Part One – Nairobi to Amritsar via Delhi, Jaipur and Agra
Day One, which sort of became Day Two, started with a flight to Delhi via Dubai. Dubai airport is quite odd in that it never sleeps, so at 4 in the morning you can go and buy expensive handbags or, as we did, delight in the Winston smoking lounge, which is a cheap option as you don’t actually need to have a fag to benefit (?) from nicotine replacement therapy. All you have to do is go in and breathe deeply a couple of times.
We negotiated arrivals at Delhi, having duly filled in our customs declaration and did not, thankfully, have a badly drawn map of India on us, as that is not allowed if it incorrectly shows any borders.
We were met by a local travel agent who introduced us to Mr Singh, who was to be our driver for the next few days. Mr Singh whisked us to the hotel, using lots of what he termed “short cut roads” and making good use of his horn. We had time to turn ourselves around and have a couple of cold drinks, which was very pleasant. We sat out in the garden of the ITC hotel where Mr Obama had stayed and saw an owl sitting in a tree. This was, apparently, a very good omen, so we were suitably chuffed. That evening, we were back in Mr Singh’s car and taken to the Kingdom of Dreams. We did not really know what to expect and the trip there was a little uninspiring, as we drove through dusty streets and zig-zagged through the roadworks underneath and next to Delhi’s nascent metro system.
The Kingdom of Dreams seemed to be a huge and gaudy façade stuck on to the front of an old warehouse and when we passed a plastic playground where they were playing “I’m a Barbie Girl” my tired spirits started to sink. But never let first impressions be your only guide. We were herded into a huge theatre with very comfy seats and then the show began. The show was ‘Zangoora, The Gypsy Prince’ and it was just wonderful. In true Bollywood style, there was drumming, dancing, brilliantly coloured costumes, dazzling lights, people flying on trapezes and yodel-like singing. There was also quite a lot of talking, presumably to give some sense of plot, but as it was in Hindi this was a little hard to follow. However, the baddies were very clearly baddies and the goodies were not dressed in black, so that helped. Zangoora is a prince but does not know it as someone (an uncle?) has done away with his parents and the baby is brought up by gypsies. He grows up to be a fine young man who is good at conjuring tricks, dancing and having lots of girlfriends. Anyway, after quite a lot of adventures which involved being washed up on a beach and having all his friends blown away in a very strong wind (I think) he gets the throne back and they all live happily ever after. With lots of dancing. Oh, and there was a flying witch as well. At the interval, we popped outside for some fresh air and talked to a very nice lady from Australia. She was a university lecturer and she was enjoying the show as well, although she was a bit disappointed as she thought it would be in English. Why she thought this remains a mystery, as does the fact that she told us that it had taken her ten minutes to realise that it was not in English. We did not know how to respond to this revelation, so we just stared at her in a blank sort of a way. I am not sure quite how dim you have to be for it to take the best part of a quarter of an hour to realise that people are not speaking a language that you understand, but maybe that is not a prerequisite for teaching in higher education institutes down under.
Exhilarated, we returned to the hotel where we did not really appreciate a delicious meal as it was about 11 o’clock and we were barely able to speak.
Day Two was Easter Day which caused a little problem as our credit cards did not work. The bank in Kenya had decided to do some maintenance work in its systems and these had not been put back up so we were in a bit of a pickle. Fortunately, the hotel manager was understanding and we are clearly reputable types he let us go. We were off to stay at other ITC hotels so the bill would follow us around. The bank did eventually get its act together which was a relief as we had faced the prospect of 18 days in India without any money which would have limited our options somewhat.
So, a little later than planned, we set off with Mr Singh en route to Samode, near Jaipur. As most of our travelling up to now had been in the dark, we had our first proper views of India. We drove through a dusty and smoggy industrial area, past the Hero motorcycle factory and into a suburban sprawl, dotted with huge tower blocks and billboards advertising a luxurious lifestyle. There were plenty of cows in the road, by the side of which impromptu games of cricket were being played. Overladen trucks, tuk-tuks and motorbikes sped by and we had a few near misses, which reminded us of driving in Nairobi. We found out that Mr Singh had a magic car which was able to shrink its width, enabling it to squeeze through the narrowest of gaps.
We also discovered that Mr Singh had another little surprise literally up his sleeve. He had an extra thumb! It’s not the sort of thing that you expect to see, so it didn’t really register at first but there, growing at 90 degrees out of his left thumb was another one. As Mr Singh had the habit of underlining his more astute observations (usually about the importance of generous tipping) by reaching behind him and grabbing my right ankle, it was a little unnerving.
We stopped at a toll station and bought some pappad, which is like deep-fried mist with chilli powder. The scenery became slowly more rural, with small fields of wheat being harvested by hand by ladies in brightly coloured saris. Stooping down, they cut the wheat with sickles, then stacked it up in little stooks. Elsewhere, long rush-like grass had been cut and left in untidy yellow stacks, oddly reminiscent of Donald Trump’s hair.
We crossed the border from Haryana into Rajasthan and the scenery became less relentlessly flat. Hills started to appear as we left the main road, at which point we were very glad not to be driving ourselves, as we took innumerable turnings along potholed roads without a signpost in sight. However, our car was equipped with GPS (global positioning by Singh) so we duly found Samode.
Samode is a very old walled village, with twisty cobbled streets populated by large numbers of rather handsome pigs. At the top of the hill, we drove through some very impressive archways and into Samode Palace, where we were to stay for one night. Built nearly 500 years ago, the palace is now a hotel and a more beautiful place to stay it would be hard to find. We were shown up to our gorgeous suite of rooms and then took a tour of the palace with another Mr Singh. This one, however, did not have any spare digits but he did have a very fine moustache. We walked through mirrored halls and marvelled at the intricate carvings and inlaid stonework. Family portraits hung on the walls, along with ancient tapestries depicting hunting scenes. We peeped through the screens behind which the women would once have been able to spy on the Maharajah as he held court from his silver throne. Mr Singh II proved to be a very exact photographer and knew all the best places for us to pose as he clicked away at our reflections in various mirrors.
In one of the many cool and shady courtyards, a decidedly handsome young man in traditional dress had set up a puppet show and we sat and watched spell-bound as a story unfolded before us, with princes, princesses, witches and a very life-like snake, all accompanied by a series of buzzes and whistles that the puppeteer made by blowing through a sort of bamboo kazoo.
In the evening, we went for a little stroll in the village, with the intention of ending up at the top of the steep hill behind the palace. A local chap guided us and he was very knowledgeable. We watched people making bracelets from lac, which is a secretion harvested from insects. This is heated and moulded, after which beads and little semiprecious stone are inlaid. We walked past the metal working area where, to avoid the heat of the day, the metal workers start hammering at 3 in the morning which must make them very popular people. Our guide, after I had taken part in a little light cricket practice, decided that the best way up to the top of the hill was not via the conventional steps but by an alternative route through the local rubbish tip. This was not exactly what we had envisaged and when the path turned from steepish to clambering over massive boulders, we decided to stop our ascent. We looked out over the town and he showed us the place, just outside the walls, where the Untouchables live.
Now I had thought, wrongly it turned out, that the caste system was pretty much defunct these days. The Untouchables in Samode have a tough life, as they are allowed into the town only to sweep the streets and have to leave before other people have got up to go about their business. They are also the only ones allowed to touch the pigs, from whose bristles they can make shoe brushes. They are now allowed to go to school but there is really no route for them out of an impoverished and bleak existence.
Reluctantly, we left Samode Palace and wished that we had stayed there for longer. Back in the car, we headed for Amber Fort, which is in Amer, near Jaipur. Whether or not it is Amer Fort or Amber Fort seems to be a matter of conjecture, but not to worry. It is certainly impressive and my notes say “too much to take in” which sums it all up quite neatly. Built by Rajput Maharajahs, it is a statement of both opulence and power. The massive walls defy anyone to dare to try and attack, while inside there is still plenty of evidence of the unimaginable wealth of the Maharajah. The red sandstone is inlaid with white marble, which in turn is inlaid with delicate patterns of semiprecious stones.
You can, should you so wish, get up to the fort on the back of an elephant but we decided not to. It just did not seem quite right. The elephants are now better cared for than previously and recent legislation has limited their working hours. Forming a long and brightly coloured line, the elephants collect tourists from the car park and take them in a stately procession into the main courtyard of the fort, from where the elephants trudge back down the hill to repeat the process.
We had a tour guide with us and he showed us around, first into a temple devoted to Kali and then into the palace itself. He was a very knowledgeable guide, but he did tend to repeat himself, which was a little wearing. He was evidently keen that we should know a lot about white marble, as well as a Maharajah known as Bubbles, thanks to his love of champagne, and his dad who died whilst playing polo. It’s quite interesting the first time round, but after the hundredth repetition it gets to strangulation point.
Being cold in winter and hot in summer, the palace had two separate sets of living quarters, with the summer one having a constant flow of rose water that trickled down a series of little steps built into the main bedroom, which I found rather charming. Having 12 wives, one of the Maharajahs used a series of secret passageways to visit them in their various chambers, presumably to avoid any rivalry. The various chambers were decorated with little pictures, at least one of which made it very clear what the wives were supposed to do for their husband, after he had scuttled down his (as M called it) back passage of an evening.
Somehow, we met up with Mr Singh who had parked near the fort, along with several hundred other similarly clad drivers in identical cars. If you do go there and someone says “When you’re finished, meet me by the white Toyota” you are well advised to ask for more precise instructions.
Jaipur is well known for its jewellery and we visited a gem cutting place which was actually a lot more interesting than it sounds. We had a look at some beautiful but pricey jewels and ended up paying a very reasonable sum for a silver ring for M.
Then we went to the carpet factory. Now that might not sound like such an amazing thing to do, but it was fascinating. We were shown how cotton prints were made, by hand, with carved wooden blocks and vegetable dyes, whose colours start out quite dull but are then transformed into brilliant reds, blues, greens and yellows by the fixing process. We watched carpets being hand stitched by extraordinary artisans who were refugees from a conflict in Kashmir. Using wool, silk and yak wool, they spin and dye the threads and then knot them on wooden frames. They work to a pattern and work at an astonishing speed, tying more than one knot per second. The carpets look quite plain but they are then scorched, washed and clipped. The chap doing the clipping has to be incredibly precise as one wrong cut results in a ruined carpet. And as these take anything from 6 months to a year to complete, you would not want to sneeze when using the scissors.
From carpets we went to another palace whose splendour outdid the Amber fort, with a mirrored hall and a stunning gateway decorated with peacocks. There was a so an armoury which had all sorts of variations on a theme of daggers in it, as well as a display of traditional and ancient costumes. Some of these used to belong to a Maharaja who was over 7 feet tall and his pyjama trousers were amazing: at least 6 feet across at the waist. One the ladies of the court used to wear clothes that were so heavy that she could not walk, so she was taken from place to place in a little cart.
One of the Maharajahs, Jai Singh, was fascinated by astronomy and astrology, so he built a huge observatory in which there is a sundial that is accurate to within 20 seconds, as well as other very substantial structures for marking the movements of the stars and planets. That he designed all this in the 1700s at the same time as he was building his city (Jaipur takes its name from him) says a lot for the man, as does his desire to have a pretty city which is painted pink.
By this time, it was all getting a bit blurred so we asked for somewhere to sit outside, in the shade, with a cold drink. These places are, surprisingly, hard to find and the idea of sitting outside seems not to be such a big deal in India. However, we found ourselves sitting with a cold drink in the courtyard of a turban museum. I wish that I could report back on the turban museum but it was closed. I peeked through the window and it was definitely a museum and it was definitely full of turbans but more than that I cannot add.
Trying to check in to the hotel proved challenging, especially when I had a very senior moment and lost my phone. I had put it in the little tray next to the metal detector at the entrance, so no amount of searching back packs and trouser pockets did any good at all. I think that the staff at the hotel were very pleased to see that we were only booked in for one night. They were actually very kind and even brought us some roses, which was sweet of them. The fact that they did so by knocking on our door after 10 o’clock at night was a little unusual but I was almost awake and I am sure that the sight of me, half asleep, wearing only pyjama bottoms, is something that will stay with those two lovely young ladies for many years to come.
Day Four. Allow me to share a thought. We had passed a lot of brick kilns as we journeyed through the flat Rajasthan countryside. And they were made of brick. Which makes one think – well, it makes me think anyway, – which comes first? How do you make a kiln from bricks if you need to have bricks to make the kiln?
We were supposed to visit another palace on the way to Agra but we were feeling a bit palaced out by now and with the Taj Mahal to come we opted instead for a bit of countryside and stopped off for a couple of hours at Kaoladeo bird reserve, which is well worth a visit. A lovely chap cycled next to us as we pottered down a road on a bicycle rickshaw and saw hundreds of birds, among which were the bar-headed goose whose claim to fame is that it the world’s highest-flying migratory bird. Somewhat unwisely, it migrates over the Himalayas and has been recorded flying at over 24,000 feet. We still had last night’s roses with us, so we gave them to our guide to give to his wife and I hope that she liked them.
Back on the road again, we started to near Agra and the traffic started to build up. Mr Singh was feeling the strain and he nodded off a couple of times which was a worry but we kept him awake and eventually crossed into Uttar Pradesh and thence to Agra. After a bit of faffing about, we found our guide whose name was Ravi and who managed to mention Shah Jahan’s love of white marble about once every twenty seconds. I may have mentioned this to him as we walked through Agra Fort.
My knowledge of the Mughal Empire is a bit limited but Agra features heavily as this was the place from which various people governed a very significant portion of the world’s population at one time or another. To cut a very long story short and leaving out the beginning bit, Humayun fell down some stairs and died, after which Akbar took over and did a lot of empire building. Jahangir smoked too much opium and had a lot of courtesans (which probably makes him a concubine harvester) then Shah Jahan came to power and built some amazing palaces, notably the Taj Mahal although this was a tomb and not a palace. His sons all fell out with each other and Aurangzeb won, killing his brothers and shutting his dad up in a prison, which was cruel but stopped him spending the rest of the nation’s wealth on huge tombs.
Agra Fort was stunning but also stunningly hot, so we tried to find some shade while hearing more about white marble palaces. We also learned about a chap called John Russell Colvin whose tomb is placed rather unsympathetically in the middle of Agra Fort, in front of the vast hall of public audience, once the home of the Peacock Throne. Anyway, although he died of cholera, Mr Colvin was also mentally ill, so the East India Company brought in a lot of psychiatrists, as a result of which Agra has a brilliant mental hospital, which is excellent.
You may have gathered that by this time we were both a little worn out so we were probably not in the right frame of mind to visit the Taj Mahal. That it can still amaze, even after a pretty punishing schedule, says a lot for what is the most extraordinary building. No picture can do it justice (even a photo with a sad princess in it) and it is truly exceptional. What is odd is that it is so familiar and yet so wholly unexpected. Everyone knows what the Taj Mahal looks like (a great big white onion) and that it is very big, but the sheer scale of the place and its majesty is what no photograph can capture. In an effort to minimise the effects of pollution, motorised transport near the Taj is limited, so we were supposed to travel to it by electric cart but these were in short supply so M, in a fit of inspiration, suggested that we take a pony and trap. Thus we proceeded, our little decorated trap being pulled by a very pretty grey horse. Many Indian horses have ears that are pricked and that curve inwards, so that the tips meet in the middle, which is very fetching. (They are called Kathiawari horses, apparently). The owner of the pony was a nice fellow who was very pleased by M’s obvious pleasure but not half as pleased as he was when I said he looked like Sachin Tendulkar (which he did, a bit).
So we clip-clopped down a rather dirty street past hawkers selling all sorts of stuff and eventually made our way into an archway for our first proper view of the Taj. It seems to be quite close until you take another look and realise that the crowds of people near it are so far away that they look minute. We walked past the pools of water made famous in so many photographs and the dome just kept on getting bigger. We put on special shoe covers and climbed the steps that lead up to the terrace beside the Taj and at last the full scale hit us. It is immense and every inch is decorated in the most intricate of patterns. We joined a long but fast-moving queue to enter the Taj and when we did, despite the signs asking people to be respectful, it was packed with noisy crowds, many of whom were shouting and screaming, presumably so that they could make the place echo but maybe it was simply because they were badly behaved, selfish little gits. This detracted from what should have been a very spiritual moment.
Exhausted, we made our way back to Mr Singh and then to our hotel, which was another in the ITC chain but populated by rather miserable people who were decidedly unhelpful. This was a shame, as up to then the ITC staff had been very helpful. There was nowhere to sit outside and have a drink – actually there was nowhere to sit outside at all but it did have a view of the Taj Mahal from a viewing area at the top of a steep set of stairs and people had obviously had a fag up there so we did as well and watched the sun set through the smoggy haze. The hotel roof was the roost for tens of thousands of bank mynas, the Indian equivalent of starlings, which made for an impressive if noisy sight.
We decided to eat out that evening and went to a place called a Pinch of Spice which, if you are ever in Agra, is well worth a visit especially if you are a starving 19 year old rugby player who has not eaten for many days. We had enjoyed what we thought was a delicious meal when the waiter came and asked us if we had enjoyed our starters.
In the morning, I watched as a family of Americans tucked into vast piles of food, washed down with Coca Cola. They were all reasonably trim-looking but were clearly on their way to Obecity, Ohio or some such place. And thus began Day Five.
Mr Singh took us on the Yamuna expressway, a very new road that links Agra and Delhi, following the course of the Yamuna River. At the toll stations, there are separate barriers for two wheelers and I suggested that Mr Singh remove two of our wheels to save a bit of cash, but I don’t think he understood. Billboards encourage you not to drink and drive, showing this by having a drawing of a cocktail glass with a line through it which gives the impression that all drinks are OK other than vodka martinis. The roadside and central reservation are planted with shrubs, which helps to break up the monotony of the countryside and also provide useful grazing for cows. Some of these are blue cows, which are in fact a type of antelope called a nilgai and there were signs saying that this was a nilgai-prone area. As opposed to a prone nilgai, which is presumably what they are like when having a kip. We drove on, through the Jaypee Greens sports city, home to India’s Formula 1 track, and on through Noida, which comprises enormous blocks of flats in numbered zones, reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984.
At Indira Gandhi airport (which is excellent, by the way) we said goodbye to Mr Singh and he gave us the thumbs-up. We boarded our Jet Airways flight to Amritsar and were met on arrival by another Mr Singh but he preferred to be called Harjit, so that’s what we called him. We stayed at the Radisson Blu hotel which has lost its final e along with any sense of charm. It smelled like on old taxi whose velour seats have been sprayed with air freshener to cover up the scent of cigar smoke. There was nowhere to sit outside but you can have a fag if you go to the mosquito-infested covered area next to the carpark’s exit barrier. It did, however, have free wi-fi, which is more than can be said for the ITC hotels. I don’t want to put you off or anything, and if you like 1970s-style retro wallpaper and don’t mind having workmen in the corridor outside your room removing the ceiling to install cables, which are left overnight in the corridor amid piles of rubble, then the Radisson is your kind of place.
Feeling a little underwhelmed, we asked Harjit to find us a bar and we thus spent a happy hour or so in Stars’n’Bars. Two people were being carried out when we arrived, so we wished them a good evening and went in. It was rather jolly and we had a few beers and cocktails and watched England beat New Zealand in the World T20 cricket.
I am not a great follower of this form of the noble game, so hadn’t really twigged that it was happening but you can’t go to India and not notice cricket. T20 involves lots of coloured clothes and music and white balls and stumps that light up, so it’s quite entertaining, and as several million people watch it, there are lots of adverts in between overs and at any other breaks in play. They get a bit repetitive after about 20 seconds so I tried to work out what they were advertising. This remains a closed book to me and I still cannot fathom the connection between a pug in a hand cart and 4G coverage. I do not know why a man gave his doctor a pair of red shoes but I do know that the chap who changed into a dinner jacket was selling paint. Or flowers. Or pugs. Enough of that.
Amritsar is having a major face lift but it’s got to the point where the surgeon has drawn on the ageing celebrity’s face with indelible marker and has made the first few incisions. It will all be lovely and wonderful one day but right now it’s a bit of a mess. Harjit stopped by some road works and a chap climbed in the car but he was to be our guide, fortunately, so that was all right. He was excellent and only spoke when needed, which allowed us to marvel at the Golden Temple.
In the midst of the chaos of Amritsar, you leave your shoes behind you, step through a marble water trough and enter into a place of calm and serenity. A vast marble square is criss-crossed by narrow carpets, on and around which people sleep. You climb some steps and there before you in the middle of a lake, stands the Golden Temple. Brightly lit, the Temple’s reflection shimmered on the water while thousands of people ambled around, chatting, praying and generally being lovely.
We were there to witness the daily ceremony when the Guru is put to bed. Guru Granth Sahib is, as I am sure you know, the 11th and everlasting Guru and is a book. Every night, the holy book is taken from the Temple and is allowed to rest. He is borne on a gold palanquin and, amid much trumpeting from huge silver trumpets, he is held aloft and taken up some stairs to his bedroom, where he spends a few hours on his carefully-prepared bed. If you are quick and well-guided (which we were) you can then walk down the covered walkway across the lake and into the Temple, which is stunning. Having seen so many temples and fortresses and palaces whose former glory was a little faded, it was both humbling and fascinating to be in a vibrant, living and utterly glorious place. Priests were saying prayers and we could not help but feel intrusive among the hordes of devoted worshippers.
Amritsar to Corbett National Park via Chandigarh and Shimla
Day 6 and we were, for once, staying in one place. Harjit picked us up and we were dropped off once more close to the Golden Temple. We jostled our ways through the crowds and were shown around the precincts of the Temple, which was quite extraordinary. In the open, men washed themselves in the lake while women did so inside structures that looked a little like boat houses. They were, we were told, washing not themselves but their souls. Imposing turbaned guards in dark blue and yellow uniforms, armed with huge lances, kept a helpful but watchful eye.
The Temple is lovingly looked after by hundreds of volunteers whose main role is to help feed the visitors. We went behind the scenes, into the washing up area where thousands of metal trays were being washed, rinsed and dried before being put back into service. In the kitchens, soups and stews bubbled away in enormous cooking pots on top of wood-burning stoves, while women squatted on the floor rolling chapattis. As upwards of 50,000 people a day eat at the Temple, there is a special chapatti machine which makes the dough, cuts it, rolls it and puts it on a conveyor belt through an oven. 15,000 chapattis per hour are made, which equates to about 7 chapattis per person, which is a lot of chapattis. All this is done, for free, in great good humour. I have a lot of respect for Sikhs.
After the Temple, we went to Jallianwala Bagh, the scene of one of the lowest points of British colonial rule. General Dyer, in an effort to affect the morale of the people, ordered his troops to open fire on a gathering of men, women and children. Up to 2,000 people were killed and wounded by 1,650 rounds, the holes made by which have been left in the walls of the garden as a memorial. It was a chillingly beautiful place.
After a lunch of chicken biryani and delicious Amritsari fish, we left for the border with Pakistan to witness the daily ceremony of lowering the flag. We did not know what to expect as we walked along a road with hundreds of other people, before being ushered into a grandstand and asked to sit on the steps. All around us, crowds were being whipped up into a patriotic frenzy by a man with a microphone, while children performed impossibly bendy gymnastics on mats. Eventually, the crowds were made to take their seats and were then encouraged to wave and shout at the people on the other side of the border, whom we could see behind a gate. They were not, we were told, allowed to dance or sing under their Islamic law, so they waved little flags instead, while the Indians did a very good job of winding up their neighbours.
Bugles sounded and the Indian Border patrol appeared. Dressed in smart khaki uniforms, all were well over 6 feet tall, their height enhanced by the bright red plumes on their heads. At great speed they took it in turns to march up to the border gate, stamping their feet and swinging their legs up to head height. This was all being mirrored on the other side of the gate by the Pakistani equivalents, who wore very fetching blue uniforms. It was like a cross between strutting peacocks and Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. At last, as the sun began to set, the two country’s flags were lowered in perfect synchronisation and were allowed a short pause as they crossed on the descent.
Suitably stunned by all that we had witnessed, we returned to the hotel, where our key card didn’t work, which was a bit of an annoying let-down. We watched India cruise to a certain victory over the West Indies and after a few gins picked our way through the hanging vines of cable to our room.
Day 7 dawned with the news the West Indies had snatched a victory from a stunned India, which we did not mention to anyone as they all looked rather morose.
We were on the road to Chandigarh, a journey of over six hours, so we had plenty of time to stare out of the window and ruminate. There were lots of buffalo who were also ruminating in a very placid manner; they looked very like our African buffalo but were clearly a lot more chilled out, pulling carts and, in one instance, getting a lift on a motorcycle. That was one of those occasions when you see something that does not immediately register: a buffalo on a motorbike. At least it wasn’t driving, which was a relief.
Many of the houses had water tanks on their roofs but these were disguised as a variety of things: footballs, aeroplanes, eagles and in one instance, a tank. I noticed that the plants growing in lush abundance on the verges were cannabis plants: Indian hemp. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised as that is where it comes from but even so, to see huge amounts of pot just growing there was strange. It did occur to me that that is probably why the buffalo are so placid, grazing quietly and watching the world go by in unusually bright colours.
Chandigarh was built by design, a result of partition and Punjab’s capital city ending up on the other side of the border. Rather than use an Indian architect, for reasons best known to themselves the government asked Le Corbusier to design their city. Not one to change the habits of a life time, he drew a grid on an old piece of graph paper, enlisted the help of some people who were good at concrete and said “There you go”. Well, he probably didn’t but it looks like he might have done. The city is a huge grid, which makes it enormously confusing. It is also still being developed and the outskirts reminded me of Swindon which was a worry. In Swindon, however, I don’t think they would let all that cannabis go to waste. The grid grew on me, though, and the tree-lined streets and wide open spaces were rather charming. We did not stay long in our hotel as it was a big concrete box. We went to the Rock Garden, which was built by a chap called Nek Chand who worked as a road inspector and collected lots of rubbish. He kept the rubbish and built, secretly, an extraordinary place, full of dark and mysterious grottos and canyons that open onto brightly coloured spaces lined with broken tiles and glass. He built lots of little statues and decorated them with old bits of bangle. He did this for 18 years without anyone noticing and by then he had covered an area of 13 acres. That in itself is pretty impressive. The authorities decided not to knock it all down but to keep it as a tourist attraction, which is very forward-thinking. I’m not sure that this would have happened in Swindon.
After the Rock Garden, we went to the Rose Garden, which is exactly what it says it is: a garden full of roses. Then we went to a lake, around which lots of people were strolling. We had a little stroll as well but as it was more of a concrete reservoir than a lake, it wasn’t that great so we went and found somewhere to eat. If was called Swagarth restaurant and it was excellent. You could choose vegetarian or non-vegetarian and, after that, kind waiters kept bringing us more food. We ate rather too much and fell fatly into bed back at our box.
Day 8 and the hills that we could make out in the distance were full of misty promise. We were headed for Shimla, way up in the foothills of the Himalayas and the one-time summer home of the British Raj. We were soon heading uphill and the road, which was in the process of being rebuilt, became narrower. This did nothing to curb the enthusiasm of the Indian drivers. Indian driving is something to behold but is not for the faint-hearted. ‘Good horn, good brakes, good luck’, we were told several times. The horn is in constant use and one of the people who drove us had actually worn out a patch on his steering wheel. Impossibly small gaps are driven into with enthusiasm and overtaking is done on both sides, on corners, on crests of hills and generally wherever possible. Lights at night are optional, especially on heavily-laden bullock carts. We have bad driving here in Nairobi but Indians are in a different league. There is a certain charm about it all, but when you are negotiating narrow hairpin bends with no crash barriers and a drop of many thousands of feet beside you, the charm wears a little thin. I do not know what my last thought will be before I pass on but “Ok look, a Mahindra jeep on the wro…” is not one that I particularly wanted.
We had an unscheduled stop in a place called Solan, where people had gathered to watch a large part of the hillside come crashing down into the road. At least that was what was being threatened. A huge crack had appeared across the hillside, above which a small group had gathered, presumably to watch their land fall into the valley below, taking a large number of houses with it. The land had started to slip and showers of rocks were tumbling down, which prompted everyone to point the cameras on their phones in that direction. Then the drivers got a bit bored, cars and trucks started to move and Harjit took us below the rock fall. He seemed unconcerned but we were a little nervous.
We stayed in a place called the Woodville Palace, a former home of the Raja Rana of Jubbal, Built in the late 1930s, it was full of faded splendour, with impressive family portraits and signed photographs of long-deceased film stars who had stayed there. It had a lovely garden, in which we could sit outside with a drink and a fag, watching birds and thinking about how lucky we were not to be lying in a tangled heap at the bottom of a ravine.
After a little kip, we went for a long and busy walk through the old part of Shimla. It is a huge place, built across seven steep hills. Houses spill down the slopes, looking as though someone has poured Lego down the hillside. We walked through the busy streets and up to The Ridge, an open area above the town. Christchurch cathedral, with its impressive stained-glass windows, was closed so we pottered about and caught our first glimpse of the snow-clad Himalayas.
Day 9 was spent in and around Shimla. We had a walk before breakfast in the pine forest above the hotel and saw barbets, woodpeckers and beautiful long-tailed magpies. We met up with a guide called Ravi who was a nice chap. He took us out into the countryside and above 2,400 metres (7,800 feet) to a sort of zoo on a hilltop. We walked through and saw, in enclosures, some sad-looking bears, a couple of angry leopards and lots of muntjak. There were some stunning, iridescent pheasants and a tragopan who did not perform his courtship display which was a shame as it is quite extraordinary.
M fell in love with a yak. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
After the yak, who was soft and furry, we went to a temple dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman. The temple surroundings were full of very aggressive macaque monkeys and Ravi wisely told us to avoid eye contact and take off our glasses. People who stared at the monkeys were shocked by their aggression and those wearing glasses quickly had them ripped off. They were horrid little things and we were relieved to leave.
From the temple, we drove up and down and round to the Vice-Regal Palace, the summer home of the Viceroy, from which he governed one fifth of the world’s population. Built in Scottish Baronial style, it is an imposing place and its panelled halls were the site of the Simla talks in 1945, the start of the final days of British rule. (Shimla got an H in its name after Independence). It is now the home of the Institute for Advanced Studies, where people with a PhD and at least two years of post-doctoral experience come and stay and chat and generally put the world to rights. Suitably tired, we returned to the hotel and packed for an early start. After supper, we watched the West Indies hit four sixes off four balls in the final over to beat England in the T20 finals which was sobering.
Day 10 started at 4:15 in the morning. Harjit went off like a scalded cat so we persuaded him to slow down. We thus arrived at Chandigarh airport in one piece. It is a very new and shiny airport, with new and shiny policemen with new and shiny guns. They were very nice, though, and allowed us back out to have a fag after we’d checked in our baggage. We flew to Delhi, did a quick turn-around, then flew to Dehra Dun, which also has a new and shiny airport. It looked quite nice but we had no time to stop, as we had another 7 hours’ drive ahead of us. Leafy deciduous forests soon gave way to busy roads and endless rather shabby towns. We crossed the Ganges at Rishikesh and again at Haridwar. Fortunately, we did not coincide with one of the festivals in either place, otherwise we may not have made it through. We followed the course of a very straight drain (which had a dead goat in it) for many miles, and crossed many dry riverbeds. As we were heading off to do some fishing, this was a worry. Darkness fell but this did not put a dampener of the enthusiastic driving of all forms of transport, most of which was piled impossibly high with sugar cane and very little of which was either lit or on the right side of the road. At Ramnagar, we headed up into the hills and back to narrow roads and hairpin bends. Our driver this time was called Dinesh and he was excellent, however, and knew the road well. Eventually, we stopped in a dusty lay-by where two men got out of an on old jeep. We gave them all our belongings and got in the vehicle, drove a short way up a track, then got out and started to walk. This all sounds very trusting of us but they seemed to be expecting us and we were too tired to bother. After about 30 minutes, having walked through a sleeping village and past a buffalo, we got to the Western Ramganga River Lodge, which was to be our home for the next four days.
Western Ramganga River Lodge and back to Delhi
We didn’t know what to expect and having arrived after dark we had little idea of our surroundings. We could not have been happier. The camp is on a bluff that overlooks the Ramganga River, the other side of which is Corbett National Park. Deer were barking and peacocks were calling as we had a cup of tea and breakfast. There had been a tiger spotted across the river recently, as well as leopard, so there was always a little frisson of excitement when the animals were shouting. Stunning birds were in abundance in the flowering shrubs and fish eagles circled overhead. After all the noise and dust and bustle and car horns and people and guided tours and palaces and what have you, it was heaven.
M had a fly casting lesson from the owner of the camp, the suave, handsome and charming Misty Dhillon. He taught her brilliantly and we were soon heading down to the river to fish. The river was very low and very clear but fish were rising and we were very hopeful. It was not to be, so we headed back for a light lunch and kip, during the heat of the day. After a cup of tea, we walked to a huge pool and Melanie caught her first mahseer. This fish has golden scales and grows to a very impressive size and it was what we were after.
We fished until dark, then walked back for starters and cold drinks round the camp fire. Tired and happy, we went to sleep in our very comfortable cottage.
We fished hard the next day but remained resolutely fishless. We saw kingfishers, eagles, parakeets and peacocks. We had a brilliant guide with us, Sanjay, who never once lost his sense of humour and who became increasingly desperate for us to catch a fish. We had planned to go into Corbett National Park the following day, but we loved the camp so much and we had had so much driving that we decided to stay put.
Up early, we watched deer cross the river back into the forest, had breakfast then strolled around. There was a real commotion on the other side of the river, so we scanned the forest with binoculars but could not see the cat that was so obviously there. Later in the day, Sanjay told us that he had got us permits for the next day, so we would have another chance to land a fish.
That evening, as we walked by the river, we met two ladies who were walking home. Sanjay told us that they had been working on a building site all day, mixing cement. They were now walking a distance of two miles or so to the top of the steep valley, where they would cook the family’s evening meal. They stopped in a sandy spot, took large cement bags from inside their saris and filled the bags with sand. These they then put on their heads. They waded waist-deep across the river and started off climbing up the path. Humbling does not do it justice.
I do not think that there can be better places in which to go fishless, but so it was. Despite trying every method and using a huge variety of flies, the mahseer landed by M (who was named Madame-ji) was to be the only fish that we caught. Our memories of the lodge are indelible ones.
Day 15 and we were back on the road again. Rather than drive 7 hours back to Dehra Dun and catch a flight, we changed plans and opted to drive the 6 hours to Delhi. As we drove along, I noticed that the cannabis plants were even more lush and vigorous, growing to well over 7 feet in height, which must make for interesting bonfires.
Dinesh drove us without much incident until the car started to become uncomfortably hot, as it had overheated. There appeared to be a leak in the radiator, so we had a few stops to refill with water but at last we were back in the smog of Delhi. Dinesh knew much of northern India well, but not Delhi with its confusing fly-overs. After a few hours and having spoken to a variety of people, we gave up trying to find the Ps’ house. We called them and they sent a driver to get us, as we were within a few minutes’ drive.
The Ps were excellent hosts. J had been at my father’s prep school many years ago, and when their daughter joined our school a few years ago it was a great day for us (and possibly the Ps as well). We had cups of tea, glasses of delicious Indian champagne and chicken curry, all accompanied by plenty of chatting.
After breakfast, we headed into Old Delhi. It was a Sunday so quite quiet but even so the place was heaving. We walked up Chandni Chowk, one of the main streets, and visited a Sikh temple, next to which was the mosque from which Nadir Shah had ordered the massacre of thousands of people in 1739. After killing an awful lot of people, he went back to Persia, with the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the Peacock Throne.
We walked through the spice market and bought some spices, then into the vegetable and fruit markets. The narrow alleys were thronged with people and M chatted to a particularly handsome goat with a huge Roman nose. Looking up, the mass of electrical cabling was like a jumble of dirty spaghetti. How anyone actually gets an electrical supply is a mystery.
We went into the Street of Nine Houses, one of the few remaining examples of the original, decorated havelis of Delhi. At the end of the narrow dead-end street was a Jain temple, whose doors made a fine backstop for an impromptu cricket net, in which young men played with much mirth and shouting, especially when the ball was hit into an open window.
We had a lovely lunch at Karim’s, a very low-key but famous restaurant, after which we strolled back through the narrow streets, past all sorts of little shops and stalls selling a huge variety of stuff. Skinned goat heads were a surprise and we also saw a dying rat beside some chickens, which was intriguing. We politely ignored the persistent rickshaw drivers and made our way to the Jama Masjid mosque. It was very busy and M stayed, as she had been asked to wear an acrylic curtain, even though she was very modestly dressed. The towers offer amazing views but they were packed so we wisely decided not to climb up the narrow staircases.
Hot and dusty, we made a quick stop then went and had a refreshing dip in the pool at the Hyatt hotel, after which we had a lovely Italian meal.
I took J’s advice and chose a very reasonably priced local red wine, only for the waiter to say that this was, sadly, unavailable. Would we prefer the much more expensive one? J works in the booze trade and knows a thing or two, so requested that we should have the pricey wine, but at the lower price. Magically, the waiter found the wine we had originally ordered. I shall know, in future, what to do when faced with a similar dilemma.
Day 17 was M’s birthday. We packed the children off to school and J off to work, then went into town for a bit of culture at Humayun’s tomb. Humayun was the chap who died by falling down some stairs and despite this unfortunate end to his life he was given a magnificent tomb. Set in gardens, it was blissfully peaceful. A party of rather large English ladies were being shown round, presumably as part of a tour. One of their number joined us as we strolled around, telling us about Alastair who was either a dog or her son, we weren’t sure which. We stopped to do important things such as tie our shoe laces and she wandered off. We weren’t completely sure why she had been abandoned by the rest of her group but we hazarded a guess.
After a stroll through the lovely Lodhi gardens, we went to Khan Market for some retail therapy and, after coffee and cake in a bookshop, we found some beautiful clothes for the birthday girl. Khan Market is the go-to place for Delhi expats and I can assure you that the shops are much prettier on the inside than on the outside.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had heard that we were in India so they had decided to come along as well. Unfortunately for them, our paths did not cross but they did have a reception at the High Commission, to which J and P went. P wore her best sari (bought in Nairobi) and J looked the part in his lightweight suit. He was handing out large gins and generally flying the flag for Britain’s finest spirits, which was a fine thing to do. M and I stayed at home and had champagne and duck breasts in mango, played cricket, helped with homework and had a very relaxed evening. J and P returned in due course, having met and been photographed with The Duchess who is, I am reliably informed, charming, beautiful and the owner of an enviably trim waist.
We said our goodbyes and headed for the airport. And there we were, back on the plane, into Nairobi and back home. We sat outside with a cold drink and replayed in our minds the highlights of an amazing trip. All our senses had been assaulted with new sights, smells, tastes and sounds.
Overloaded carts and lorries, all of which encourage those behind to blow horn and use dipper at night. Royal Enfield motorcycles that have not changed since the 1950s. Piles of dung drying by the road side. Cows in the road. What is a Kitty Party? Huge billboards depicting the Ambuja cement man, in whose massive arms he is holding a hydroelectric dam, which gives the impression that he has nicked it. And ninety seven new species of birds.
What an extraordinary country. And we have seen so little of it, so no doubt we shall return.