Sunday, 25 April 2010

India summary

Get over the sweet stench of sun-dried piss, men urinating in public, both sexes spitting and littering, the filth and the constant ear-piercing honking of horns, lame dogs, crippled and limbless beggars, the hassle from rickshaw drivers and street traders - get over these and you will love India. Or, like me, if you can't quite then you'll be delighted and distressed in roughly equal measure, but never bored.
Water: Bottled mineral water is cheap and readily available.
Drinks: Wine - expensive but reasonable quality from Sula and Grover's vineyards. Beer - Kingfisher Strong my preferred taste but Black Label is also okay. Depending on the state licensing laws beer comes as more than 8%, less than 8%, more than 5% or less than 5%. All beers fall into the same strong and premium categories. The price (mfp) for a 650 ml bottle also varies by state, regardless of strength, from 45 Rupees (less than 8%) to 80 Rupees (less than 6%) in Tamil Nadu. Hotels and western-style bars can charge double this - chai (sweet masala tea) is available everywhere, black tea less so and milk tea primarily just in tourist resort areas and in the northern tea producing areas. Coffee - popular in the south and at branded coffee bars in larger cities.
Toilets: Mostly upright in hotels, upright and/or squat in places to visit and trains.
Rupee (currently £1 = 70 Rp).
Language: Various and state dependent - Namaste is hello in Hindi (the official national language) but hello English goes a long way in most states, especially in the south where Hindi is considered foreign. Most educated people and those in the tourist trade can speak English, many preferring it to Hindi.
TICs: Helpful with free local town maps and guides if available.
Accommodation: Room only is the norm
Food: Pure veg fare is available everywhere. Egg breakfasts, toast, jam, banana pancakes are available in most places but vegetarian breakfasts can be good - fresh fruit salad or non-egg omelet or puri anyone? A mixed veg thali lunch and a
dinner of fish (on the coast) or chicken tikka (marinaded, skewered and baked in a tandori oven) tick most of my boxes.
Supermarkets: The only chain to speak of is spencer but others exist like Grand Bazzar in Darjeeling.
Transport: Trains are cheap, comfortable and safer than buses, especially for overnight journeys. Sleeper class with open windows and fans is good option day or night as seats can be reserved, book ahead if possible.
A/c sleeper is more expensive, can be cold and you can't see out the windows very well so probably best only used in extremes of hot, cold or dust (e.g. across the Thar Desert to Jaislemer). India rail food is generally good cheap and wholesome - mostly veg biryani, chai and sweet coffee.
Medical: Good quality medical and dental care can be available for a smaller fee than their western counterparts.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Singalila Ridge

Saturday 17 April: Yuna, Sebastian and myself hire Artpan, a local guide, who takes us by shared jeep to Rimbick (7,500 feet) where we start the five-day Singalila Ridge trek.
Day one is a quick momo brunch at Rimbick then a tough 12 mile stint over bridges and up steep switch-backs to pretty Gorkhey at 10,170 feet (3,100m). Altitude sickness usually kicks in at 2,500m and it's not long before I'm puffing and blowing like an old steam train. We spend the night at Gorkhey where Tongba or millet 'wine' is made by pouring hot water into large bamboo jugs of fermented grain. Served as an aperitif, the brew is sucked up through a bamboo straw and surprisingly the first mouthful tastes just like dry fino sherry. Our jugs are filled twice more extracting most of the alcohol from the mash. This heady brew and a wood-oven cooked dinner of dhal bhatt (dhal, potatoes, rice and vegetables) ensures we all sleep like babies.
Day 2: Just 10 miles today we pass through undulating misty rhododendron woodland and reach Phalut, 11,830 feet (3,606m), for lunch, dinner, rum toddy and B&B.
Day 3: After 17 miles we reach the summit at Sandakpu, at 11,929 feet (3,636m) it's two and a half times higher than Ben Nevis. In our draughty, damp, cold and wind-swept hut we weather out the night's noisy storm.
Day 4: At 5:30 am we are rewarded by clear views of Kanchenjunga (28,169 feet), India's highest and the world's third highest mountain, and Three Sisters to it's left. I also get my first ever glimpse, through the haze, of a distant Mt Everest (29,029 feet). After a breakfast of chapatis and jam it's a 15 miles hike along the ridge. We see various shaggy-bellied yaks grazing the fresh new shoots of the high pasture then pass through pretty tea-house villages to reach Tumling (2,900 feet), just over the border in Nepal. The hut is a delight with hot bucket showers and we have jugs of Tongba, a dinner of dhal bhatt, (too much) rhododendron wine and B&B, all for just 310 Indian Rupees (about £4.60) each.
Day 5: From Tumling it's all downhill to Maneybhanjyang and jeeps back to Darjeeling - it's been good preparation for the high Himalayas.
Photos of the Singalila Ridge trek.
Friday 23: From Darjeeling an early morning five-hour jeep ride, all downhill, takes me to the heat of Siliguri and the bus for the Nepal border where I change for an overnight bus (17 hours) to Kathmandu.

Saturday, 17 April 2010


Monday 12 April: The World Heritage site listed Himalayan Mountain Railway's narrow-gauge steam locomotive service starts at Kuresong so I board The Queen of the Hills (50th mode of transport) for the three-hour jaunt to Darjeeling. There is a problem with engine 804's boiler so I arrive at Darjeeling five-hours late - cold, tired, hungry, speckled with soot but happy - I've been on one of the world's best steam train journeys.
Wednesday 14: Hook up with Korean girl Yuna and German Sebastian and have a fun afternoon with the joyful tea ladies of Happy Valley tea estate who earn just 62 Rupees for an eight-hour shift (plus a sizable tip from us away from the gaze of their two male overseers). The delightfully named 'super fine tipi golden flower orange pekoe' tea tastes as good as it sounds.
Friday 16: I visit the Himalayan Mountain Zoo primarily to see the results of the Red Panda breeding programme. The adjacent Himalayan Mountain Institute tells the tragic story of Scotsman Andy Irvine and George Mallory's Everest ascent from the Tibet side in 1924. Mallory's frozen body was discovered in 1999 near the summit but
Irvine's young, 22 year old body, has not yet been found - did he conquer the summit? I like to think so, yes he did. Tenzing and Hillary famously 'knocked the bastard off' from the Nepal side in 1953.
Photos of Darjeeling.

Monday, 12 April 2010


Friday 9 April: The most important place of Buddhist pilgrimage worldwide, this is where, in the 6th century BC under the Bodhi tree, Buddha attained enlightenment. Emperor Ashoka built the original Mahabodhi Temple here in celebration. It was renovated first by the British and then the Indian government and is now a World Heritage Site complete with a beautiful meditation garden and bell house.
Bodghaya is a tranquil town with the additional joy of having great architectural diversity in the monastery buildings that surrounding the main temple complex, from the austere Japanese temple to the delightfully ornate Bhutanese and Thai designs. The Bhutanese monastery is probably the most atmospheric place to stay in town but I opt for a simple room with a bookshelf and 'study' table in the more vibrant Burmese Vihara which suits me just fine.
Pictures of Bodhgaya.
Sunday 11: I squeeze into a ten (often more) person shared three-wheeled tempo (49th mode of transport) to Gaya for the bus to Patna and the North-East Express sleeper to New Jalpaijuri, then jump on a shared jeep to Kuresong, high in the cool tea-growing hillsides of West Bengal.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


Wednesday 7 April: India's holiest city, on the east bank of India's holiest river, where Hindus come to die. The faithful believe that if they expire here and their ashes are scattered on the sacred Ganges they go directly to Nirvana.
I'm staying in the popular Shanti Guesthouse with views across the river to the sandy western flood plain and beyond. Early evening I join other guests for a sunset Ganges cruise on board a bow-oared rowing skiff (48th mode of transport).
Passing the burning ghats stacked high with logs and glowing hot from the flames from funeral pyres we learn that most Hindu families choose an open air, wood-fired cremation rather than the cheaper electric crematorium. Wood costs 300 Rupees per kilo so most funerals are 3,000 Rupees (about
£44), quite a lot of money. An electric cremation is 500 Rupees but, in an effort to clean up the Ganges, the government insist that the ashes interred rather than giving them back to the family to scatter. The destitute are electrically cremated for free. In Hinduism the pure of spirit: still born children, pregnant women and lepers needn't be burnt and instead their weighted bodies are cast into Ganges intact.
Next we moor on the sandy east bank to watch the sunset. After only a few yards of walking human remains appear - first a scull and then the badly decomposed remains of, we presume, a young woman with a fine set of teeth. With stronger stomachs than I, the locals drink, wash and swim in the Ganges.
We return to Varanasi and see more funeral pyres through the darkness. The boatman estimates 200 per day, on a good day, as he slurps a handfuls of water from the slowly moving river, he's swallowed a mosquito.
Photos of Varanasi, not for the faint hearted.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010


Saturday 3 April: Like so many of India's treasures the temples at Khajuraho were rediscovered by a British map-making party in the early 19th century. Can you imagine the look on Victorian army officer Burt's face when confronted with carvings of ample-breasted women giving blow-jobs to equally well-endowed men? Yes, this is the famous erotic 'Kama Sutra' temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today I visit the two temples, Vaman and Javari, near to the old village and then on to the eastern set of three sober Jain temples.
Sunday 4: Early, to avoid the tour-bus clamour, I enter the western temple compound. Lakshamana temple is the largest and most famous, followed by Kandariya, Chausath and, the oldest, Vishvanath. In reality, the majority of the carvings celebrate the female form in a variety of seductive poses and are extremely well sculpted. The scantily-clad bodies appear to move, twisting, turning and writhing away from the honey-coloured sandstone. There are also fine hunting and battle scenes. Only a small proportion of the figures are involved in explicit sexual acts but these are, of course, the ones everyone comes to see and photograph.
Monday 5: Amazingly the tour groups spin through the temples in less than an hour and avoid
the little architectural museum where I enjoy a close up view of celestial nymphs writhing in stone. In the afternoon I walk to the restored Duladeo temple set in a pretty lawned flower garden. It too his erotic scenes hidden amongst the carved stone.
Khajuraho photos, enjoy.
At Khajuraho's pristine railway station I board the new 11:00 pm sleeper service, which only started
at the end of March, to Varanasi.

Saturday, 3 April 2010


Thursday 1 April: From Bhopal I take a rickety old bus to the fabulous Buddhist monuments at Sanchi. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site the stupas, temples and monasteries were built by Mauryan emperor Ashoka in 262 BC, abandoned as Hinduism prevailed, only to be rediscovered by a British army officer in 1818,
Today the hill-top compound is a quiet, hassle-free and peaceful place with just myself and a few colourful locals admiring the structures.
Enclosed by a stone fence the main stupa has four beautifully carved gateways. The older western one is supported by three lions carved back-to-back.
Stupas two and three, also within stone enclosures but missing the gateways, are also sublime.
At the foot of the hill the little museum is a welcome break from the heat and there are two highlights among the many stone carvings, an early sandstone Buddha and the finely sculptured triple-lion capital from one of Ashoka's original pillars. Triple lions are the state emblem of India and are printed in the bottom left-hand corner of all banknotes.
Photos of Sanchi.


Tuesday 30 March: The wonderfully named Himalaya Queen snakes her way back down from Shimla to Kalka. Not as plush as the Shivalk Deluxe but I'm in (soft) chair class and have a forward-facing window seat in the rear carriage - great (see previous Kalka to Shimla entry for photos). But as soon as we escape the bylaws of Shimla the Indian passengers resume their favourite pastime - littering - and with a vengeance. Every imaginable food and drink container and more are tossed out the carriage windows with abandon. After a short lunch stop I even have to keep my head inside to avoid being hit or splashed by garbage - plastic glasses and bottles of every shape and size, paper cups and tea dregs, tin-foil and paper cartons of every description, greasy plastic and paper bags, even pressed polystyrene meal trays spin out of the windows, slopping with food as they go. Glass bottles fly the furthest tumbling down the otherwise pretty hillside - this is India.
At Kalka I board India's premier rail service, the Shatabdi Express, to Delhi. It's all 1st class with afternoon tea, a three-course dinner, mineral water and a newspaper included in the price, 535 Rupees (about £8), luxury. A chilled red Merlot would make it perfect.
Wednesday 31: Bhopal is a large city split in two by a pair of attractive lakes, the chaotic old Muslim hub with mosques in the north and the quieter, more spacious modern centre to the south. A causeway lined by pretty little gardens links the two.
The state capital of Nadhya Pradesh, Bhopal is a great place for a stroll. So I walk up to the main mosque, then down across the causeway, along the pretty lakeside gardens with large fruit bats hanging from trees and, after lunch, end up at the State Museum. It houses fine stone temple sculptures and, ploughed up by a local farmer in 1992, a hoard of 87 small Jain bronzes - the female deities have strikingly erotic hips.
In the evening I find a Indian style hole-in-the-wall, men-only, bar selling ice cold draught Hunter Strong beer at 30 Rupees (45p) a glass. It also comes in bottles and tastes slightly better than Kingfisher. I decide to stay two nights here and treat Sanchi as a day trip.
Friday 2 April: Before I leave Bhopal I feel it would be remiss of me not to visit the Union Carbide site. When I eventually explain to a rickshaw driver where I want to go (clearly not a popular tourist destination) he is happy to take me there, at a very reasonable rate, and brings his son along to interpret. As we climb through a hole in the perimeter wall I'm shocked and surprised by the scale of the remains of the former US owned chemical plant. It's now a very sad and rusting memorial to 3,787 men, women and children who were killed outright, by leaking methyl isocyanate gas, during December 1984. These were perhaps the lucky ones. The poison still lingers in the survivors and in their children, born later. The legal battle for their compensation is ongoing.
Bhopal photos.