We took a mindless visit to the local book market and the supposedly important coffee house where “many intellectuals are discussing new movements all the times”. It looked as though it had been bombed. Past the city swimming pool, which was enormous and had swans swimming in it and people doing their laundry. It was dark brown. “Water is completely changed each year,” the guide announced proudly.
The intensity of the traffic, the filth and the pollution intensified as we traced down the Hooghly River. It was 12 o’clock and the sun still couldn’t cut through the blanket of smog. Past the Writer’s Building, big and red, the General Post Office, a white mini-St. Paul’s, the gates of the governor’s residence, the Raj Bhavan, St. Andrew’s Kirk with its off-white spire, and down to the Queen Victoria Memorial. Most of these had seen better days – they sat there, degenerating, in a sea of depravation, which should never have been allowed to happen, and which may now be irreversible.
The sports enclave along the Strand includes the Eden Gardens cricket ground (capacity 100,000) and all the football clubs and the racecourse where the rich place their bets on the nags. The area is laughingly called the lungs of the city, but we were having increasing trouble breathing and how anyone can reasonably conduct a sporting encounter in this quality of air is mind-boggling.
“Big pollution problem,” announced the guide cheerily as though it were a selling point. By now we were stationary with the engine off. “Kolkata famous for traffic jam – sometimes last all day,” he beamed, failing to register the distinction between fame and notoriety. We couldn’t take anymore of it, so we retreated to the hotel. Even after a bath, black grime was still coming off our skin in layers. We retired early in readiness for a 4am start, only to be woken by the hotel disco that was still going when we checked out in the morning. We stepped around teenagers trying to have sex in reception and drove to the airport. The smog was just as thick, and the smell of rancid effluent was nauseous. Every now and again figures would loom out of the dark, herding goats or pushing a cart. Oh Calcutta! What a state.