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india_arms_smallSo, having done two big trips over the previous two years, where could we go in 2003? We had not really given it much thought, and family + jobs had pre-occupied us. But then Deepak invited us to his "Big Fat Indian Wedding" and that got us thinking about making a proper journey around India and end up at Deepak and Nandu's wedding in Mangalore on 14 December.

A lot of reading and planning went into our India trip, and the more we read about India, the more bewildering, exotic, mysterious and vast it seemed to become. Although there was a definite "tourist trail", not all that many tourist were going to India these days (9/11 was offered as the main reason). Whilst we knew that India would be a very different experience from Argentina and Chile, we had simply no concept of how busy and demanding India would be. Stefan had even thoughts of hiring a car and driving ourselves, abandoned after 30 seconds of Indian traffic chaos!

Now, more than a year since we visited India, it has somehow got under our skin. It was also a good "warmer-upper" for our world travel plans.

Again, we booked flights, trains (yippee!) and hotels in advance, with the help of Jaya Arora at Travelbag.

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Trip overview map

As we did in Chile, we both kept diaries and scribbled away furiously until our wrists ached. And as with the Chile section, the links point to Stefan's diary, as we haven't typed up Nessie's yet, but we'll try and do the same and place the finished diaries in columns side by side.

Books, Films, Music, Links, etc.

The Guide and Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan

Shortened modern prose versions of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, R.K. Narayan

An Introduction to Hinduism by Gavin Flood

Jogger's Park, cheesy film, fantastic.

Monsoon Wedding, beautifully filmed and characterised, a feast

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Selected Short Stories, by Rabindranath Tagore, the "grand master of Bengali culture."

A long and eventful day, which isn’t quite over yet. We're now sat in our room on the sixth floor of the Connaught hotel in Delhi, overlooking the hockey stadium in the foreground, with foggy, smoggy Delhi high-rise in the background, including a large lit-up McDonalds golden arches sign. The open window is admitting the sounds of a new place, such as the “pok!” of the hockey balls, the tooting cars, scooters, bicycle rings and police whistles, a general hum in the background and loud Hindi music. Ness is having a kip, having drifted off to sleep almost immediately despite what looks like an uncomfortable bed.

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Girls dancing before the start of the hockey match in Delhi

Our long day started at home with lots of things to do. Last minute phone calls, clearing up, shopping, and of course pack our bags. The taxi arrived at 3.30pm as planned and our journey had begun, at long last. We got to the airport around 5pm, checked in without having to queue (minor hiccup with pre check-in passport checks), and wrote our christmas cards in a bar before going through to departures. Quick dash into duty-free for cigarettes, despite best intentions, and then settled in Chez Gérard for a bite (caesar salad for Ness, eggs Benedict for me). It amused me that, in an airport, they had fitted out CG as a railway lounge! We got chatting with Peter, a middle-aged/retired gay man who is off to Bangkok "for the winter", whiling away the time until our gate is called. Boarding is quick and we’re very pleased/relieved to have booked premium economy – decent seats and leg-room. The flight passed without anything worth mentioning. Some food, a film, sleep/slumber for a few hours, a bit more food as we fly over Afghanistan into Pakistan.

From the air we can see the Himalayas in the far distance. Below us Afghanistan looks deserted and rugged, lots of brown rocks and mountains and no sign of roads or villages. Closer to Delhi we can see towns and villages but it all looks fairly non-descript. We collect our luggage, after clearing immigration, and find our TCI rep who has come to pick us up and transfer to our hotel. Saw great posters in the luggage hall. Below a picture of a kayaker going down wild rapids, a caption that says “There is always rebirth”, and another one of a temple with the caption “God creates man. Man returns the favour”!

Along the way we start to get our first real impressions of India. Life is lived on the roadside. Traffic is chaotic. It feels like the drives from Santiago and Buenos Aires airports, through poor, grubby, filthy districts.

The traffic gets worse closer to the centre. Our hotel is an anonymous concrete multi-storey job, next to the hockey stadium and very close to Connaught Place, right in the heart of Delhi. The TCI guy takes care of checking us in, we cash a few TC’s and find our room. It’s basic but decently furnished and has a great view over the city. Two showers later, having washed off the accumulated stickiness, we’re ready to venture out for our first taste of Delhi proper.

Immediately we are accosted by a succession of rickshaw drivers and touts trying to steer us towards the tourist tat shops. We end up striking up a conversation with a non-tout-looking guy called Raji, and exchange some pleasant banter. We end up by the tourist emporia after all. He was just a clever well-spoken tout! We leave him at the entrance to the first shop, saunter in and out after an abortive attempt to buy a mini Ganesh, and find Raji still waiting for us. He promptly guides us to another tourist shop. This time I do buy a little wooden Ganesh. Despite having knocked the price down from Rs.450 to Rs.250 I still feel ripped off! But let’s hope he brings us good luck. Ganesh is an elephant-headed god, son of Shiva, and a good god to offer to when starting anything, particularly a journey (or a business venture or whatever). Raji is still outside but no longer sticks with us and we make our way back to the hotel, not feeling quite adventurous enough to go exploring further. Besides, all we want is a drink, not shopping or sight-seeing, and the hotel seems to be the only place nearby where we can sit and have a beer.

The empty small bar is staffed by five, who all seem to get in on the act of serving our drinks. Draught Kingfisher is not available (only determined after about five minutes of collective jabbering between the bar committee), so I have a large bottle while Ness has a non-alcoholic cocktail. Eventually they get the draught beer working and a pint is brought for me to try. It’s cloudy and I stick with the bottle. Then we head back to the room as Ness is in need of a nap, giving me the chance to start the diary.

First impressions: not great, especially the constant pan-handling. Everything else is great – new impressions, sights, sounds, smells (none of them very nice, just different and lots of them!) – but the pleading for attention is tiresome after even just half an hour, never mind a month!

It’s now the next day (Friday?) and we’re settled in the lobby of the Mansingh hotel in Agra, waiting for our drinks, and have some time to catch up on diaries.

Last night we went out for dinner after having caught up on some sleep. Delhi did not feel like a place where we could simply walk out of the hotel and find somewhere to eat, at least not yet, so we consulted the guide books and picked a restaurant at another hotel. That way we would find it easier to get a taxi back to our hotel at the end of the evening.

Chor Bazaar at the Broadway Hotel was a good pick. Inside it was ornately decorated with lots of woodcarving and nick-nacks. Food was great, service likewise, and we felt happier at the end of the meal, the pan-handling at least partially forgotten. Traffic out was as mad and busy as yesterday but much less on the way back. Chor Bazaar has a branch in London, Mayfair. Our receipt entitles us to a 50% [Note: misheard – 15%!] discount in the London branch so will have to be tried. Taxi driver didn’t seem to “understand” we wanted the Broadway hotel. Good end to our first day in India. Tomorrow we’re off to Agra at 8am.

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Sign on an Indian "motorway"
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At the Red Fort in Agra

Looking over Delhi from our room in the morning, we can see a yellow dusty city, birds wheeling overhead, vultures and white heron-type birds.

Breakfast is a colourful affair. Shortly after we sit down a group of about ten monks (Tibetan?) arrives, followed by a large accompanying group of Chinese-looking women. While we’re having our breakfast (fried eggs for both and curried chickpeas for me) we watch the Chinese women and the monks. The monks are waited on hand and foot by the women. Each wants to serve the monks and brings them either a bowl of fruit, tea, water, anything. Some of the women sit at tables, reluctantly. The tables closest to the monks are preferred. Most remain standing and crowd each other trying to serve the monks. The hotel waiters are not even allowed anywhere near them.

Our driver, Mr. Lal (means “red”), is there to meet us with his white Ambassador Classic. It has “India Tourist” written along the side, i.e. we’re in an official tourist car, so much for the world-wise travellers! Getting out of Delhi takes a long time. It’s the morning rush hour. People on bikes, scooters, rickshaws and ramshackle cars are everywhere.

Mr. Lal explains that to drive in India you need “good horn, good brakes and good luck!” For a long time the scenery doesn’t change. Heavily built up, with gangs of labourers along the road, dirty little shops and shacks selling everything from tyres, drinks shacks, all sorts of bits and bobs to do with motoring, etc. Near Delhi we pass a lot of offices. These disappear and are replaced by the shops and shacks further on, and eventually we’re driving along fields.

The landscape is flat, with a lot of trees, under a slightly less hazy sky. Traffic things out too. At the UP state border we have to wait in the car while Mr. Lal goes and settles some border admin. The car is beset by people with dancing bears, more peddlers. Lal told us to lock the door and ignore them. Shortly after the border we stop (Maharajah “hotel”) for a drink and samosas. We ignore the obligatory gift shop. The drive goes on and slides into a pleasant monotony. Ness and I both nod off for a while. The scenery hasn’t changed when I wake up again. It’s good to see the landscape (what there is of it) rolling by. Some signs catch my eye and amuse me:

- the “Central Institute for Research on Goats”

- a “British Wine Shop”

- trucks bearing the sign “use dipper at night”

- “Vijay Singh Owner Conteractor”

- “Welcome to the 31st National Convention of Company Secretaries”

I get the feeling that we’re seeing one of the worst sides of India. Grubby roads, road pollution, ramshackle concrete and brick buildings. Whilst there is poverty along the road it is not abject, but feels like a reduced lifestyle stripped of anything that is beautiful and fresh and has been replaced by rubber tyres, lubricant and coke stands. Hope it won’t all be like this.

Around 1pm we get to Agra, a busy city of low-rise buildings. Taking the route to our hotel we pass a few colonial bungalows, now bearing plaques like “NCC Officers Mess” and “Archaeological Survey of India”. The hotel itself is another multi-storey job, looking quite plush (for India). Our room is fine, overlooking the Taj Mahal in the distance. We have arranged to meet Mr. Lal again at 3pm, with a guide to take us round the Red Fort. But first we go in search of the bar for a drink. The “Tequila Bar” is empty and dark so we wander outside and grab two primitive sun-loungers by the pool. The only people are four workmen in the garden. After a beer and water, with “finger chips” and poppadums, we meet Lal and our guide, whose name I can’t remember now – he’ll have to be “Raji” for now.

The Red Fort is a short drive away and Raji gives us a little lecture along the way. There is a short gauntlet of hawkers to cross before we enter the fort. There are some monkeys. Only a very few white faces here and there. They stand out a mile, as do we. The fort itself is a pretty collection of courtyards, halls and gardens, but without any decoration, furniture, etc. Just the bare shell of the buildings. Raji’s descriptions try to fill the rooms with curtains, cushions, carpets, concubines and royalty but it fails to inspire us. Still, we try to be attentive tourists. Then we’re taken to a carpet “factory”. First we get a short spiel about how the carpets are woven and finished before the, anticipated, hard sell.

The carpet salesman’s efforts are lost on us. Next we’re taken to see “a special elephant”. This turns out to be a centre piece in a jewel emporium. On the way out I joke with Raji that the emporium owner tells him to stop bringing such cheapskates! Back to the hotel then, but when we get there I ask if we can go for a drink somewhere and Raji takes us to the “Gaylord” in town. Unfortunately he only sees us into the bar and doesn’t come in. Back outside he explains that it’s too expensive for him and when I tell him that we were offering them a drink he says that he would have felt guilty spending our money for us.

Back at the hotel we freshen up briefly and then settle in the lobby for a drink and diaries. Some time later a large group of (including or all) Dutch tourists arrives. It’s actually a relief to see some white faces but why did they have to be Dutch!

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Wedding procession

Impressions so far then? Mixed, though mostly on the negative side. It’s great to see new sights but so far most of them have been of the roadside which is not great. It also feels as if we’re having to travel in a cocoon. There is of course a communication barrier which I find frustrating. I can’t read the writing, can’t make out the words and can only use the odd Hindi word – shukriya, thank you, and dhanyavad, also thank you, and a few more useful phrases such as “hat jao”, go away, and “chalo”, let’s go! But the bigger barrier is that as a westerners (very obvious ones!) we’re seen as magnets for all the touts (not even beggars, simply touts trying to flog anything). It makes it impossible to walk down the street without being pestered. Now that we’re in our hotel it feels like we’re in a compound. Ness tells me that there is an armed guard outside. I’m comparing with Chile and Argentina, trying not to but not succeeding, and how easy-going, unpolluted, fresh, etc. those places were compared to India. My impression of the Indians is beginning to be negative, but I don’t want it to be.

While we’re still in the lobby we’re told by a young Australian tourist that a wedding procession is making its way down the street. We go outside to have a look. The procession is very noisy and is led by a cart on which a generator for the procession lights is carried. The family walk between two lines if light carriers. The groom is at the back on a pony/donkey with a small child. While we’re watching we’re surrounded by a group of kids. One in particular is persistent. But I guess we’re getting used to it, very gradually.

The hotel garden is prepared for the wedding feast. We get a table in the restaurant by the window, looking straight into the room prepared for the wedding ceremony. Two thrones at one end of the room are obviously for the wedding couple. The room opens onto the gardens. The noisy procession is nearby but doesn’t arrive in the garden before we have finished our meal. Some guests do though. Dinner is the restaurant buffet. Tasty, and I can’t resist a second helping! Back in our room we can hear the very loud music almost as if we had the band in our room!

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Taj Mahal
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Road scene, just try to imagine the accompanying noises and smells
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Camels at the brick works
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Silk printing shop in Jaipur
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Ness in the middle of Jaipur's busy town centre
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Jaipur town centre
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Rajasthani singers and musicians

After an early breakfast we meet our driver, Babu Lal, and our guide, “Raji”, and drive towards the Taj Mahal. We have to park some way off and take a little battery-generated car up to the entrance. There aren’t many people at all. A few postcard sellers and a few Indian tourists. Good we came so early.

Inside we first go through a large courtyard with gardens, surrounded by wells and pavilions in red sandstone. We approach the Taj Mahal through a red sandstone gate topped by twenty-two mini turrets, one for each year it took to construct the Taj Mahal. The morning is very hazy, which adds a bit to the atmosphere. We walk up to the Taj Mahal itself through the gardens, with some great views. Inside we see the two tombs (the actual tombs are on the floor below) and then wander around it and gradually back to the car.

The majority of the small group of visitors are Indian, with a few westerners and group of Tibetan monks. For such a renowned monument it leaves me rather indifferent. We head back to the hotel and settle up with our guide, having ensured that he didn’t take us to any more “factories”, i.e. gift shops!

Then it’s time to head for Jaipur. On the way out of Agra we manage to find the small statue of Gandhi by a cross-roads, for a picture. We tell Mr. Lal not to go via Fatehpur Sikri. It would have simply been another fort, and a longer journey. Instead we want to have some more time to spend in Jaipur.

It’s about 200kms, 4½ hours, to Jaipur. The long drive takes us past an incredible variety of Indian roadside life and even only a few hours later it is impossible to remember it in sequence.

In the towns we passed row upon row of little workshops – bicycle tyres, scooter repairs, metal bashers, etc. Fruit, veg and spice merchants, either a little shop with a variety of goods or simply a hand-drawn cart with the seller squatting on top, sat between his wares. I remember seeing two little kids screaming and laughing as they were rolling around on a filthy heap of garbage. In the towns the traffic is intense and chaotic, lots of tooting and bikes, scooters, bicycle rickshaws and motorised ones, and cars, knackered trucks and school buses all competing for road space. Quite how they manage not to drive into each other is a mystery. There are shops selling sweets in strings of plastic sachets and many small shops and stands where some cooking is done, no idea exactly what. And emaciated cows wander and sit everywhere, sometimes in the middle of the road. There are piles of scrap, rubbish, tyres, bricks, big brown mud patties (for building I think) scattered here and there. In each town the centre always has a busy bustling market with stalls and carts selling all kinds of vegetables, fruits and flowers. Lots of oversized purple and white radishes, chillies, oranges, apples, bananas, garlands of yellow mustard flowers, sacks of spices, etc. It’s a confusing mixture of smells too. Exhaust fumes and oil, mixed with smells of animals and dung, cooking fires and spices, with exhaust fumes holding the upper hand. The people are a rich mixture too. Poor labourers and lots of people who seem to sit around, alone or in groups, seemingly without any purpose. Early during the day I could see people sat around outside their shops intently reading the newspaper, often several people reading together. A mixture of traditional Indian dress and more western clothes. The most common garb consists of trousers, shirt and tank-tops for men, and colourful sarees for women. Not many women in the towns though, they seemed to be more in the fields and walking along the roads well outside the towns.

The road from Agra passes Fatehpur Sikri in the distance. We can see the fort in the hazy distance. The fortress wall is close to the road. Outside the towns the road is tree-lined, with fields on either side. We pass large swathes of mustard fields. Here and there small groups of women are working in the fields. Between Agra and Fatehpur Sikri a succession of boys with dancing bears, spread out at intervals of a few minutes, try to catch our attention. They force the bears to stand as the car approaches but we whiz past them. There are many small “restaurants” by the roadside where a few Indians lounge around on seats which look like a bed-frame. They either sit or lie on them. The traffic, outside the towns, consists of trucks and buses, and a variety of vehicles such as motorised rickshaws with exposed engines, rickshaws carrying up to 12-15 people, in a car which would barely fit the two of us, camel-drawn carts, etc. We pass several broken down trucks, the most common cause being either over-turned or a broken axle. Quite a few trucks we see are sagging perilously, a miracle they’re moving at all. Some trucks and carts are laden with gigantic loads of straw, wood, whatever, held together with huge white canvases.

We trundle along. Well, we’re actually one of the fastest vehicles, doing around 70-80km/h, only overtaken by modern landcruisers which seem to fly by. The landscape rolls by and we pass small towns from time to time. We settle into a pleasant monotony, just watching India as it passes by all around us. I try to take a few pictures from the car and once or twice ask Mr. Lal to stop, e.g. at the state border with Rajasthan.

We both nod off for short spells. Gradually the landscape gets drier and there appear some low hills on either side. At around noon we stop for a drink and a snack. The place has the usual gift shop and we ignore it and simply have two teas and two samosas and buy a packet of pistachio nuts. While waiting for Lal to finish his lunch with some other drivers, the “doorman” gives us a sob story trying to beg some money. I give him Rs.10 for opening the car doors.

We get to Jaipur at around 2.30pm. Lal has suggested a visit to the cotton and silk printing factory where his “brother” works. We were expecting another hard sell but at least this time it is pleasant and preceded by a demonstration. Lengths of cloth are printed with wooden blocks with colour made from various substances (onions for grey). Then it’s into the shop for the tourist treatment. We had already made our minds up to buy something here and after a selection of “bed spreads” is shown to us we pick a dark mauve/maroon one. But that wasn’t enough and we’re then invited to try on “Maharajah” outfits. The whole thing is comical, especially the trouble my chap goes through to squeeze me into an outfit which is clearly too small. Ness has better luck with the saree and looks the part, including a spot on her forehead. But we resist buying anything else. Pashminas, shawls, shirts, everything is tried on us but eventually they get the idea. Before we leave I take a few pictures of the whole group and promise to send them copies (see card).

Then it’s on to our hotel. Jaipur lies on a hill, which we climbed as we entered the town. There are ruined mughal buildings on the outskirts. We then pass through the slums and shanties and see real utter abject poverty, of the kind usually only seen on news reports and aid appeals. On one side of the road is a muslim area, which looks poor but at least resembles a town or market of some sort. On the other side of the road are long rows of makeshift tents, as primitive as anything, and stretches of very poor housing lie behind them. The people squatting on the ground look totally destitute and extremely dirty. There is nothing here. No shops, no stalls, just people squatting, here and there a cooking fire. Total squalor.

We drive through the centre of town towards our hotel and pass along the main bazaar street. This is extremely lively and colourful, but it’s quite impossible to stop anywhere. Shops on either side sell all kinds of food, spices, trinkets, wares. Traffic is mad, cyclists, scooters, motorists, etc. all narrowly missing each other, or sometimes clipping each other. I saw two white faces, a young couple wandering along the bazaar, but otherwise only Indians.

Our hotel is not far from the centre, another Mansingh hotel. We arrange with Mr. Lal to pick us up at 8pm for a “typical Rajasthani evening with dancing”. We know what to expect, but why not? It gives us plenty of time to freshen up a bit and go for a walk in town.

We decide to get a motorised rickshaw from the hotel to the Ajmeri gate, from where we can walk through the main streets of the bazaar. We only just fit in the rickshaw. It weaves through the traffic. This is fun! At last we get to leave the confines of the guide and our chauffeur-driven car. Our rickshaw driver happily carries on past where we wanted to go but at least it’s through the bazaar towards the central square. But when he turns into a side street we ask, well… command, him to stop. He was going to ferry us straight into another emporium. Then we walk through the bazaar back in the direction of our hotel.

We stand out. Indians are looking at us as if we’re Martians. Fortunately not that many people hassle us, but we’re having to look all around us to avoid unwarranted attention. The smells are now so much more noticeable, walking along the colonnaded pavement, shops on our right, and the traffic is separated from us by rows of bicycles, cows, foul-looking stagnant pools of grey scummy water, and vegetable stalls. We pass all kinds of shops, selling electrical goods, papers, lots of chillies, spices, cobblers and various workshops. I’d love to snap away with the camera but am too wary, so just end up taking one or two pictures. Crossing the main square is a tricky affair, having to weave between the traffic while pushing past Indians trying to sell us anything, rickshaw rides, etc. Hearts are racing and this is a bit more like the excitement and colour we came to find.

We’re both very wary and just glad it’s daylight. But it’s fading and we should get back before it gets too dark. After passing a gate we need to head down Mirza Ismail road, but it’s so busy and there are no signs, it’s difficult to be certain. Fortunately we spot a policeman (first Indian we meet who is taller than me!) who confirms which road we need. A little boy with his bike rickshaw offers to drive us for Rs.5. The policeman seems to tell the boy off, or at least advise him that he should charge more. The boy then makes it Rs.10. We hardly fit into the bike, which leans perilously on my side. The boy has to work hard to get it going and needs help from the policeman to make it across the busy junction. Our hotel is further down M.I. road than I remembered and it’s just as well we took the bike rickshaw. I give the boy Rs.20 in the absence of anything smaller than Rs.10 notes.

We’re both ready for a drink… shock, horror – there are signs in the hotel saying 29/11-1/12 are dry days! So we settle for a lime soda and then relax for a bit in our room and get ready for dinner. From our room we can hear and see music and dancing in the garden below. It looks like a “typical Rajasthani evening” (for tourists). At 8pm we meet Mr. Lal who asks whether we want to go out or stay at the hotel for the Rajasthani evening. It is clear that he would rather we stay at the hotel, which we do. Dinner is the buffet in the garden while there is a half-hearted Rajasthani show on, with only a few diners in the audience. We finish our dinner early and are back in our room before 10pm where we at last have time to catch up on our diaries, and now I’m off to bed!

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With the saddhus in Jaipur
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All aboard the elephant
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Astronomical observatory
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The soldier is telling Stef not to take a picture, but it fell on deaf ears and he had to expose the film, with this result

We meet Mr. Thakur, our guide for today. At reception, while Ness isn’t around, I ask Thakur to not take us to any shopping tourist emporia etc., which he promises. We check out and load our stuff in Mr. Lal’s Ambassador Classic and then we’re off sight-seeing. First stop is at the main square for a bit of scene-setting. “When the town was first built…” etc. A rickshaw driver approaches us and is sent packing by Thakur in a very effective way. The driver just cringes away. Wish we could understand the language. Apparently Hindi has some very colourful swearwords! Off the main square is a small temple, hemmed in by other buildings. I ask Thakur if we can go and have a look. Inside the courtyard we find three or four saddhus who are humming some kind of mantra. For a small offering (of rupees!) we have our pictures taken with them. The small temple itself is colourful, clearly a “working” temple. A saddhu inside lets you have a bit of some leaf or herb with water, for which a further offering (of rupees!) is made. Apart from the saddhus and us there is only one other Indian visitor. The whole thing is totally genuine, although yesterday we did see a group of tourists on the roof overlooking the square.

Next we stop briefly at the Palace of the Winds (see elsewhere for explanation/background!), and then carry on to the Amber Fort. From a distance we can see the huge complex spread out on top of the hills. It’s real picture postcard material, with turrets and crenellated parapets. Below, at the foot of the hill, is an artificial lake, with a garden jutting into the middle. There is a collection of shops and eating places near the entrance, and a large group of tour buses. To be expected. After the initial barrage of hawkers we join the queue for the elephant rides. Hawkers do the rounds but this time they have easier prey and we’re not bothered so much. The elephants are decorated and carry a platform big enough to seat four (small ones!) We get our own elephant. The ride towards the fort takes about fifteen minutes. On the way we’re accosted by a stream of hawkers selling all kinds of kitsch, and even the elephant “chauffeur” (can’t remember the word!) gets in on the act and tries to sell us the metal hooks he uses to goad the elephant.

In the main courtyard the procession of elephants drop their cargo and then pick up new cargo for the ride down. Thakur first takes us to see the little temple built into the fort. Rituals are in progress (no other western tourists inside, yippee) and like Thakur I get a red dot on my forehead. Thakur seems to be highly regarded. Many people, other guides, greet him with a traditional namaste and he always is the one who is greeted first, rather than doing the greeting. After the temple ritual, which finishes as we leave, just got there in time, we go into the fort. A series of courtyards and rooms follows, all empty except for the tourists, with some great views of the surrounding area. Lots of little interesting facts about how the place was decorated, which room was used for what, and how they kept the place fresh with clever water techniques.

We walk back down. Thakur has some of the milk cake, used in the rituals, and on the way down hands some out to a few children who love the stuff. It tastes a bit like polenta with cardamom. Then we head to somewhere for lunch. I ask Thakur not to take us to the usual tourist place but somewhere where Indian visitors and locals would go. I also ask if he would like to have lunch with us. Big faux pas. We end up at a smart restaurant. Ness and I aren’t really hungry and end up ordering a chicken kebab and soup. Thakur, whilst not exactly out of place, does seem to be uncomfortable. He has soup and spaghetti, which he is still eating by the time we have finished so I order some desert to make sure we at least have something. Just have to come to terms with the fact that there is an “us” and “them” divide which can’t be bridged easily. Money seems to be the main obstacle. As we’re having our lunch a large tour group enters. So it was still a typical tourist joint! Oh, before we went for lunch Thakur asked me to convey the “no shopping” request to the emporia owners who had assembled near our car. He is clearly under an obligation to make sure the tourists get taken to all the shopping opportunities. On the way to the restaurant the car had a puncture but Mr. Lal had replaced the tyre in no time.

After lunch we drive back into town for some more sightseeing. First the City Palace museum, followed by the Astronomical Observatory.

The City Palace museum is a small building in the centre of the palace courtyard. It contains a collection of dresses, textiles, photographs. The piece de resistance is the main audience chamber. In the centre is a large raised platform, with different types of carriages for the Maharajah. Around it are grouped cabinets with illuminated manuscripts. Then we walk round the block to visit the astronomical observatory, a garden full of oversized sundials and various instruments to determine astronomical details.

Our tour ends and we’re driving back to the hotel. Thakur then asks whether we want to see jewellery-making, but in such a way as to make it clear that it’s our choice and we’re under no obligation. So we do end up in an emporium after all, but, after the visit to the workshops above the shop, we are left to browse in relative leisure. Thakur had a word with the shop assistant and obviously made it clear that we would not appreciate a hard sell. Ness chooses a simple gold ring with sapphires after some browsing. It’s too small though and we only have limited time, but they say we can come back at 4.15pm to collect it (the widened ring). I make sure we don’t pay before seeing the finished product. We have a lime soda back at the hotel and relax a bit. Then Mr. Lal takes us back to the shop. The ring is not ready yet but we wait while they finish it. At some point, as the various forms are being completed, the shop owner says in response to one of my questions, “everything through the proper channels”. When I’m asked for my credit card, before we have seen the ring, I say I’d rather wait until we have tried the ring and add “everything through the proper channels!”

Back to the hotel again to meet our TCI rep, a young lad, and to the airport. We say goodbye to Mr. Lal. Despite limited conversation and only knowing him for two days, I feel we got on with him. He is happy to go and see his family in Jaipur now, which sounds like it’s a rare opportunity for him. At the airport there is some confusion and we end up having a mini-row over something, a sign that we’re getting tired and that the crowds and busyness are getting to us. I stupidly ask the TCI chap whether he’d like to have a coffee with us. A final reminder for me that it’s just not the done thing. Then we go through departures, security check and wait to board our plane.

The plane is an old Airbus and we have seats on the first row. Sat next to Ness is a precocious little brat who is the grandson of the Vice President (of India), on his way to join his grandfather in Udaipur for the elections. “Bubble” is a typical example of a conceited kid who expects to be waited on hand and foot. At Udaipur I want to take a picture of the airport but am told not to by a soldier on the tarmac. Do it anyway and am asked to expose the film. The airport is small, Bariloche-size, with a lot of soldiers in evidence. Our TCI rep is there to meet us and our car driver is Rattan. It’s a half hour drive to the hotel, in the dark. The air feels much fresher here. From what we can see of Udaipur, it is a much smaller and more relaxed place than Jaipur or Agra. Our hotel is a swanky place on top of a hill overlooking the lake. It’s smarter than the two Mansingh’s we stayed in but still has the same sold bed. We are allowed, as foreigners, to have a beer in our room, and then go down for dinner, and then off to bed for an early-ish night.

Shiva copyWe have a slightly later start today and meet Rattan, our driver, after breakfast at 9.30. We have already decided to have a morning off sightseeing and ask Rattan to come back at 1pm with a guide. The idea is to visit Eklinji and Nagdar. Eklinji is an active temple, Nagdar is a very old ruined temple no longer in use. This gives us a free morning to catch up on diaries and laze about on the gardens overlooking the lake.

Rattan arrives just after noon with Madan, our guide. Madan is a young guy, no older than us I think, and is easy to get on with. The drive to Eklinji is approx. 25kms, half an hour, into the hills. Since today is election day most/all shops will be closed and the traffic is much less frantic. Into the hills we pass a number of small villages and then get to Eklinji. On the way a woman tries to catch my attention and shouts “Hallo Papa!” which we all find funny. The temple is in the middle of a small village, or maybe it’s the village that has grown up around the temple. There are a few hawkers, very few now, and rows of little shops on either side of the street. Unfortunately we’re not allowed to take our camera in, so these notes will have to do.

The Maharana of Mewar, to whom the temple belongs, still visits the temple every Monday for perform his rituals, so we hope to see him today if we’re lucky. The temple complex is accessed via a gate, beyond which we have to leave our shoes. The passageway into the heart of the complex is lined with a row of local women selling flower garlands and other things which serve as offerings. Through a second gate into a square which is packed on every side with lots and lots of little shrines (well, temples) in varying sizes. A large one stands in the middle, with several “middle” sized ones dotted around it here and there.

There are a few people about, not a single tourist, only Indians, making their way into the large temple. We’re in luck with the timing. The Maharana is on his way and should be here any minute. Inside the temple is as ornately carved with figures as on the outside. We first walk round to the front (“altar”) where two attendants are collecting the offerings. We offer the flower garlands bought earlier. Madan as a good Hindu adds some coconut and something else to it, for good measure. Then we join the crowd which is building up in the centre of the temple. Ness has to sit down at the front with the women, while I stand at the back with Madan among the men.

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Ness with Patel (caste) women at Eklinji
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The island palace
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Bang lassi, cheers!

Then the Maharana’s son and attendants arrived and pass behind the silver screen to start preparing the rituals. The Maharana himself is already at the back, having entered from somewhere else. First he waves some things around, then the curtain concealing the god, i.e. a statue is the actual god, is drawn back and two men at the front start ringing two bells in a quick “bong bong”. The crowd starts chanting. Whilst there is no discernible mantra and everyone sings their own mantra, there is no cacophony and it sounds melodic in a monotonous sort of way. People are craning their necks to get a glimpse of the god in order to benefit from the reflection of the divine that shines from it. The Maharana, accompanied by the chanting and bell ringing, goes about his business waving things around and doing who knows what. This goes on for some time. Then the ringing and chanting stops, the curtain remains open for a bit longer, closes, and people start drifting off or go round to get a closer look at the god. Madan tells us to wait where are so we get a good view of the Maharana as he leaves. People start greeting him with bowed heads and palms pressed together for a greeting of namaste or something else. We do likewise and get a glimpse from the Maharana, a clear reaction on his fierce-looking face shows he has seen us, some western tourists, greeting him in the same fashion, which Madan says is very good news.

We then do a tour of the rest of the complex. We observe the Maharana up to his rituals again in three small shrines (Ganesh, Kali and Shiva). The little curtain closes when he makes an offering but then re-opens again soon. I’m given a small white flower in return for an offering at the temple (main one or mini one, can’t remember now).

Outside the temple we buy some water and a few pictures of the temple, clearly taken from a building overlooking the complex. The picture of the god is actually taken from a poster depicting him!

I take a few pictures of the street outside the temple and one of Ness with some Patel women, from the caste of milkmaids. Then we drive back in the direction of Udaipur, towards the temple ruins of Nagdar, a short distance down the road. Compared to the “live” temple, these ruins are rather boring. Madan explains the meaning of various elements of the temples and their history. I think he is surprised that we aren’t taking more pictures – of what, old stones? Another two or three visitors arrive but otherwise the place is deserted. Not even a hawker in sight!

Then we drive into town for a quick visit to a palace garden. Again not all that much to write about though very pretty and all that. Then it’s onwards to the City Palace for a boat ride on lake Pichola and visit Jagmandir, where Shahjahan lived for a while.

By this stage we have developed a bit of a rapport with Madan and he is beginning to realise that we’re not the usual type of tourist he gets. When I say I like lassi, he asks whether I’ve ever had a “bang lassi”. This leads to an agreement to try and locate some. Basically it’s a lassi mixed with a big chunk of marijuana (the effects of which I’m noticing as I write this in our hotel room at the end of the day!)

He drops us of at the waiting lounge for the boat ride. After only a short wait while Madan is getting tickets, we join the boat. The tour goes round the lake and towards Jagmandir, an island palace (or palace island?) We walk round for a bit and then have a lime soda overlooking the lake, wondering what this place must be like on a starlit romantic evening or with a big swanky reception.

Back at the car we meet Madan and Rattan and head to the hotel, i.e. into town first. Bang lassi couldn’t be had earlier due to the election restrictions, but now we may get luckier. Madan also suggests some dal bhati churma at one of the local joints. He has realised what we’re after. Some couleur locale at first hand! We’re the “talk of the town” in the little joint, and have a great dal with some poppadums and sweets. It’s a wonderful little place, full of character. I want to take a picture of the three of us but they all seem afraid of the camera, not having a clue how to operate it. Madan manages to persuade one of them to try it. Let’s hope it comes out!

Then we have a chance to try some bang lassi. Rattan has bought some earlier. In a little lassi stall we sit at the back and have a lassi, mine spiked with the bang, Ness abstaining, probably a sensible move. We’re on friends terms with Madan now and he says that he has finally begun to realise what we really like. A few pictures are taken of the place, including of a few small smiling boys [Note: must remember to send them the pictures] who were asking Ness to take their picture. We’re all in a great relaxed and smiling mood. I can’t feel any effect from the bang yet. Rattan and Madan drop us at the hotel, among general cheerfulness. We all seem to be looking forward to seeing each other again tomorrow at 9.30 to visit Ranakpur, a full day trip. For now we settle in our room, polish off the remaining bottle of Kingfisher and update our diaries, as I gradually start to feel a bit high and tingly all over. Yippee, a fantastic day!

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Meeting a local family
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Decorating the god's armour

Madan and Rattan pick us up at our hotel at 9.30 to take us to drive to Ranakpur, a Jain temple approx. 90km north-west of Udaipur. It’ll be a full day visit. Madan keeps enquiring how I felt last night after the bang. “Strong eh?” and lots of hints that we should have had a wild night of passion. We get on very well with Madan and Rattan, the trip feels a bit like going out with friends rather than an organised tour. Leaving the town behind us (the usual cacophony of workshops, traffic and animals) and turn off onto a smaller road which climbs into the hills and fields. Very quickly we are in rural India. There are no workshops etc. lining the road now. Only when we pass through a small village we see large groups of people and shops. Otherwise it’s just fields. Women are working in the fields or walking along the road to/from the fields. Here and there we pass a well, being operated by a cow going round in circles (you get the idea, see pic).

We stop at a small group of buildings. There is a mud-built house, right next to a small school. Madan arranges for us to have a look inside the house. It’s a tribal home. Most of the family assemble. Inside it’s very dark and smells of animals. The cows share the house with the household. The first room is some kind of stable, followed by a room which is the living quarters. Unfortunately it’s too dark to take a picture, even with the flash. The animal smell is everywhere. The house/hut next to it is the same, but lets in a bit more light. Two girls, very shy, are inside. Rural life is harsh for women, who are under strict control of the men in the families. Madan says he can deliver the pictures I take of them as he passes this way regularly. Madan has introduced us as being “from across the seven seas” as England has no meaning for them. We also have a look into the school. Inside the single bare room, children are sitting quietly on the floor in three files. The teacher is not around and they are waiting for him. At Madan’s command the children stand and greet us, “namaste”. Then he tells them to sit down which they do promptly. We should have brought some sweets with us to hand out.

Then we drive on, stopping to buy a bag of sweets and a packet of bidis. The drive continues through fields, climbing all the time. Then we reach the wildlife protected area, a national park, within which the Ranakpur temple is located. There are leopards in the park but we won’t get to see them, they’re shy of humans. We do see black-faced monkeys in little groups (and not just in the national park, also on the walls and roofs of some villages we pass through). The landscape is hilly, dry and covered with trees and bushes. At one point we get a fantastic view of Ranakpur lying in the distance, only about 4kms away. To get there we have to descend some way.

The temple itself is surrounded by fences and a complex of buildings for Jain pilgrims who come to maintain the temple. It is a large building, open on all sides, and accessed through four gates, one on each side of the totally symmetrical building (three are now closed). The outside is richly decorated with statues and carvings everywhere. The whole temple is made of white marble. A gold-covered pole stands on top of the temple, with a coloured flag and bells (to scare away the birds should they perch on the pole). The pole guides and concentrates the divine light onto the deity located below. We are allowed to take pictures inside but not of the gods in the many niches around the temple. Inside the temple is a marvel. Intricate figures sculptured everywhere, on the columns, the ceiling, the arches. There are many light wells and windows. The whole place has a feeling of light and openness. Madan gives us a brief history and background (hopefully Ness has captured this!) and then we’re free to wander around for ourselves. The central section houses four principal statues, each facing a different direction. They resemble figures of Buddha but with open eyes. There is a smell of incense (sandalwood in oils?) that pervades the temple. A few visitors here and there, Indian and European, pilgrims and tourists. Gods are placed in niches going round the whole of the temple, 84 in total (Madan says, I didn’t count them!) They are made of either white or ochre/caramel-coloured stone, some are flanked by two smaller statues (same figure). A curious feature is the total symmetry of the layout. Stand between four pillars anywhere in the temple and you have a direct view of a god in each compass direction. Similarly, if you stand between any two pillars you see two gods. Madan, who has been waiting outside, then takes us to see the smaller temple, no longer in use (I think), which has more erotic figures carved on the outside. These for part of a whole series of carvings depicting daily life on the outside, a feature common to most temples.

Heading back, we stop at a small weaving “shop”. This is the outlet from a village 5kms into the hills, not accessible by road. The villagers have set up a small shop by the road to demonstrate their weaving technique and sell to tourist. We buy a small rug for us at home [now in our bedroom in Croydon] [2010-08-18, now in our study in North Berwick], more out of obligation than anything else, but it’s good to know that it benefits the villagers directly.

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Sunset over Udaipur, magic.
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Back at the lassi stall

We stopped for lunch (maybe this was before we reached the temple?) at one of the usual tourist venues and had lunch on the lawn outside. Dal, veggies, rice, chicken and chappatis, and custard for desert. The drive back took us back the same route and seemed to last a long time. Along the way there were several “photo opportunities” of views, local life, people and animals. Mid/late afternoon we stopped for “tea”, well, I tried a salt lassi this time (sweet is better). Glad that Madan voluntarily joined us. We’re getting on very well with him and he keeps repeating how we’re not the usual type of tourists but keen to see India itself, not just its monuments. We’re glad to give anything a shot. Also picking up a few words of Hindi, although very basic stuff, including a couple of swear words, e.g. gandu – poof!

We stop at the school we dropped in at on the way up, and, with the teacher’s permission, hand out sweets to the kids. We arrive back in Udaipur late afternoon. Madan had first suggested dinner with typical Rajasthani dancing – yawn! But then he suggests we come with him to a wedding he has been invited to, much better! First we drop in at a miniature painting shop (preceded by the usual demonstration and cup of tea) Good opportunity to buy presents, plus we buy a larger painting for ourselves. A quick change at the hotel and we’re ready to go out again. It’s too early for the wedding so we go back to the lassi stall in the market. First I have a bottle of sweet milk with almonds and other stuff. Ness is abstaining. Delhi belly has hit, probably due to the custard earlier or something, and it’s touch and go for Ness, but she seems ok for now. Madan and I have a bang lassi, this time a full lump of dope, not just half as I had yesterday. The little boy whose picture we took yesterday is here again and we have our picture taken with him and his friend. Funny how none of the bystanders seem to know how to operate the camera. It takes a weathered-looking man who volunteers to do it.

Then we drive to the party lawn where the wedding reception takes place. Not many people there yet but there is steady trickle of people arriving. Inside the gate there is a large lawn with food stands all around the edge, and a few stands in the centre of the lawn, with an ice sculpture. A large podium with two thrones is prepared for the wedding couple. Around 3,000 guests are expected. Madan introduces me to several people, most speak only the tiniest bit of English so communication is difficult. The bang lassi is beginning to take effect now. Ness pays a visit to the ladies and this together with the sight of Madan and me eating is enough so Ness decides to head back to the hotel while I’ll stay out with Madan for a bit longer. Madan sees Ness to the car and then rejoins me. We go from stall to stall and chat with a few people. The notable exception to the otherwise friendly and welcoming Indians, families of the couple, is an Indian congressman for who I might as well have been air! Madan is beginning to feel stoned too now. In my spaced out state the proceedings have a surreal quality. My speech seems very slow and I’m wondering whether I’m making any sense. Before long we decide to head back. Madan’s wife and son were going to come too but haven’t arrived. I expect he probably called to say “don’t come” since we’re both stoned, but may be wrong. I promise to send him a medium-sized fleece like mine. [Note: bought it but still haven’t sent it – MUST DO!] [2005 – finally done!] We have a bit of trouble finding Rattan and the car. Again, everything seems to happen in slow-motion for me. The drive back is hilarious. We’re all laughing and I can’t figure out why, whether Madan and Rattan are laughing at my stupid grin, whatever. He is gone completely now, like me.

Ness is writing her diary and watching a film when I get back to our room in the hotel. I slowly get into bed and watch a bit of the film. “Rambo”, it’s more than I can handle in my state. Hard to explain but somehow impressions take on a different erm… perspective. The violent nature of the film is too much and I nod off during a commercial break. Another fantastic day!

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Square and temple outside the City Palace in Udaipur

10am start today, just as well! Still tingling a little bit, and Madan is also not quite 100%. We have half a day before we need to be back at the airport for our flight to Delhi. More than enough time to sightsee the City Palace.

We drive through the narrow winding streets of the old city quarter. Even early(ish) in the morning there is a good deal of hustle and bustle, shops and stalls selling wares, scooters and bikes darting everywhere. Just outside the city palace is another temple (Jagdish Mandir?) It’s at one side of a small triangular square. We also see one or two elephants, for tourist rides around the quarter. The temple itself is not all that remarkable. Well, if you’ve seen one, or more than one!, you tend to think “another temple”.

Through the palace gate, just up the road from the temple. It feels hot today. The heat and remaining effects of the bang lassi make me break into sweat as soon as we climb the steps into the palace.

The palace is a collection of large and small courtyards, rooms decorated with mosaics done in coloured glass, overlooking the lake or the city. Madan takes us from one room to the next. Some rooms have decorations, furniture, pictures of the various maharanas, and there are many miniature (as in detailed, not the canvas size, which can be very large) paintings of various battles, hunting scenes, etc.

Outside Madan steers us into the Kashmiri emporium, acting on my suggestion that we go and have a cup of tea somewhere! We’re offered tea and Ness is in pashmina-buying mode so leave her to it while I drink tea and smoke. Four pashminas later, £95 poorer, we walk out, promptly guided into the next shop, where we don’t buy anything.

Our morning sightseeing is over and it’s time to settle the bill at the TCI office. With the usual Indian efficient bureaucracy this is done in a jiffy, i.e. only about half an hour to pay a Rs.2050 (£not v.much) bill! We say bye to Madan. He tells us we have brought him good luck as he has just been booked for a number of groups between July and September, when he would not expect to have much/any work.

Rattan and the TCI rep drive us to the airport. A final farewell to Rattan also and then we go through the various formalities for the flight to Delhi. It’s a Jet airways flight, a better standard than Indian Airways by some margin. Good seats, good food (I have Nessie’s portion, Ness still feeling delicate). At Delhi airport we are met by the TCI guy who met us first time round. Our hotel is not far from the airport, convenient for an early start tomorrow morning. The roads are busy and congested, the hazy smog blankets the city. A giant statue of a god (Shiva?) en route, picture tomorrow.

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View over Udaipur

The hotel, the grandly named Ashok Country Resort, is a simple affair. Whilst our room does have a double bed, it has no windows and feels like a tomb. It is changed for a room with windows but unfortunately no double bed, just two singles this time. Mattresses and beds feel comfortable. We should be in for a good night’s sleep. I go in search of a beer and end up parking myself in the restaurant and catch up on diary up to end of yesterday. It is not allowed to drink alcohol in the lobby as this is a public area, and the swimming pool (outside) is too dark and far away. Later I go back to find Ness and we go to have dinner in the restaurant. By this stage the hotel lobby has a large group of… wait for it… Dutch tourists, aargh! It doesn’t bother us and we have a relaxed dinner, read each other’s diaries for the first time and have an early-ish night.

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Commuter offers a quick prayer on the way to work
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Colourful Buddhist temples

Ness is still feeling a bit delicate and disappears back to the room halfway through breakfast. All is not well on the Delhi belly front. We’re driven to the airport, stopping to take a picture of the giant Shiva (or Vishnu?) statue along the way. Many motorists do a quick prayer as they pass the statue. Crossing the busy road was difficult!

We are in good time for the plane and board on time. Another Jet flight, good news. From the plane we have near continuous views of the Himalayan peaks in the distance. The rest of the country is covered in a dense haze. The haze is impenetrable even at a low altitude. We rise above the clearly-defined haze boundary and climb to 37,000 feet. The flight takes only about an hour and a half. We had expected it to be much longer. We get a long view of Mount Everest and its sister peaks. No photography is permitted on the plane though – security risks! It strikes me as so absurd that I question the regulation to the stewardess, probably much to Ness’s annoyance. Then we descend back into the layer of haze below, to Bagdogra.

The TCI rep is called Rishi, he reminds us strongly of Tuck. Our car is a land-cruiser type vehicle. The road outside the airport is similar to the roads in Rajasthan, people and shops, stalls, vendors, etc. But if you look closely you can see that there is a mixture of Indian-looking people and more Chinese/Tibetan features. As we drive further from the airport, our driver being a graduate of the Lal School of Motoring, the changes multiply.

We pass some tea fields, still at low altitude of Bagdogra. This is where they grow the low quality/no taste stuff, which is blended with the strong taste of tea grown high on the hills.

Rishi has already asked us what we would like to do over the next few days. We came up with a few generalities about what we’d like to see and do: experience local life, see a tea plantation, do some walking, see a Buddhist or Tibetan monastery, etc. Later in the long (2-3 hours?) drive we discuss it again and he has some good suggestions. I have a good feeling about Darjeeling. He also tells us a bit about the local area and customs. Nepali is the main language. Just when I had started to master a few basic phrases in Hindi! (which is also spoken as the “national” language) The script looks totally different from Devanagari, more like the “elvish” writing (sorry, nerd alert!)

Leaving Bagdogra and the plains behind, we start to climb into the hills. A narrow gauge railtrack for the “toy train” runs alongside the road, crossing it in many places. Doing the trip up to Darjeeling in the toy train would have taken seven hours, if it had been running. We do see the steam train running later, much higher up. We also see the modern, diesel-powered, version which runs on the lower half of the section. Into the wooded lower hills we pass an “elephant crossing”. The road starts to narrow and deteriorate, although it stays paved all the way, with a concrete border. Work is being done in many places, small groups of workers digging, breaking rubble, etc. Small houses cling to the steep hillside on either side of the road. We pass through several small towns and villages with bustling markets and shops. Now the people start to look much more Nepali/Tibetan. I would say the mix of “Indian” vs. “Nepali” must be about 50:50. The hills are covered in lush vegetation. Apart from the road and buildings every square inch is covered with all kinds of trees, creepers, etc.

The climb goes up and up and up. Soon we’re looking far down into the plains, the haze is so thick you soon lose sight of the plains. We rise above the haze. The road hugs the hills and switches back and forth. The Dalai Lama is visiting Darjeeling and will be here until the 7th December (I think). The villages and towns are decked out with colourful banners welcoming the Dalai Lama in flowery language. The banners make it clear who the welcome wishes are from, such-and-such monastery or school or municipality, etc.

The Buddhist influence is in strong evidence. Strings of prayer flags, Buddhist temples and monasteries. It feels like a combination of rural China/Tibet (in my imagination) and India. I keep asking Rishi questions from time to time, curious to understand a bit more about the local culture. Tidbits of useless trivia I picked up include: the dominant local party is the Ghurka Revolutionary National Front; the Darjeeling area is ruled by the GRNF and has some degree of autonomy and self-determination within the state of West Bengal. It tried to split off into its own state but that was not allowed.

The climb continues nearly all the way to Darjeeling. We descend a short distance over the crest of the mountain to get there. Darjeeling itself, like the smaller towns, clings to the steep hills. Darjeeling lies sprawled across the high hills. By this time we have climbed into the clouds which are all around us. The temperature has dropped considerably. Ness resorts to her fleece.

It is hard to describe the transition we have experienced over the past eight hours or so. Going from metropolitan Delhi to the much smaller Bagdogra at the other end of the country, a short flight, and then from the dusty hazy plains up to the green fresh hills. This is a total contrast to the India we have experienced so far. That’s the idea of our travels really, to experience the diversity of India and savour the different tastes. So far our impressions have improved every step of the way. It won’t all be like that I’m sure.

We drive through Darjeeling’s winding little streets towards our hotel, the Mayfair, a real Raj era name! The buildings are a mix of recent Indian constructions and those from the “British period”, including a large imposing austere building which would be more at home in Yorkshire/Northern England. There are shops and stalls, and the town is colourfully decorated for the Dalai Lama’s visit. The road to our hotel is down some steep turns. The Mayfair is high on the hills, just below the former Governor’s residence, which is where the Dalai Lama is now staying. The hotel is a little leftover gem from the Raj days. Outside there are landscaped gardens and patios, inside the place is wood-panelled with thick red carpets. It feels welcoming. We have some tea in the lobby while paperwork is taken care of. Our room looks fantastic. It’s a large wood-panelled room with an open fire and a large window overlooking the hills and town below. If it were clear we should be able to see for miles and miles. Bed look sumptuous but is solid as a rock, ah well.

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Asian idea of "full" differs very much from the European one.

We have arranged to meet Rishi again at 5.30 to see a bit of the town. Gives us enough time to chill out and freshen up a bit. We wrap up warm (fleece & jacket) for the walk. It is already dark and the town is wrapped in clouds. It gives the town a special atmosphere. Rishi is easy to get in with and it is easy to make a few jokes. He must be about our age, maybe a bit younger. He takes us on a stroll through the upper and middle town, back to the main square and round the hill back to our hotel. The walk is so enjoyable. We can look into the shops and stalls without being hassled. We do get looks of curiosity but in a totally different manner from Rajasthan. The atmosphere here is so relaxed. We see a few westerners, few and far between, but it does feel like a place which is used to having many western visitors. In common with the rest of India, western tourism has all but dried up. Good news for us, not so good for business. The upper town has a large number of shops, including many curio shops and a lot of eateries and restaurants (Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Tibetan, etc.) The middle town is darker and emptier, at least at this time of day, and is the “business district”. The stalls are now dark and empty. We loop back round to the upper town and to the main square where we have some tea sat on a bench. People are sitting on the benches, chatting, drinking tea, kids and dogs playing. There is a bandstand. It is the town’s meeting place. This is where Rishi hangs out with his friends, talking about their jobs, their lives, etc. I can just picture it now.

Rishi introduces us to various people he knows as we walk through the town. I’m trying to pick up a few words of Nepali but it’s so different from Hindi that I can’t remember anything! “Dizi” = sister, used as a common form of address, “dazu” = brother, likewise.

To finish our tour we walk along the dark “Mall” which loops round the hill with a few benches here and there, ending at the governor’s residence. From here a gate gives access to our hotel through the gardens. There is a small Shiva temple in the gardens and a statue of Ganesh (trunk facing left, not good). Then Rishi leaves us and we settle back in our hotel. Someone comes to light the fire in our room and we go down to the bar, where they prepare an excellent whisky sour for me and planters punch for Ness. I’d love to have a game of pool (American balls) but Ness is not too keen. Maybe later. The bar is a “home from home”, wood and thick carpet, with a quarter circle corner bar with mirrors, aah.

We go for dinner in the hotel a bit later. A tasty buffet and only a few other (Indian + American) diners in the wood-panelled dining room. Ness does have some dinner but has to shoot off straight after dinner. The fire is still smouldering in our room in our room. The only downside is the hard bed. With any luck we’ll wake up with a clear view out of our window overlooking the hills and mountains in the distance.

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At the Happy Valley tea plantation
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With Tibetan refugees (on left...)

Rishi meets us at 9.30 after we’ve had breakfast. No stunning views to be had, out of our bedroom or otherwise. The hill is still enveloped by thick clouds. It does make for a special atmosphere. First we drive a bit down the hill through town to the Happy Valley tea estate. The town is still waking up, stalls being opened, people on their way to work on scooters and bikes. The traffic is at a go-slow, queueing as it crawls downhill. The main type of car here is a battered jeep, ranging from 40 year old Land Rovers to not so old by battered and decorated Marutis and various other makes. Our driver is Milan, “like the town in Italy” gets a blank reaction, well, a grin. The drive snakes back and forth through the middle and lower town and then we turn off onto a narrow little road, barely wide enough for the car.

The tea “factory” lies in the middle of the tea fields. A factory worker takes us round. Inside are a range of large rooms with machines and trays for various stages of the tea making process. The first contains long trays where the tea is left to dry (cold air, then hot air). The next rooms have equipment for tea “breaking”, etc. and finally a sifting machine which splits tea into coarse, medium and fine qualities. The tea is packed in large chests and shipped off. The machines are old, made in Belfast. The whole set up is primitive and authentic. I had been expecting something more up to date, but glad that it wasn’t.

Then we drive back up the hill to the HMI, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and Darjeeling Zoo. We have to walk the last little stretch up to the HMI + zoo entrance. To reach the HMI we pass through a part of the zoo with an Asian black bear, leopards, monkeys, etc. The HMI itself is a combined museum plus mountaineering school. The museum consists of two dusty halls with old exhibits, pictures, models of the mountain ranges, old bits of kit used by the mountaineering expeditions. Tenzing Norgay is revered as a national hero; Edmund Hillary has to play second fiddle. We also visit Norgay’s grave, or rather the spot where he was cremated. Then we walk back into the zoo and have a leisurely stroll taking pictures of the animals. More leopards, red pandas, and tigers. The zoo is covered in abundant greenery and most animals have large outdoor enclosures.

Lunch was supposed to be a buffet back at our hotel but we ask Rishi to drop us at Chowrasta, the main square, and to pick us up there in about an hour’s time. Gives us time to have some “chai” from “didi” and simply sit on a bench watching the world. Most benches are occupied with people just sitting, chatting and drinking chai. Dogs are playing in the square (randy dogs chasing a bitch on heat). We have a browse in the Oxford Book Co. across the square, a treasure trove of a bookshop. Most books suffer from damp and mildew. We still end up walking out with a shopping bag full, including Harry Potter in Hindi! Time enough for one more “chai” and then Rish reappears.

Our impressions of Darjeeling are of a green and pleasant town with a relaxed atmosphere. You can tell that it has grown well beyond its original size and building works everywhere indicate that this is likely to continue. It’s now a totally Indian town, although there are some architectural remnants from the British period. Apparently the last remaining Brits left en masse years ago, forcibly I think. The more recent constructions are of the typical Indian/Chinese quality, simple concrete or brick affairs, with washing hanging outside, loads of pot plants, and decorations and prayer flags of various colours.

We now walk down the hill again to a Buddhist temple/monastery. This is entirely different from the Hindu temples we have seen. The decorations outside are complemented by fluttering flags with prayers. On the walk down we passed a Buddhist wall shrine, simply cut into the rocks flanking the walking path. Prayers in Tibetan script were carved into the rock and painted in bright colours. We gave the prayer wheels a spin. We reach the monastery by walking through the village, residential parts. It’s a nice walk and we’re able to see plenty of Darjeeling domestic life around us. Kids are playing here and there. Small stalls dotted here and there sell the usual range of stuff, pouches of chewing tobacco, sweets, etc.

The lower part of the monastery is closed, something to do with the many monks who have travelled here to see the Dalai Lama. Upstairs two young monks are playing a game that involves shoving small pucks across the board in an attempt to dislodge an opponent’s piece from a scoring spot and score points yourself, or something like that. No photography allowed inside again. The room is dark and decorated with wall paintings and statues. Mats are piled up on one side of the room. Prayer wheels made of very light paper with vents at the top are stuck on thin poles above candles, to give effortless revolutions of the prayer wheels and send the prayers skywards. The deities are totally different from the Hindu ones, although there is some Hindu heritage. Various offerings are placed in front of the gods, bowls of water, rice, etc. The gods look fierce, more like demons, with necklaces of severed heads. Outside we make a clockwise walk round the temple. It only now dawns on me that this is a ritual or meant for good fortune. We manage to glimpse into the lower temple which looks the same as the one above, a bit larger and with hanging drums. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, discovered here in the 20th century, is kept here, somewhere safe.

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Ness sends a couple of million prayers heavenwards with this massive prayer wheel
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Buddhist prayer flags everywhere, flapping in the wind. Very colourful!

Next we carry on walking through the village parts along the hill, stopping at a roadside stall where I try “aloo dum”, spiced potatoes in a small leaf bowl, simple but delicious. The people are very friendly, a bit shy and wary of strangers, but having Rishi with us makes the difference in crossing the divide, language-wise and culturally. We make our way down to the Tibetan Refugee Centre, a group of recent buildings (well…) where Tibetan refugees are housed. The balconies are decorated with the traditional colours, red, white, yellow and blue. The workshops are closed today, most have gone to see the Dalai Lama, but some children are playing and we can look into the weaving, leather working and painting workshops, full of primitive tools.

Then we make our way back up gradually, taking it slowly as neither of us is fit. Eventually we end up back at Chowrasta and have more chai from didi. As a last bit of sightseeing for the day, Rishi suggests a walk to the joint Hindu-Buddhist temple on Observatory Hill. It’s only just behind Chowrasta up a small path. The entrance is full of monkeys. It’s wonderful sight to see two monkeys huddled together tightly to keep a little one warm.

The top of the hill is covered in strings of prayer flags everywhere. A few small open temples are scattered around. Monkeys all over the place too. We do our bit at the main temple and are rewarded with a “third eye” which is accompanied by a blessing and are given small balls of something sweet (laddhu), which we feed to the monkeys after taking a bite. Again we make a clock-wise tour of the temple. We do another bit at a small Kali temple where I receive a “second third eye” and a piece of red gauze, which comes from the statue, as a wristband. The attendant priest asks my name and includes it in his blessings. The spots, wristband, twirling the prayer wheels and doing clock-wise tours should be enough to wash away any past sins and have some credit left with Shiva and his pals.

Then we head back to Chowrasta and our hotel, straight into the wood-panelled bar for a cocktail. Excellent spicy bloody mary for me, Ness has a clove-flavoured hot Ghurka punch. The fire is lit for us, and as a special treat we get the finest “Bangla” music, including a Hindi version of “I’ve got the power”. Not feeling so colonial now! Still can’t talk Ness into a game of pool. “After dinner”. Clever delaying tactic I suspect – Ness will either have to genuinely dash off to the loo or pretend to. I thought Rishi was up for a game but that fell by the wayside, and the guy playing on his own was hotel staff and would not have felt like playing with a hotel guest I think.

Today has been a “gentle whirlwind” of new sights and experiences. So different again. Shame about the lack of views. The cloud has stayed around Darjeeling all day. Tomorrow is going to be an early start, 4am wake up call. Don’t hold much hope out of the clouds clearing but let’s give it a shot. After catching up on diaries (up to previous sentence) we go through for dinner. First managed to get a game of pool in playing a member of the hotel staff, whose place is taken by a higher ranking member of staff halfway through the game. I am totally demolished, didn’t even get to pot a single balll!

No buffet tonight, no à la carte either. It’s table d’hôte ce soir, gourmet evening. An umpteen-course dinner follows. Soup, then a whole range of dishes, veggie, rice, fish, chicken, chappatis, dal, paneer, etc. Ness should take it easy on the spicy food but the smiling waiter won’t take no for an answer. Then it’s time for pudding, first a wobbly looking concoction. Ness leaves hers so I feel obliged to finish mine. Just when we thought we were safe Ness goes “uh oh” and our smiling waiter arrives with a huge bowl of pink rice pudding. Given half a chance he would have heaped generous ladle-fulls of the stuff on Nessie’s plate but she pleads successfully for mercy. I’m the next victim and put up less resistance. Then we waddle up to bed.