Archive for the ‘glamorous voyages’ Category

One final post to draw my tales of glamorous voyaging to a close, mostly so I can relive less sweaty times in an increasingly dusty, mosquito-strewn Delhi. (At 35℃, we’re still in the optimistic mostly-pre-air-conditioning stage: we all know there’s at least 10℃ more to climb. It’s a lot like that crazy granny wisdom of not putting on your coat indoors in the winter even if the kids have gone blue and there are icicles in the eggnog, ‘to save the benefit for later’. I’m slightly worried that this is the last fortnight any potential interviewees will actually be in Delhi, busily embezzling enough to jet off somewhere less bloodcurdling for May/June.)

Our final Sikkimese evening, I was filled with quiet optimism that nighttime showers would strip the mountain of its watery burqini, perfect for some narratively fulfilling photos before our jeep back down to the plains and the plane. Alas, things took an exciting turn.

Good advice for over-hasty jeep drivers

Other than garrulous intellectuals, sweets, and fish, one of the things West Bengal is famous for is a charming propensity to go on strike at the drop of an outraged hat. In this (sub)national sport, the British can barely manage to disrupt a 17-minute boat race—our last proper general strike was in 1926—but the Bengalis make the French look like chinless Stakhanovite scabs. Bengal enjoys around 50 total shutdowns or bandhs occur each year, lasting between two hours and two days. With a sigh, people down tools/crayons/autos, halfheartedly set fire to a few buses and then, observation suggests, go off and play cricket. Imagine a decade-long Winter of Discontent but in, er, glorious summer.

19:00HRS   Relaxing over Kingfishers and noodle soup, we overhear discussion of a bandh for the next day. Usually around Darjeeling these are called to demand an independent Gorkhaland for the ethnic Nepalis, but surreally this one was an anti-Gorkhaland, anti-anti-Government of Bengal protest, allegedly spearheaded by Siliguri town’s large population of Bangladeshi refugees.

19:01    We continue slurping.

19:05   ‘What’s a bandh?’ Hannah asks innocently.*

Not to scale

19:06    Cue mad late-night negotiation for jeep tickets, a slightly unsober dash to pack, and a dramatic standoff with the ovine staff of our overpriced hotel, the Elgin, culminating in Hannah’s fist-thumping demand to talk to the Oberoi family and a lot of money back. ‘This is the most fun I’ve had all trip!’ she says brightly.

19:45   It emerges that the other jeep passengers desperate to escape a life of yak servitude require a multi-course meal to settle their nerves.

21:30   Finally, a thrilling car chase back down the hills. If you think single-lane, zigzagging, quasi-dirt-track, clifftop journeys are a hoot normally, you should try it in the dark, through dense fog and rain, with a pounding Bollywood soundtrack and a heavily perspiring driver yelling into the phone as he swerves 180° one-handed over a 1000-foot drop. I retreat into terrified narcolepsy.

03:30   We arrive in Siliguri, an utterly hideous nowheresville, to find that our hotel’s 24-hour reception was a sadistic illusion. The only sign of life is a pack of gigantic black hogs so large I at first thought they were hippopotami, swaggering along the main road and eyeing us ravenously. Jeep Bloke suggests we walk off to find a hotel. ‘There is nothing in this town,’ I tell him slightly hysterically, ‘except gigantic black hogs.’ He backs away nervously.

04:00   We jeep a bit further to the equally hideous train station a few miles away. The Jeep Blokes are lovely and help us to find a hotel, refusing a tip—‘Just be friends to Sikkim’—which leaves us unnerved but grateful. The room has a toilet but no sink, evidence of someone’s hastily abandoned evening meal, and appears to turn into a tambourine-rattling Hindu temple at the crack of dawn, but we sleep. 24 hours of boredom follow, but at last we escape back into Delhi’s metallic jaws.

—–

* Well might she ask. As I noted when rambling about Hinglish, India has its own indecipherable protest vocabulary. I am 83% sure a bandh is a shutdown typically called by political parties, whilst a hartal is basically the same but with more Bambi-eyed Gandhian overtones. In a gherao protesters encircle an illustrious personage until their demands are met, whilst a bhukh hartal or a dharna means publicly fasting until the offender gives in (though actual fasting to the death is very rare). The Delhi bourgeoisie is merrily inconsistent in seeing such techniques as anti-democratic blackmail when used by people they don’t like (autorickshaw drivers, trade unionists, other uppity plebs), and a noble, principled stand when used by state-bashers they do (high-handed anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare).

Another grim but high-profile form of protest is suicide, most directly in the form of self-immolation, though also notoriously the last resort of debt-ridden Indian farmers. On 26 March alone, a Tibetan set himself on fire near India’s parliament in advance of Hu Jintao’s visit, and an auto driver did the same down in Andhra Pradesh to demand a new state, Telangana. According to my jolly December bedtime reading, self-immolation is most common in democracies. Unlike strikes and sit-ins—or their sinister distant cousin, suicide bombing—it relies upon an audience and sympathy for effect rather than simply causing economic harm. It is also easily imitable even for individuals with very few resources, which is why it appears in waves. On that merry note… belated Happy Bengali New Year!

I ought to explain a little more about the place we almost got stuck, Khangchendzonga sniggering sinisterly in the deeps. Nestled high in the Himalayas, Sikkim is a teenytiny former kingdom of 600,000 people. (To put this into perspective: neighbouring West Bengal has a population of 91 million, and India’s largest state, the titanic impoverished Uttar Pradesh, 200 million—which would make it the world’s fifth-most populous country in its own right, ahead of Brazil, Pakistan, and Russia.) It’s famous for:

as well as its extraordinary proliferation of leeches, which we were saddened to miss out on.

The majority of Sikkim’s sparse population is ethnically Nepali with a substantial Buddhist minority, its people are shy but friendly, roads empty, air fresh—in short, it feels very different from the sweaty honking ‘mainland’. In fact, it only became part of India by referendum in 1975, India only too happy to take advantage of the monarchy’s unpopularity after 1962’s disastrous high-altitude border war with China. Sikkim’s people arguably have more in common with their hilly neighbours than their nominal countrymen from the hot, dry Indian plains. It is part of the great hilly massif of Southeast Asia, a region the Dutch historian Willem van Schendel labelled ‘Zomia’. This is a border zone full of minority populations with cultural and linguistic affinities often quite different to—and in tension with—the nation-states they ‘belong’ to. On the map, Sikkim is that tiny squashed little nub of India bordering Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north, and Bhutan to the east, on the southern borders of the Zomia region—although many Nepalis claim Sikkim is simply an extension of Greater Nepal instead.

Probably because of this borderland role, the state is quietly present; these are not the rebellious, semi-lawless highlands of Burma or India’s Northeast. We passed army bases and giant hydroelectric projects tearing into valley sides. Fading government signs proclaimed that LEPROSY IS CURABLE and encouraged condom use with a giant smiling prophylactic. Even a system of litter bins was on show, although they were all suspiciously shiny and empty.

Like the state, religion too is clearly visible. The land is blanketed with prayer flags, a Tibetan Buddhist—or even pre-Buddhist—tradition. Multicoloured lines grace hilltops and lakesides, houses and temples, roads and paths and viewpoints, looking for all the world like someone’s crayoned in the electricity wires with primary colours. Tibetan Buddhism itself is a curious beast, at least to Western eyes. The Buddhism of European imagination means silence, meditation, renunciation. The monasteries are indeed quiet places housing bald, claret-clad monks, the loudest sound the occasional bell and the rattle of a giant prayer-wheel. But the monks also wear hoodies, and inside the monasteries are garish paintings and statues of mystics, gurus, and avatars of the founder-sage Padmasambhava—some with madly staring eyes and swords, others with chains of skulls and riding atop tigers like the Hindu goddess Kali, and even a set covered with prudish curtains under which a bright blue avatar was vigorously pleasuring a buxom wench. Put that in your yoga mat and smoke it: less the Buddhism of poncy New Yorkers than a sexy alternative to Hinduism from the days of warrior-monk armies.

Between rains, we took time to relax with some local specialities. The food was great and very Tibetan: three types of lightly spiced noodle soup (thukpa, gathuk, and thenduk) which seemed oddly similar, handbag-sized momo dumplings, and for breakfast something that looked suspiciously like a Cornish pasty. While Hannah relaxed with a Sikkimese wine (which appeared to be raw ethanol stirred into water in an old lager bottle), I sampled the Sikkimese millet beer, tongba. After an hour’s wait—during which time a couple of new friends explained in great detail exactly how ill a mountain guide had been on it yesterday, and mused reassuringly about alcohol blindness—it arrived. Served in a mini-barrel with a thick wooden straw to filter out the millet and disturbingly caviar-like little orange seeds, the liquid was warm, either deliberately or through wild fermentation, and tasted slightly sweet, like scrumpy cider. The Halifax penalty for turning down a drink is harakiri, so like a good Yorkshire lass I prayed to the great White Rose in the sky, and slurped it to the very bottom.

By this time sporting a Shetland pony mane, and alarmed by the popularity of the Justin Bieber mop (and muzak) in Sikkim, Hannah was also desperate enough to resort to my tonsorial skills. Wielding some vicious hotel shears, I set to work. The room looked like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, spattered with red hair and probably a bit of my own finger-flesh, but Hannah waxed wildly lyrical—‘It’s not the worst haircut I’ve ever had…’ 

A Meaningful Conclusion: Due to its extraordinary natural beauty and biodiversity, contrasts with the mainland, and frankly the fact it’s a bargain version of Bhutan, Sikkim is becoming a tourist hub—albeit perhaps more for Indians rather than foreigners. I tell you this because you should GO THERE RIGHT NOW. Don’t get me wrong: we Western tourists are also capitalist pig-dogs, spreading consumerist avarice, guzzling water, and eroding the natural and social environment wherever we go; and India’s green movement is one of the world’s strongest (the original ’70s ‘tree huggers’ were in the Indian Himalayas, drawing on an allegedly three-hundred-year-old protest tradition).

But where masses of Indian tourists go, rubbish follows in swathes, casually tossed out of car and train windows into rivers and forests, demarcating footpaths with juice cartons and packets of paan like greedy Hansels and Gretels. The Costa del Solification of Sikkim is already visible too in the infestation of half-built concrete guesthouses along the roads, the grooming of ‘rock gardens’ around rapids and waterfalls, the state’s turn to casinos for its revenues. So go there, but be good. Or perhaps: don’t go there, and be better.

Mourning lights for Hannah, who has finally passed on to a better place

Call me Lishmael, dear Readers. So onto that classic blogilistic form, the Quest. For days, through ice and mud, across valley and dale, we have pursued a gigantic but elusive beast around the border with Nepal: the mighty KHANGCHENDZONGA.

Sailing about a little to see the watery part of the world

Despite sounding like a B movie monster, Khangchendzonga is a serious hill. The world’s third-tallest mountain—and until 1852 thought to be the highest—it towers 8,598 metres (28,169 feet) above the Nepal-Sikkim border, five glowering peaks topped with ice,

not ordinary ice, sharp-edged and unbroken, but ice hacked and tortured by the winds… thin flakes of ice through which the sun gleams with a cold fire; pinnacles of fairy-like delicacy, elegant busts, daring minarets, extravagant mushrooms, a strange goblinesque procession, drunken and tottering, frozen in a downward march. —F.S. Smythe, The Kangchenjunga Adventure (1933)

A perilous pursuit

Like military operations or supermodels, Khangchendzonga seems to inspire in chroniclers a weird mix of awe and sadomasochism. Smythe, the survivor of a 1930 expedition, described the baking sun scorching the moraines and crevasses: ‘we were like flies in the middle of a burning glass’, gasping for air as glaciers absorbed the already thin air. An incongruously ghoulish coffee-table book details with relish the first climbers’ use of inappropriate face cream for the severe UV rays, which ‘literally mummified their flesh and turned it black’, thereby inadvertently echoing Nivea’s latest Indian campaign. If it is to be believed, the mountain’s slopes are littered with frostbitten digits and the corpses of brave renegades who blundered into the snow raving about crumpets.

For the dweebier tourist, though, the mountain is more like its most famous mythical inhabitant, the yeti: sure, it’s probably murderous up close, but mostly you curse its inconsiderate unwillingness to show up for a photo. Mark Twain wrote gloomily:

I was told by a resident that the summit of Kinchinjunga [sic] is often hidden in the clouds, and that sometimes a tourist has waited twenty-two days and then been obliged to go away without a sight of it. And yet went not disappointed; for when he got his hotel bill he recognised that he was now seeing the highest thing in the Himalayas.

Or, as a Belgian we ran into put it, ‘The mountain only appears to those who really really believe in it.’ As overcoiffed retirees boasted that just yesterday they had taken Rahlly the most extraordinahry shots of the peaks aflame at sahnset honestly it made the Taj Mahal look like Boy George’s makeup box, we peered in vain into the Darjeeling cloud. Something big seemed to lurk there in the deeps, whale-like, spewing plumes of freezing rain and hail onto the grubby town every now and then—but it remained stubbornly underwater, if it was there at all.

The little end-of-the-world town of Pelling, 7,000 feet up in West Sikkim

We sailed on through the clouds in search of the great white leviathan, plunging into the little Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. Here, Khangchendzonga is traditionally worshipped; when the peak was finally conquered by a couple of plucky Brits in 1955, they stopped a few feet short of the sacred summit in respect. It’s a shy, fickle deity, appropriately Hinduesque with its five heads. Each of these is taken to represent one of the repositories of holy power: gold and silver, gems, grain, holy books, and—I was disproportionately excited to discover, as I’m reading a wonderful book on it—salt.

Our first Sikkimese dawn, we finally caught a glimpse. Oh, it was mahvellous, darlings.

Was this a happy ending to our Quest? Well, I suppose we’re more like Bilbo Baggins than Viggo Mortensen: victory, followed by a long and far less fruitful journey back again. For the next couple of days, we waited. I courted sleep deprivation with increasingly overzealous alarm clocks and peered forlornly above K’s bulky black loins. Nothing, not even a flash of cream petticoat. Khangchendzonga still slumbered in the murky waters, dreaming of giant squid.

But time was running out. Long before Marky Mark’s twenty-two days had elapsed, our Sikkimese sojourn was cut cruelly short…

TO BE CONTINUED…

Oh me oh my, dear Readers, has life been eventful since my contraptions last stumbled upon the worldwideweb! So eventful, in fact, that I can’t possibly fit it into one snack-sized entry, but will lovingly drip-feed it into your veins over the next few days. Suffice to say, last night witnessed an unplanned and rather hair-raising jeep voyage in pitch darkness and we were almost forced to sleep with giant black hogs, but all is probably maybe well now.

South Park Street Cemetery

When we left you, we were enjoying Calcutta’s sticky charm—belated thanks for the hospitality, chai, and song of the lovely Sandra and Sahar. In a moment of classic Chatterjee military precision, about three minutes after posting the last entry we realised that we (here Hannah points out it should probably be ‘I’) had got wrong (a) the duration, (b) the time, and (c) the date of our train to Darjeeling.

Our suddenly final day in Calcutta was therefore a teensy bit more action-packed than planned, although we still managed to take in the Victoria Memorial, the eerily warehouse-like St Paul’s Cathedral, and the fantastic South Park St Cemetery—like the ruins of an ancient civilisation (which I suppose it is), full of hubristic obelisks and mausoleums for a huge number of troublingly young wives, girls killed by lightning (an omen, we came to realise), and one Elizabeth Jane Barwell (1779):

the famous beauty of eighteenth-century Calcutta, who, as Miss Sanderson, was universally popular if we may believe contemporary reports. At one ball she is said to have confidentially advised each of her suitors beforehand of the costume that she would wear. Each attired themselves to match her dress, and some ten or twelve young men turned up in an identical shade of pea-green.

City perused, we hopped aboard the Darjeeling Mail. Like all Indian trains, its creaking sky-blue carriages—some Raj-era—stretch for several hundred metres, each hand-stencilled with a category and class as precise and rigid as the caste system. Unlike our earlier Delhi-Calcutta trip aboard the 25-hour Poorva Express (the title ‘express’, like ‘5-star’, is an Indian euphemism which means the exact opposite), the trip alas wasn’t long enough to warrant dining: Indian trains have everything from the hourly Chaicoffee…chaicoffee drone and puffed-rice-and-crosswordwallahs, to hot meals (‘Wedge or non-wedge, madam?’) which arrive a random number of hours after the order—often while everyone is in bed, as in the case of the dribbly curry from a beaming Bangladeshi that soaked luridly orange into my pillow on the Express. Instead we tucked into our plasticky sky-blue bunks and regulation blankets, alongside our fellow middle-class ‘AC’ passengers.

The not-quite-toy train

Around 8am, the train tugged into the end of the plains, outside an unlovable little grubhole called Siliguri (she of the giant black hogs, in fact). Battling unusually tenacious urchins, we set off in a shared jeep, judiciously priced so that foreigners paid exactly twice as much as Indians for exactly half the space. We seized the front seats, exchanging casual gearstick frottage for a panoramic view of the hill climb:

The road is infinitely and charmingly crooked. It goes winding in and out under lofty cliffs that are smothered in vines and foliage, and around the edges of bottomless chasms; and all the way one glides by files of picturesque natives, some carrying burdens up, others going down from their work in the tea-gardens… —Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

Kurseong

Halfway up, in the tiny town of Kurseong which staggers across the slopes, we deboarded again, optimistically clutching tickets for the famous toy train. A mere 2.5 hours late, and chugging diesel not steam, it set off into the fog.

Darjeeling calls itself the queen of hill stations, but it has suffered Edith Piaf-like from its fame. The town itself is now less colonial paradise than a jauntily hunched, haggard collection of concrete pillboxes and shawl shacks clinging to the hillside. The views and countryside apparently more than make up for it, but I can’t confirm this as the Bengal skies took the opportunity for some imperial nostalgia, and pissed it down royally for two days.

Sheltering from the showers, we attempted to live colonially. Attempt 1 was a slight failure. Undeterred by reviews that compared it to a haunted house, we stayed a night in an old mansion an estate agent might describe as ‘having potential’. A first glance at our room revealed a spider the size of a small yak sitting in the corner. These gigantic beasts were my old hill station nemeses in Mussoorie, and are (a) unappealingly poisonous and (b) partial to climbing into the covers for warmth/sadistic thrills. My shriek roused the staff, who managed to lose the spider but conducted a very bad twitchy-eyed pretence of manfully slaying it. A few minutes later and the yak was back, grooming itself on the curtains. Highly traumatic.

Teatown, insolently pretending to be sunny

Attempt 2 was also a bit of a damp squib. Afternoon tea at the ‘Windamere’ (apparently a century-old misspelling, but accurately ominous nonetheless) brought back memories of GCSE Food Tech, seemingly in an old lady’s boudoir. But a cocktail tour of the two swankiest hotels was better, and we then found ourselves in a themed 60s bar at the rocknroll hour of 9pm, when everything else is shut and Darjeelingwallahs have settled down to some hilly knitting.

Sikkimese permit safely collected, we decided to bust out. God was displeased. Appropriately for Good Friday, biblically torrential rain pelted the town—impressively effective at sorting out which of our North Face gear was fake. Streams thrust through piles of spherical hailstones like icy lava, carrying cartons and dirt downstream. A small byline in a local paper the next day announced that five people were struck by lightning. ‘2012, the year the world ends!’ a couple of optimists commented.

Half an hour to the last jeep for Pelling, West Sikkim. We waded out into the freezing water, shoes waterlogged and bags soaked, plunged down stone stairs with ice setting, seized a likely-looking lad. Cold, dishevelled, and smelling faintly like soggy dog, we had escaped.

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Pottering India, I keep wondering where all the Brits are. I’m not nostalgically missing the old pith helmets and racist moustaches, obviously, but where are the Gap Yah kids and the package holidayers and Outrageds of Hemel Hempstead? There are lots of French people and Spaniards and Israelis and Germans and Americans—opening cheese shops and bakeries and ensuring Pushkar’s menus are full of falafel—but the Britishers are notable by their absence. Is the white man’s burden of postcolonial guilt too much for our fellow countrymen? Somehow I doubt it; Mau-Mau doesn’t seem to put us off safaris, or the Lost Generation off emigration Down Under.

It’s something else, fear and distaste intermingled. For Americans and others, India is the embodiment of the exotic Orient, a land of spiritualism and diversity and colour. British ideas of the subcontinent are different. India means dirt, poverty, heat, stink, call centre irritation, overpopulation, cripples, slumdogs.

Calcutta High Court

Thanks to Mother Teresa, Calcutta is perhaps the epitome of this myth. The city is castigated by many otherwise positive visitors: ‘simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate’, the usually breathy Lonely Planet puts it. On his great Asian railway voyage—my train reading for this trip—Paul Theroux’s stamina is finally worn thin in the city, where he seems only to stumble upon mutants and death, and he abandons it by air. ‘On the first day the city seemed like a corpse on which the Indians were feeding like flies…’ For its inhabitants themselves, and especially those pesky Chatterjees, Theroux has worse:

Bengalis were the most alert people I had met in India. But they were also irritable, talkative, dogmatic, arrogant, and humourless, holding forth with malicious skill on virtually every subject except the future of Calcutta. Any mention of that brought them up short. But Mr Chatterjee [a distant relative, I like to believe, along with the great poet-writer Bankim Chandra, the grouchy postcolonialist Partha, and the merry purveyors of Chatterjee Asbestos Ltd we spotted from the taxi] had views. He had been reading an article about Calcutta’s prospects. Calcutta had been very unlucky: Chicago had had a great fire, San Francisco an earthquake, and London a plague as well as a fire. But nothing had happened to Calcutta to give planners a chance to redesign it…

But the myth is wrong now, if it was ever true. Cal (as its young anglophone residents call it) is the great underrated old gent of India’s metropolises. It has more heart than ruthless flashy Delhi, more soul than glossy vapid Bangalore, more serenity than the frenetic materialism of Bombay. The whole city feels like a subcontinental Sleeping Beauty kingdom, drowsing in the sticky air. Lush green plants unfurl and erupt everywhere, through cracks in the pavement and the roofs and windows of crumbling colonial buildings, and the sky is thick with the hypnotic whirr of cicadas. So this is ‘tropical Gothic’, I remember thinking when I first saw this seedy grandeur.

Calcutta’s new ‘London lighting’

This fantastical slumbering cityscape teems with life just below the surface. (And mostly the good, unSatanic sort of life. Yes, there are pariah dogs the size of rats and pariah rats the size of dogs, and cockroaches the size of post-apocalyptic dinner plates which have evolved the power of flight and haunt my nightmares. But they’re comparatively rare and stay at the corners of your eyes.) Every corner has a sweet shop (Bengalis have a toddler’s achingly sweet tooth), a circle of men playing cards, an entrepreneurial old woman selling pots of daal, a kathi roll stand, a pile of dusty books, a political slogan. Just to make it all zappier, the pugilistic chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, has decreed that bits of public space should be erratically painted bright blue, and is installing strange three-headed streetlamps ‘like London’.

Statue of All Souls alum Lord Curzon before the Victoria Memorial. As Viceroy he presided over the bitterly unpopular partition of Bengal in 1905, revoked six years later.

In a battered bright yellow taxi, we wound through narrow, sweetshop-lined streets out of the centre, the city giving way gradually to bursts of green-choked river and rubbery trees. Out in the wonderfully named Diamond Park colony of Thakurpukur, a pair of Chatterjee elders greeted us very warmly. They fed us a delicious homemade lunch of fried river fish, prawns in a peanutty sauce, spicy fish nuggets, aromatic daal, mysterious gourds, mango chutney, sweet curd, and mithai, and treated us to an examination of the sprawling Chatterjee family tree—all 32 generations since the ‘Aryan invasion’. ‘Chatterjee is the most common name in the world,’ one of my uncles said with a twinkle in his eye, ‘they have it even in China and Germany, although of course it sounds a little different now.’

They send love to all of you in the great Chatterjee diaspora. We left waddling—and with the promise that my errant brother will come visiting soon.

Let’s rev up our modified DeLorean and hop a little backwards in time, to our Rajasthan japes a couple of weekends ago. I’m hot and sticky from a hard day of 35°C vintage furniture browsing and badminton—oh, South Delhi—so this is going to be a low-maintenance photo-heavy update.

After blasting around Agra Fort, packed with umbrella-wielding Japanese tourists, we hopped on a bus to the Rajasthani capital of Jaipur. All of its 3.1 million inhabitants seemed to be touting on the streets, to the extent that the neurotic hotel owner even gave us a password for the taxi driver to mutter. With the clutter of people and anonymous lights in the dark, we awkwardly forgot to go and see any of its sights.

So, on to Pushkar, a wee temple-filled town whose sacred waters are mentioned by the Mahabharata. We passed through its larger sister Ajmer, where dung patties dried before glimmering malls, and clambered onto a sweating local bus on which everyone munched delicious condensed-milk icecreams for grubby ten-rupee notes. The journey into Pushkar wound up into the Kefalonia-esque hills at precarious angles, sidewinding back down into a valley.

The town’s now full of crummy hotels and Israeli food and irritating bongo-coveting hippies with bare chests and beatific expressions. Pushkar is increasingly water-strapped and rubbish-filled, and the tourist industry seems to have driven out much of its famed spiritual serenity; the lakeside ghats are interrupted by paunchy men trying to sell blessings and flower petals. Luckily we’d managed to book into its loveliest hotel, ‘Inn Seventh Heaven’ (lolz), in an old haveli. There we loitered happily whilst entire civilisations of pigeons and lizards rose and fell around us.

Hannah unwisely dispatched me alone to go and buy our bus tickets onwards. There I met the charming specimen on the left. Given that he (a) was wearing shades and a very loud Jamaica T-shirt and (b) had just sold me tickets, I foolishly assumed the man worked in the travel office. No, he was apparently the descendant of fifty generations of pious Brahmins, and ‘directed’ me back to the hotel via a blue pool overlooking the lake. Half out of curiosity, half sunstroke, I allowed myself to be pujaed: ‘England Mexico Paris Pakistan Sri Lanka Canada Australia, happiness joy 2012 yes God now look at the sun madam most tourists they give very big donation.’

Mr Oont the champion camel

There was only one thing to do: flee. Being tourists, we did this by camel—perhaps most ineffectual of all escape vehicles. My camel was suspiciously stunted and supremely lazy, with malevolently awful halitosis, but allegedly a racing champion at Pushkar’s famous camel fair. Hannah’s had engorged Brangelina lips, obscenely luxuriant eyelashes, and ethnic beaded bracelets in a convincing parody of a particularly annoying hippie we’d seen earlier; in good Hansel and Gretel style, it shat constantly as we walked.

Hopeful passers-by tried to sell us marijuana as we stumbled through the town, its camel-racing/-dancing/-speed-dating stadium, and into the arid countryside. My guide, astonished to hear we aren’t the most camel-reliant of nations, felt we were fools not to have already established a British camel import business. At the Pushkar fair a decent camel might cost around Rs30,000 (£370), a badass camel like Mr Oont upwards of Rs50K (£610), but a baby camel is a steal at just Rs10K (£120)—’is not trained, but training is taking two months only,’ he explained encouragingly. Who knows: with the business skills I learn from the cult, I might just go ahead and launch One Hump or Two™.

We spent the night with a local family—startlingly not a South Delhi ‘farmhouse’, where Bengali triphop artists go for artistic retreats and Thai nibbles are served, but an actual one with bleating and milking and suicidal goats trying to throttle themselves on their own ropes. The matriarch told a hugely compelling and confusing tale of family woe: accidents and drunk drivers and children so poor they had to go to a government school. We were left not entirely sure if the daughter-in-law had managed to marry two brothers with the same name, adopt six or seven random ragamuffins, and conceive with a dead man—a plot that sounded suspiciously like a Hindi soap I’d seen earlier.

There are some things you just can’t do in the UK. We opted to spend the night under the stars on the farmhouse roof, blankets rustled by strong winds. In the morning, we were woken by a convenient alarm clock tree of nymphomaniacally cooing birds.

After a deliciously ghee-laden breakfast, our guide-boys raced us back into town. Sprinting on a camel is, alas, a little like riding a pogo stick made entirely out of elbows and fleas. This proved to be much more comfortable than our trip back to Delhi, though. At the huge dark Ajmer bus station, we timidly asked where the toilets were—’is outside toilet,’ said the driver, gesturing expansively at the shrubbery four feet away. In the sleeper bus we ricocheted around inside a glass-lined coffin through a country with 196,000 road deaths annually (according to Jeremy Clarkson, the subcontinent’s Tufty the Road Safety Squirrel).

We emerged bruised and blinking into an alley somewhere outside an Old Delhi textiles factory, and immediately began plotting the next voyage.

Apologies for the hiatus, loyal Readers. With only a knapsack of mosquito repellent and E.M. Forster, we have been voyaging around some of North India’s classic tourist destinations: the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Agra and Jaipur (along with Delhi). I lurched out of a sleeper bus coffin just a couple of hours ago, so please imagine these ramblings read with a slight misanthropic slur and odour of feet.

On Friday, we sped past the great Sufi saint’s shrine to hop aboard a morning train from Hazrat Nizamuddin. There’s something refreshing—though frankly a bit alarming—about suddenly slipping on your tourist shades (battered mock-Aviators) and approaching the country anew. I love India’s railways with a sadly unrequited passion, but even I had to admit the men whose knees we were almost knocking were a bit starey for the first-time tourist. And Agra, hot, noisy, dirty, traffic-choked, hustler-filled, and urine-perfumed, wouldn’t be the ideal introduction to the country. The touts are even more resiliently crooked and swarming than elsewhere, like heavily accented mosquitos around a particularly plastic-bingeing cow. But—at the risk of damning with Rough Guide-esque faint praise—it’s hardly the outer circle of Hell. The locals are aware of this reputation, though: our young auto driver announced piously, ‘Madams, I hate horn, have removed even. Is too noisy city. People must chill’, before bellowing out of the window, ‘Maderchod! Move, you bloody shit, MOVE!’

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri

Arriving in the early afternoon, we first headed to the beautiful Mughal ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri. Briefly Akbar’s imperial capital but hastily abandoned once they worked out they’d forgotten the minor problem of access to water, its subdued majesty was only somewhat dulled by the beating heat and the vaguely threatening demands for mosque charity.

En route, we became ensnared in a gigantic procession for the goddess Kaila Devi. Thousands were on the move: middle-aged women with handbags on their heads, mothers hauling patiently unconscious babies, carts with garlanded statues, trundling ghetto blasters accompanied by wildly gyrating teenage boys, placid herds of stationary trucks.

Unfortunately, this caused our taxi driver to become enraged: Horn. Drive onto verge and roar along for five metres on the left. Stall. Horn. HORN. One, then two autos pass, driving on the wrong side of the road. Force self across two lanes of traffic and jubilantly roar along for five metres on the right. Stall. Horn. Finger drumming. HORN. Another auto passes in the ditch on the left. Outrage. Force self across two lanes of traffic again. Stall perpendicular to traffic, blocking all three lanes. HOOOOORN.

By accident or design, I’ve visited India four times—eight months and counting—since 2008 and managed to avoid the Taj Mahal. Wonder of the world, crown of palaces, monument to undying love, greatest flower of Islamic loins, etc: let’s just say I was looking forward to it.

The world's most photographed object: my contribution

Alas, that particular morning I was seized by what the Indians euphemistically call Loose Motions. Of course, this was an essential part of the experience: I have greeted the spatter of authenticity with great joy in all the corners of India I’ve visited, from Amritsar to Nagaland, Mussoorie to Cochin. My sympathy with this national obsession was reinforced the last time I was in India, when (a) I was working on the Great Toilet Paper for Unicef and (b) my landlady, a woman known only as Auntie, would discuss the Motions in great detail each morning with the alarming fluency we Britishers reserve for drizzle. Imagine my delight as the tradition took hold just as we glimpsed the 6.30am queue, dense with braying hordes of sari-clad blonde Oklahomans. ‘Madamji, toilets are inside Taj only’—I threw myself upon the mercy of an entrepreneurial ten-year-old and a bemused seller of ceramic Tajs, thrusting handfuls of rupees (what price dignity?). Once inside, I sprinted. My first glimpse of the Teardrop on the Face of Eternity was at high speed, muddied by the gurgles of equally fortunate Oklahomans.

Particularly photogenic pylon on the river Yamuna, just as Shah Jahan saw it

Thankfully, the Taj really is all that, serene and soaring and surprisingly delicate, especially viewed from the gardens. (I found the interior, with its frozen flower motifs, a little cold and funereal, though perhaps this is a slightly unfair criticism of a tomb.) As one blogger more eloquent than I put it, ‘I felt like Atreyu, in The Neverending Story, the first time he sees the Ivory Tower. I think I actually heard the same music playing on my internal iPod!’

Conclusion: through tourist goggles, India is quite scary and dirty, but some Muslims once built pretty things. Next instalment: a jaunt to Rajasthan.