A Different Side of India

The neon signs blazed down from the modern office blocks with global names such as Google, IBM and even my former firm PwC, well dressed people rushed passed clearly very busy. Looking around the smart restaurants and cafes were busy with people chatting or talking on the latest smart phones. There was no rubbish anywhere and certainly no cows. Were we still in India? It seemed more like Dubai or Singapore but yes we were still in India. This was the modern face of India built on the back of the economic boom. Just 20 years ago Gurgaon was a town just outside Delhi. Now it was a modern booming city that had merged with the urban sprawl of Delhi which it was connected to by a busy modern metro that was to come in very handy. Vineet and Pratibha, our good friends from Moscow, had flown in for a week to show us some of Delhi. Being keen food connoisseurs, a part of this was sharing some of the delights of Indian food. Snapping myself out of my trance of being amazed at the setting, our first stop was a wonderful Parsi restaurants where we got to sample a variety of new and different flavours. The previous evening they had invited us to Vineet's parents flat where we spent a delightful evening catching up and hearing more about Indian history and culture. We were also served the most wonderful home cooking and it was a lovely evening meeting Vineet's parents and hearing about their fascinating lives. We were spending the week at the smart Bristol Hotel in Gurgaon. Initially selected due to its large car park it was a delightful comfortable hotel which made a great base for the week and where we were warmly welcomed by the management who took a keen interest in our trip (more on this later). Not all of the week though was spent in the modern side of India. Over the centuries many different invaders have built their new capitals in Delhi. One of these were the Afghan invaders who arrived in the 12th Century who built a beautiful city best know for the towering Qutb Minar. This is in the South of Delhi and was easy to visit from where we were staying and made for a great afternoon visit. It was Gilly's mum's last day with us and was a wonderful complex to wander around. The following day we threw ourselves back into "real" India. Pratibha's cousin, Mohit, had a wedding invitation business in Old Delhi and had offered to show us around the maze of alleys and streets in this hectic part of town. It was wonderful to visit him at his business in the heart of Old Delhi. Weddings are very big business in India and his printing business made beautiful wedding invitations, gift bags and other things.   After showing us his business Mohit took us out into the narrow streets and into the barrage of sound, noise and smells that is India. Each area had shops that specialised in different things; opticians, stationers, hardware, wedding invitations etc. It was a riot of colour but for lunch Vineet had us retreating to a wonderful old merchant's haweli (mansion) that had been turned into a boutique hotel and restaurant serving the most delicious mouthwatering food. Heading to the rooftop after lunch to admire the view we were amazed at how tranquil things were at rooftop level. We could watch people peacefully flying their pigeons well above the melee below. On our last night in Delhi we met Lena, another old friend from Moscow who was now working in Delhi, together with her husband Spencer for another wonderful meal. This time the flavours were from South India and again we left feeling very full and our tastebuds suitable titilated. It is over 10 years since we saw Lena and it was lovely to catch up and see her again and meet Spencer. As I mentioned, the Bristol Hotel were wonderful hosts during our stay and we had enjoyed a delightful chat at the beginning of the week with the general manager and his team over coffee and some delicious Indian snacks. However there was to be more. The General Manager had persuade us to meet an Indian news agency so we spent a morning being filmed and interviewed. It all felt slightly strange and I am sure our acting skills are dreadful but it was nice to see the interest in our trip. We are aware that the video has been shared by a number of news sources in India. If you want to see it, it's in the link below. That was not our only media involvement of the day as straight afterwards we were interviewed for a blog on what's interesting in Gurgaon. It wasn't just a week of having a good time though as we also had things to organise. The good news is we were all issued with our Chinese visas. However, as is often the case, it's one step forward and one step back. To get to China we were going to have to retrace our steps through Myanmar. Unfortunately we were informed that the route to the Chinese border in Myanmar is currently closed to foreigners due to insurgency in Shan State and we may not be given permission to cross in April. This is a real blow as this was effectively our only route out of India. The border between Nepal and China is closed and we don't want to ship out of India but the only other way is to cross Pakistan to China so we have plenty to think about over the next few weeks. On arriving back in Gugaron our first job had been to pick up the truck. When I had left it various parts had been removed at the front to allow for the windscreen to be fitted. As the windscreen was fitted differently to the MAN trucks in India, I had left the garage with the mechanics scratching their heads but assuring me it would not be a problem. Well I needn't have worried as they had done a great job fixing the new windscreen and sun visor. We also took the opportunity of being somewhere with everything available to fully restock the truck. It's amazing how being able to buy the little luxury things like balsamic vinegar, gravy powder and chicken, without watching it been killed in front of you, can give you so much satisfaction. It was a wonderful week and we are so grateful that Vineet and Pratibha took the time to come and visit us. We left Delhi on a high, now we just had to navigate our way through a city of 25 million people in the truck. In the end it wasn't too bad and we arrived just short of the border with Nepal. What we hadn't realised with all the socialising, eating and work was how exhausted we were. As we cross into Nepal things should be quieter and we can relax to build up the energy to go trekking in the mountains.

Golden Moments

The soldiers seemed to be saying "Look at me with my big muscles, shiny braiding, ridiculously huge hat, and look, look how high I can kick my legs!" We weren't quite sure what to make of the flag lowering ceremony at Wagah border between Pakistan and India near Amritsar but it certainly was entertaining. It wasn't just us that thought so, 3000-4000 Indians thought so and so did about 1000 Pakistanis. The extra tall soldiers looked like a cross between posturing schoolboys in the playground and proud peacocks. Their red and gold turbans were crowned by fans of starched cloth, so ridiculously tall they defied the laws of physics. Their uniforms bristled with gold braid and colourful medals. Their trousers were cropped mid-shin so that their pristine white spats could be properly admired. Immaculately groomed and dashing, they certainly caught the eye. I wouldn't want to mess with them though as they are members of the highly trained Border Security Force. They might be highly trained in combat but it was their impressive crowd-control skills that had to be used to marshall the masses through several security checks. Splitting the men and women for security searches, they were constantly blowing whistles and patiently reorganising the queues into military precision, a difficult task given the usual Indian crowd involves lots of pushing and shoving. We got there a couple of hours early to make sure we got a seat, while waiting we watched the tiny trickle of normal cross border traffic. Indian porters bringing people's luggage and placing in it directly on the line dividing the two hostile countries, then the Pakistani porters picking the bags up and taking them on. At no time did anyone but the travellers stray across the white line painted on the road. Around the sides of the border both countries have built stadium seating for people coming to see the flag lowering ceremony. It's so popular India is building even more seating, foreigners had their own seating area behind the VIPs. The soldiers in the Border Security Force are so tall that Lucy only came up to one of their waists. The event started, as soon as the border crossing closed, with a compere whipping up the crowds by getting a group of women and children from the crowds flag waving and Bollywood dancing. Lucy joined in the dancing from our stand. The Pakistanis, just metres away from us, had their own "show" with a competing sound system. The whole atmosphere was carnival like, we felt that there was no aggressiveness between the crowds. People had come to have a good afternoon out and be entertained. First out came two scary looking special forces soldiers with body armour, machine gun and mirrored sunglasses. Marching up to the gate to eyeball their matching Pakistani counterparts just metres away on the other side of the line. Then came the red turbaned unit, including 2 female soldiers. With perfect choreography they marched up to the gate in pairs, with a variety of moves culminating in the most amazing high kicks, almost high enough to kick their turbans off. They were so enthusiastic with their moves that both sides had to straighten their turbans in the middle of their manoeuvres. Then the gates were flung open for more high kicks and some comically aggressive fist waving. All to a soundtrack of both sides competing to have the longest end-syllable of a command, there was lots of applause for the side that had the greatest amount of puff. Before the gate was yet again slammed shut with a bang. The Indian theatricals were perfectly mirrored on the the Pakistani side, their magnificent turbans were dark green and silver with a long tail. After 40 minutes of military dramatics, it ended with both flags being lowered in perfect unison before both gates were dramatically slammed shut. Pakistan shaking its fist at India - and India shaking it right back. It was a fascinating spectacle, I'm still not sure what to make of it. The two countries are still engaged in active aggression, especially in disputed territories like Kashmir. Yet they have this almost comical stand off every night, which ends in a quiet handshake between the guards. I was pleased to read that the border forces exchange sweets at Divali, Eid and National days. But yet it isn't all fun and games, the ceremony was closed for a short while during recent hostilities in October last year. The week started with an extra special arrival, my Mum game out to Delhi to join us for a week. It was wonderful for us all to see her again. As she has been to India several times, it took the pressure off of sightseeing and meant we could just enjoy each other's company. She is such a seasoned traveller it didn't phase her in the least, when after arriving on the efficient and logical airport express station at New Delhi, we got completely lost in the completely illogical train station above it. We knew we were within 500m of our hotel but couldn't find a way to get there. Even after an overnight flight she listened happily to a child chatting in each ear, as we explored almost every corner of both stations trying to work out how to get over to the right sides of the tracks. My old backpacking haunt of Pahar Ganj, the crazy phrenetic Main Bazar, hadn't changed much in 20 years. But we chose a nicer hotel just outside, compared to the flea pit I brought my parents to when they visited me when I was 20. Mum reminded me of some of the more colourful parts I'd exposed them to back then. The Mughal Red Fort was just as impressive as I remember. On our loop around northern India there was one place we really wanted to visit but it was a 450km each way side trip, with that in mind we decided to take the train. With the truck still out at the garage outside Delhi getting its new windscreen, it made perfect sense. We were up at the crack of dawn, stepping around the homeless people sleeping outside the station. Even so, compared to when I was here 15 years ago the place had been really smartened up. The first 2 hours of the 6 hour express train was a food fest: tea, biscuits, juice, water, vegies cutlets, bread and jam, more tea all included in the ticket price. The women of India are always gorgeously dressed but I think the ladies of the Punjab are the most glamorous with their beautifully embroidered and bejewelled salwar kameezes of every colour of the rainbow. Alisha wanted to buy some simple fabric to sew, so we saw in the shops how each outfit starts out as 3 pieces of cloth. The decorated and elegant top part, brightly coloured trousers and the gossamer light dupatta scarf twinkling with embellishments and embroidery. All ready to be taken to the tailor and made up in a size and style of your choosing. I just wished I had the style to carry off such a beautiful outfit. The "jewel in the crown" of Amritsar is of course the Golden Temple, the most holy place for Sikhs. As a building, with its golden domes and gleaming white marble decorated with precious stones reflected in the surrounding Pool of Nectar, the place is stunning. But it is the spiritual peace of the whole complex that really impressed me. Sikhs come from all over the world as pilgrims to pray and come together as a community. What particularly moving was when we were queuing up to cross the bridge into the actual temple itself we listened to the songs from the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book) being broadcast from the inside of the temple, suddenly there was a particular part of the prayer and the hundreds of people all around us joined in. The actual temple was tiny but the friendly queue patiently waited to enter for a short while. It was less busy in the top 2 floors of the temple, where people found a quiet corner to read or pray. We went back at night to admire it all over again in the dark. The actual temple is just a small part of it, the kitchen feeds between 60,000-80,000 people a day for free whatever religion. It is all organised and funded by the Sikh community and by donations, we had wanted to join them for lunch but unfortunately Mum and Alisha had picked up a bug and weren't feeling up to it. We loved the city of Amritsar, leading up to the Golden Temple were newly constructed boulevards that were thronged with people promenading in the evening. Our hotel was close on the edge of the bustling bazar, we walked through the narrow streets to find the Hindu Sri Durgiana Temple. Similar in design to the Golden temple but smaller, it is dedicated to the goddess Durga. Arriving back in Delhi on Sunday afternoon, we joined the throngs enjoying a stroll through the park's of colonial Delhi. Mum and I took the girls off to spend the pocket money that's been burning a hole in their pockets since we arrived. Despite loving the beautiful things on offer all over the country the over-enthusiast salesmen in almost every shop has put them off buying anything. So they spent a peaceful hour browsing through the Central Cottage Emporium, it might have been more expensive but it was far less stressful. Steve on the other hand couldn't face shopping so instead walked around colonial Delhi. The following morning, Steve and I marched off on a mission to apply for our Chinese Visas. Our plan is to enter China from Northern Myanmar then drive west for an epic road trip across the Tibetan plateau before exiting to Kyrgyzstan. A great plan, now comes the complete headache of all the paperwork. We had thought that because we have to engage a guide to accompany us across the country and to get us all the necessary permits that the visa would be relatively easy to get. However the visa agency weren't at all happy that we didn't have prebooked hotels, even though we had a letter of invitation, so submitted our passports to the Chinese Embassy with the warning that we may get rejected. We will find out on Thursday. Picking up the girls and Mum we jumped on the metro (another new pleasant change to Delhi) out to the satellite city of Gurgeon, where more good things awaited us.

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

However the photos below are only of the sublime. India is an assault on your senses in every way. Vibrant colours, the smell of spices and amazing things to see. The country is alive and all life occurs on the street in front of you. It's also chaotic, crazy and stressful. We have heard other travellers describe India as a "marmite" country, you either love it or hate it. I don't think this is quite accurate, I think you can both love it and hate it and you can move between these emotions many times in the space of a day. One thing there is no avoiding it. In India you learn to expect the unexpected. Hearing a trumpeting sound we looked out of our window to see, as you would expect, an elephant wandering down the city street. In a traffic jam the camels jostle with the trucks for space, just as you would expect. Clearly there is nothing unusual with men walking naked down the road fanning themselves with a peacock fan, just another pilgrim. Traffic driving the wrong way down the dual carriage way flashing their lights, oh yes that means get out of the way I am coming through. And as for the cows they are everywhere in the streets, we are so used to them now that we also feed them our banana skins and vegetable peels. I could add many more examples but you would start to think I was making it up. It's all just another day in India. But we are getting used to it and whilst we get stressed at times are appreciating the lovely things to see and do. We have met many people who have been delightful, helpful and interesting to talk to, yes there are those that are just trying to sell us things or rip us off but I think I have the measure to an extent of them. I know the going price for a kilo of bananas and have learnt to just walk away when quoted a crazy foreigner price. We really enjoyed the solitude of the desert and whilst Pushkar was only a small town we were back in the hustle and bustle of India. This ramped up another notch as we approached Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan , with a population of over 3 million. The traffic got heavier and heavier and at each junction on the highway where there were traffic lights there were 6 lanes of traffic squeezed into 3 lanes. Space is just such a crime it has to be filled! The inevitable happened a car overtaking us swerved in too early and hit the front corner of the truck. Fortunately we only had minor damage, our headlight protective grille had been knocked off. His damage was a bit more significant, a badly dented rear wing, well you shouldn't pick a fight with a 10 tonne truck. Amazingly he was proclaiming his innocence. It's at times like this that you just lose it. After Gilly gave him a good talking too, I leapt out told him to move his ******* car out of my way or I would drive over it. He leapt back into his car and sped off. As sure an admission of guilt as any, as normally it's always the foreigners fault and they have to pay. After the ridiculous crash we spent the next day exploring some of the sublime sights of Jaipur, the Pink City. Jaipur was founded in the 17th century when Jai Singh II moved the capital of his state from Amber (more about that later) to Jaipur. As a rich state a grand city was built and we spent the day visiting it's beautiful sights as well as wandering through the crowded maze of streets and alleyways. The Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) is Jaipur's most distinctive landmark and it looked as though it had been cleaned up a lot since Gilly and I were last there in 1999. From there we headed to the Jantar Mantar which is an ancient observatory used to view the planets and the stars. We were impressed that the massive sundial correctly showed the time to the minute. From there we headed to the Royal Palace a complex of gardens and courtyards and reception rooms. The current "Maharaja" still lives in a part of the impressive grand palace. We finished a lovely day enjoying the sublime sights with a superb Indian meal. As we returned to our hotel it was time to move back to the ridiculous. As we entered our hotel smoke was billowing in the corridors. On investigation we found that some of the staff had decided to light a fire indoors (it's a little cool in the evening) to cook on. As the fire was only just starting smoke was billowing around, even in our third floor corridor the smoke was acrid. Gilly went down to tell them to stop and to move the fire out of the building. Despite been very apologetic it transpired they only moved the fire further from where we could see but still inside, as smoke was still pouring out. We decided enough was enough, packed our stuff, demanded a refund for the night and moved back into the truck parked by the side of the busy road. It might have been noisy but it felt a lot safer and anyway we are much happier sleeping in the truck. The following morning we were up early and drove the short distance to Amber, time to enjoy another sublime palace. Amber is a stunning fort/palace which was the former State capital before it moved to Jaipur. The setting is magnificent and the palace is dramatic against the hillside. Inside it is no less impressive with some amazing gateways and buildings built from marble. Immediately above it set on the ridge of the hill was the large Jaigarh fort. As we need to exercise before heading to Nepal to hike we walked up the steep slope before wandering around the fort and enjoying the view. It was an easy drive along good roads to Fatephur Sikri, the short lived capital of the Mughal Empire during the reign of Emperor Akbar. The palace and pavilions are a World Heritage Site and we spent a wonderful afternoon wandering around and admiring the magnificent monument and the intricate carvings on the buildings. Unfortunately the capital was short lived due to water shortages and it was only used for about 15 years but it was magnificently preserved. Right next door is the massive Jama Masijd, an immense mosque. We arrived on the massive courtyard just as the late afternoon call to prayer was resonating from the minarets. It was a very relaxed atmosphere in the square with a mixture of worshippers and sightseers and locals just hanging out. We exited the square through the spectacular 54 metre high Victory Gate. From Fatephur Sikri it's only a short drive to Agra, home to one of the most sublime monuments of all. First we had to battle through the traffic and again expect the unexpected. The main road marked on the map turns out to run right through the market. With people shaking their heads as we eased through we slowly found our way to a hotel that allowed overlanders to camp. Little did we know that we should have come by some of the roads that on the map looked like minor roads but led around the more congested parts. It was good to get there though and have a base for a few days to enjoy the city. Of course there is ONE main reason to come to Agra so that evening we headed to a rooftop restaurant where with beer in hand, some curry and nan bread we could gaze over the sublime Taj Mahal. Whilst we wanted to see it much closer that would have to wait, it's closed on a Friday. So with a day to kill we instead headed to the mighty Mughal fort at Agra. From here we got to enjoy some more great views of the Taj as well as the magnificent walled city of Agra Fort, another World Heritage site. Dinner that evening was much more simple. A humble kebab stall but that description does not do justice to the most succulent chicken tandoori and chicken tikka that we feasted on together with butter roti fresh from the tandoor oven. Mmm. The next morning we were up before dawn in the forlorn hope of beating the crowds to see what many people consider as the most beautiful building in the world. When we arrived there were already crowds queuing up but the girls (ladies queue separately) from men were quickly through. There peering out of the mist was the Taj Mahal. Lots of far better writers have described it than me ("a teardrop on the cheek of eternity" or Kipling wrote "the embodiment of all things pure") but it is something special and lives up to the hype. We spent hours looking at it from different angles and admiring the intricate marble work, the carvings and the flowers inlaid with precious stones. Inside the mausoleum are the tombs of Mumatz Mahal who it was built for and her husband Emperor Shah Jahan who ordered its construction. The ultimate memorial to love. Although I happened to mention to Gilly that she wouldn't be getting something so grand. I will leave the description to the photos. Definitely the most sublime of sights. From Agra we headed to about 50kms south of Delhi. The truck has an appointment with the MAN garage there. Nothing urgent but a number of bits of work that could do with doing. Let's hope the work is also sublime and does not lend itself to the ridiculous.