Pages of a travel diary: Week 11, A Sacred City and a Special Tea

Pages of a travel diary: Week 11, A Sacred City and a Special Tea

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from last year. This week I was travelling from Varanasi to Kurseong, Darjeeling

 

Day 70, Sunday 16th October: Varanasi

Varanasi, the holiest site in Hinduism, a cultural centre of India and a centre of pilgrimage. It is also another tourist trap, so I am determined to make the most out of it while avoiding the worst. I arrive on the overnight train at midday. It is less than two miles to the hostel, so I decide to walk, clearly having forgotten what the climate is like when you are not in the mountains. The streets are larger than in Shimla, but it is still tricky for two full sized cars to pass on all but the main thoroughfares and the now familiar tendency of shops and home life to encroach on the streets makes them even harder to navigate. P1090183.JPGThe main roads are a constant traffic jam, slower than walking pace, and the side roads are slowed further by the presence of cows, at every turn. Just as this is the spiritual centre of north India, it is typical of its highs and lows. By the time I reach the hostel, I am sweating buckets and totally exhausted.

The hostel is a European style backpacker’s hostel, unlike the old-style hotels I have encountered in India so far. It has a series of dorm rooms and a communal area on the top floor, covered only by a corrugated-iron roof. P1090188.JPGI eat, then head out again, as I never like to waste an afternoon.

I am warned by my guide book that Varanasi is worse than Agra for touts, pickpockets and frauds, so I am on my guard. However, their heart doesn’t seem to be in it today, and I walk unmolested through the streets towards the river. This is the river Ganges, the holiest river in India and the centre-point of the city. Lining it, are the ‘Ghats’, manmade steps down into the water, above which stand temples and great houses and at their foot are either boats or people. P1090190.JPGDespite being a murky brown, people regularly bathe in the river and that is what I mostly find. Pictures I have seen of the city show these Ghats thronged with people, but I have picked a good time and they are clear. I walk down the riverside, with temples on my right and the river on my left, taking in the panorama of this holy city. Pollution hangs thick in the air which, mixed with the earthy-coloured bricks and brown water, gives a sepia tone to the whole scene. P1090177.JPGIt is not a European image of a holy city and it is certainly a world away from Amritsar. However, I can see its beauty, even as I doge rubbish and step through the mud going back, with the sun setting behind the temples.

 

Day 72, Tuesday 18th October: Varanasi

Booking tickets on Indian Railways is a nightmare, I am reminded. My philosophy of not worrying so much doesn’t really work, as I am running out of days in the country, so I need to catch a train out of the city tomorrow. Stress, blind panic and anger at PCs is all solved by booking a ticket through an agent, at a cost. Getting a good agent, and not at the last minute, it definitely the way to do it. This battle, and the need to relax afterwards, means that we don’t leave the hostel till 5pm, but we are going to do what we came here for.

We are taken down to the Ganges, where a local man with a boat is waiting. The five of us have to step over several other boats, but we get to ours. Around us are great vessels with loud engines; ours is a man with two oars. This is perfect.P1090196.JPG

It is evening time when Varanasi’s Ghats come alive. This is prayer time, and there is no better way to see it than from the river. Floating out in the sunset, we see people assemble by the waterside. Some temples are blaring out music, others preaching, a few are just the people chanting, one even has a brahmin performing with fire. P1090193.JPGEach temple and home is lit up, the riverbank is made up of dozens of different scenes, each with its own unique character. India is home to so much diversity and a snapshot of it is on display here: each group showing their individuality and on a spectacular scale.P1090214.JPG

And then I spot the cremations. The ‘Burning Ghat’ is where millions are cremated and their ashes are put in little vessels and floated down the river. Each vessel has a small flame on it, so from a distance it looks like a line of tea-lights. We are returning up the river as they float past us. For many Indians, this is the ideal send-off from this life.

 

Day 76, Saturday 22nd October: Kurseong, Makaibari Tea Plantation

The room is still sort of under construction, there are no curtains, and so the rising sun acts as the perfect alarm clock, unfortunately at 5.45am. P1090379.JPGRuben, Janine and I eat breakfast together, then they catch a taxi off and away, going deeper into the mountains. I have to pack too, although I’m not leaving yet. The toughest bit of the task is to combine my two toilet rolls into one to save on space. This takes a surprisingly long time.

At 9am, the tours of the plantation begin at the grand factory gates. I am given the full safety and hygiene equipment, including shoe covers, hair net and face mask. However, when the latter breaks, the guide is not bothered and I don’t get a new one. Around the factory, I see the dehydration and fermentation processes. P1090389.JPGThere are also the sifting and sorting machines, hammering away in a reassuring but not entirely necessary way. After a cursory inspection, I find out why they seem so old fashioned: LONDON, ENGLAND and similar letters are stamped on them in a font that cannot have been used in the last hundred years. P1090388.JPG

My guide around the factory confirms that they are still using the machines bought by the founder of the plantation, a local Indian, over a century ago.

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Across the yard, I am shown to the plantation offices and up to their little museum. Tea tasting was promised, but obviously nothing is happening yet. I walk around reading about their pioneering place: first organic tea, first fair-trade tea and so on. They are very proud to be Indian and modern. There are newspaper articles about the plantation, all their awards and prestigious visitors, as well as details about their tea. P1090398.JPGFrom several articles, I read about the current owner, an eccentric sounding man known as ‘Raja’ who is the fourth-generation owner of the place.P1090399.JPG He is responsible for the move to organic tea, embracing biodynamics (a holistic practice invented by a German called Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s with roots similar to homeopathy) and fair trade. The articles even describe what an odd man he is. After seeing several pictures of him, it hits me why he appears to familiar: he is the man sitting in the office next door who I’d walked past in my tour of the room. When I glance to double check that it is indeed the same man, he gets up and comes over to talk to me.

Suddenly I am facing Raja Banerjee, a tall man by anyone’s standards, who is wearing his infamous horse riding gear: knee length boots, a military jacket and a belt around the chest. He speaks to me in perfect English, showing his time living in London.

‘Where in England are you from?’, he asks

‘Oxford’, I reply, slightly star struck despite not having heard of this man fifteen minutes ago.

‘Which college?’ he asks back, without hesitation. He interrogates my past and then asks me my opinion on his techniques. Any attempt to point out that he knows more than me is brushed off.

‘I am an expert of nothing’, he declares, almost proudly.

He strikes me as the archetypal family firm owner and bullish businessman: loud, confident, critical. I imagine he is hell to work with, but is greatly respected. A group of Japanese tourists appear, representing his biggest customers. Raja sits down with them and invites me to join. He goes through the history of his organisation, the logic behind his tea growing and stories about who he is. He is a great believer in stories to help people remember, so everything is a story. Before the tea tasting can begin, he tells another, the story of the seasons: when the cold of the winter makes the plants sleep and how the thunder comes in March, bellowing over the hills bringing torrential rain. This is what gives Darjeeling its name: literally ‘Land of the Thunderbolts’. This wakes up the plants and the first flush leaves grow. Raja goes through each of the seasons and the leaves they can grow as well as his own developments. He claims he is lucky to have worked out how to make green tea using the plants in the wet season and how he found the best place in the hill side to increase its quality. It took him 5 years, again he calls it luck.

We are taught how to taste the tea, he commands to Japanese to be less polite, as they need to slurp and spit to do it properly. I am given first taste of each and he points to me every time the British come up in a story. Despite the fact that everyone else in the room is a valued business partner, and I am just a backpacker, he treats me with equal respect. At the end, he asks us each in turn what our favourite tree is and commands us each to go home and grow one. He claims that if every one of the 7 billion people on this planet planted one tree, global warming would be solved! I was left with the impression of a visionary, but an off-the-wall one. A sort of Willy Wonker of the Tea world.

 

From the plantation house, I go down into the fields with some of the growers. Here they show us ‘biodynamics’ in action: plants that repel insects, trees that shed their leaves to improve the topsoil and how mixing in tea plants with other things, in their natural environment, helps them grow and helps the valleys of Darjeeling. P1090402.JPGThis is holistic agriculture in action. It also makes it a beautiful place to walk through. We are joined by a biology student from Sweden called Anna, who is staying here for three months, and we chat about her work and my travels as we explore the fields and valleys. P1090421.JPGThe scenery is so vertical, and yet somehow there are forests and fields in amongst the sheer cliff faces. It is a clear and warm day and the walking is relatively easy. It is a vision of paradise, and it is filled with tea.

At the bottom of one of the valleys, there is a small stream and a hut with benches. P1090435.JPGWe are told that this is where the tea pickers come for a break at the end of a long day’s work. Anna and I immediately find a spot by the river and dip our feet in the water. The river is clean, for India, but she is worried about pollution around the country more generally and that even this mountainous corner is not safe. I reassure her that India is improving, and that this state, West Bengal, is ahead of the curve. It is some walking later before three minibuses bounce off the road and into the grove where we stop for another rest and the Japanese gladly accept a lift back. Anna and I could easily walk back, but without the guides would be lost, so we accept.

My time in Kurseong and the Darjeeling region is coming to an end. I have a flight to catch from Kolkata, so I have a final meal with the family, thank them profusely and pay them for my time there. Before I leave, I stock up on Darjeeling tea, enough to get me by for some months.

The journey alone down the mountain is not nearly as nice as going up. I can now taste the pollution which I am no longer used to. In Siliguri I get a cycle rickshaw to take me over to the station. He smokes, grumbles and shouts at passers-by, then tries to rip me off at the end. After the kindness of the mountains, it is a depressing return to the realities of city life. The station too is a difficult place to be: hot, humid and reeking of the human excrement. I find a seat in the waiting room and read to pass the hours till the delayed train arrives. It has been a wonderful, almost dreamlike time in Darjeeling, but now I have to move on, to Kolkata and off into the next phase of my journey: South-East Asia.

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Pages of a travel diary: Week 10, Remnants of Empires

Pages of a travel diary: Week 10, Remnants of Empires

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from last year. This week I was travelling back to Shimla, then on to Agra

 

Day 65, Tuesday 11th October: Back to Shimla

It is a rubbish night’s sleep. Typically, the guy next to me has no sense of personal space, so keeps on falling asleep on my shoulder. No amount of pushing him into the aisle seems to solve this. Also, reclining seats are great, if you haven’t got long legs. Mine are permanently crushed and cramped. And did I mention the driving style? That is awful too. Going through the mountains on winding lanes in the dark, not fun.

As uncomfortable as the night was, I am already looking back with nostalgia at 6am. The bus has stopped in heavy traffic, and word is coming down the line that there is an accident. The Indians on the bus all get out and get going, we are a little more reluctant. Megan and Aimee prefer to stay in the bus, and I have to agree. It is warm in here. We are at 2,000 meters, so it is very cold compared to what we are now used to. We are all also very tired, and the once-horrible seats suddenly look comfortable.

Reluctantly, we get moving on foot. It is apparently only 2 miles to Shimla and I have been there before, so I take the lead. Getting out the bus, we find it is a sheer cliff face on our left and a precipitous drop on our right. The mountains are wreathed in mist, so we can’t actually see what we would be falling in to, but that doesn’t make it any better. To make things even worse, the log-jammed cars take up most of the road, so we are walking along a thin grass verge on the edge. Creeping along, following the other walkers ahead, we eventually find the accident: two smashed cars being slowly shoved out of the way. It will still be a long while before any vehicle gets moving again.

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When we worked out it was 2 miles, we didn’t consider the gradient, and very soon we are all out of breath. Aimee and Megan start to drop back, so I encourage Robbie and Evan to join them. As a team of five, we encourage each other with promises of hot drinks and sleep at the other end. I am worried though, I had been in charge or arranging accommodation and know that there is nothing booked. Eventually, the outskirts of Shimla appear, little concrete homes with corrugated iron roofs emerge from all directions. As we get closer to the centre, these are replaced by the more impressive imperial ones, of steel and stone, although there is still a temporary feel to them.P1090021.JPG

An old Indian man with a stick catches up to us on a slope near the centre

‘Good morning’, he smiles, he is not out of breath and we are wrecks, ‘I take it you are not from around here. Are you Americans?’ his accent is untraceable, clearly he has had an international education

‘We are’, Robbie explains, ‘he is English,’ he points at me. I get ignored.

‘You are about to elect Donald Trump, aren’t you!’ he smiles again, we are slightly worried where he is going with this, ‘he is a good businessman. It will be good for America and good for India’

We are still really not in the mood for politics, and I am not feeling eloquent. Evan plays it safe, ‘I hope so!’

‘Nice to chat with you’, he says as he wraps up, ‘got to get on with my morning run. Enjoy Shimla’ and then jogs of, making us feel even worse.

 

We reach the centre and the ‘Hide-out Café’, somewhere I dropped in last time. The staff recognise me from my t-shirt and welcome us all in warmly. We collapse and eat. They have Wi-Fi and food, it is warm and we cannot walk. A match made in heaven. P1080798.JPGRobbie, Megan and I are feeling strongest, so we go around the hotels asking for rooms. It is strange just walking in and asking, but it is not an uncommon way to do it in India. Shimla is many layered, so we have to climb a lot of steps and run up and down alleys to find one, but eventually we do. Napping commences.

 

Late lunch is a disaster. It is Megan’s birthday, so we go for Pizza. (I am sensing a theme), but the place gets our order wrong, the food is rubbish and it is noisy and crowded. It is the first properly awkward restaurant I have had to walk out of, but none of us are confrontational, so we pay up and don’t worry about it. We drop in to a fast food place to fill the hole. Despite this, Shimla has a charm and we are all feeling a lot better very quickly. P1080790.JPGThe clean air, the pretty streets, the charm of ‘The Mall’, it is unique. The only thing to worry about are the aggressive monkeys, who try to steal any food that is exposed outside. They put the British menace of seagulls right in the shade.

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While the others rest in the hotel and watch Rush Hour (a classic I had not previously been exposed to), I plan the rest of my journey. I realise that I need to have flights booked at least, to give myself a time frame to work on. So, I pick dates that feel right over the rest of the year to get me between those countries without easy land borders. And the plan is settled: I am going to Myanmar, through South East Asia and then flying from Hanoi to Seoul. I will stay there for a few days, then fly to Japan for two and a half weeks, then I shall fly home. I get excited, thinking about all the great places yet to come, all the travelling I will get to do. It is like getting ready for an adventure all over again, even though I am already on it. I am dreaming of the months yet to come.

 

Day 66, Wednesday 12th October: Shimla, Vice Regal Lodge

Once the seat of power over one of history’s largest empires, the Vice Regal Lodge is the epitome of luxury and being totally detached from the people. This large, Scottish baronial mansion is two miles outside Shimla, in splendid isolation both geographically and culturally. We leave our hotel in the early afternoon to walk here and promptly get lost, half a dozen times. It takes a lot of asking people for directions to find it and over an hour of walking.P1090032.JPG

It is worth it though, for one of the world’s most incongruous buildings. During the British Raj, this was where the Viceroy (the representative of the British Royal Family) lived during the summer, which lasted around 8-9 months of the year. It was built like a great country house, with terracotta roof tiles, grey/black brickwork and hundreds of high ceilinged rooms. In the darkness, it would pass for a very good haunted house. However, we arrive under a blue sky, but with a cool mountain breeze and it feels like we are somewhere in the English countryside. P1090038.JPGThe gardens are green and well cared for, with a perfect lawn for crochet. It reminds me too, of an Oxford college, which was probably something the designers had in mind. P1090042.JPGFor the rulers who lived here, for over 50 years, it was an escape from the country they ruled and would have become a forgotten oddity if it did not also have a strong significance to the Indian nation. This is where Mahatma Gandhi and the last Viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, signed the declaration of Independence. There is a lot of emotion wrapped up in that moment, as it also led to the partition of India and Pakistan.

It is a very strange place for me. It reminds me strongly of home, yet also of the British Empire, which I do not relate to. It is a place signifying India freedom, but also of division. What strikes me most of all though, was how large an area they ruled, from the edge of Afghanistan to the border of Thailand, and yet how totally out of touch they were from all of it. When I look at it like that, it is an oddly modest and totally ridiculous seat of power.

 

Day 69, Saturday 15th October: Delhi and Agra

6.00am. The edge of a motorway, outside New Delhi.

The bus pulls over. I stretch out my limbs for the first time in hours. People pile off and disappear. I assume this must be where the bus route ends. There are rickshaw drivers clamouring for attention, and money, I ignore them. I am not ready for any of that stuff again. Not yet. It is only a mile to the Old Delhi station, so I walk. I soon realise that I have not learned my lesson: this is not a country designed for walkers.

I navigate a spaghetti junction by hopping over dividing walls, dashing across lanes and tramping through the litter filled patches of ‘grass’ between roads. After then trekking along the side of a six-lane motorway for a bit, I see the station. It is on the other side of the road. There are no foot bridges.

So, at 6.30am, I am contemplating j-walking a six-lane motorway, in Delhi. 6.31am, I am no longer contemplating it, I am doing a little merry dance across the road. The art of road crossing in India is confidence. If you look like you know what you’re doing, other people will work around you. This is fine at low speeds, but not so much here. So, I stride, timing myself to the oncoming cars, so that I squeak past behind each one. A little slower here, faster there. It is only a short distance, but it lasts an eternity.

At last, I am at a station. It is not the station I want, but trains mean civilisation. Unfortunately, I am on the wrong side of the station. There are no foot bridges. Luckily for me, trains make a lot more noise than individual cars, so navigating the dozen tracks of Old Delhi station proves to be easier than the road, and I team up with the cleaners doing the same thing, who guide me along my path.

My train goes from Hazrat Nizamuddin station (NZM for short). My previous experience with the Metro makes this an easy journey from Old Delhi. P1090086.JPGI had only been able to get a sleeper train ticket, for some reason, which I had thought silly for a train starting at 8am. After that bus ride though, I am all in favour and fall instantly asleep.

 

I had had the foresight to set an alarm, so I am woken at midday in Agra. After the more off-the-beaten-path places in the mountains, I am back in tourist central. I leave my bag at the station, in the left luggage office, and start with the Agra fort. This place is huge.P1090095.JPG

For backpackers used to European castles, India is on another scale and the Agra fort is one of the very largest. Inside the towering brown stone walls, is another world, both a military base and a palace for an Emperor. The designs are oddly familiar and this is where the penny drops. P1090115.JPGIf I had had any thought that Iran and India were culturally unconnected, that thought is gone. It is larger than what I saw in Iran, but the Persian arches, with the rounded but pointed shape, the internal gardens and liberal use of white marble, all give it away. The Mughal rulers of India, who reigned from 1526 to 1857, even called themselves ‘Shah’, like the rulers of Persia. P1090106.JPGLike the British after them, they were foreign invaders, who came from outside the Indian subcontinent. However, they are viewed somewhat more favourably, more accepted as part of Indian history. The best known of all the Mughal rulers, were Akbar the Great and Shah Jahan. The former built this fort and the latter designed its beautiful interiors. He is also famous for another building I can see out across the river. P1090125.JPGMore on that later. I love the fort, so much more full of life than the one in Amber, with green gardens and private rooms. I did find it a little uncomfortable though, finding the Shah’s private mosque full of inconsiderate tourists. If you visit an active mosque, it is always treated with respect, at least by those who run it. But here it is literally just a place to gawk at, and people are tramping around it.

 

The main attraction in Agra however, is the Taj Mahal. Built by Shah Jahan as a tomb and memorial to his wife, Arjumand Banu Begum. It is considered one of the most romantic gestures of grief in history. Now, it is one of the world’s largest tourist attractions, but I am determined that won’t spoil my visit. The view of the Taj Mahal is blocked by outer walls and huge gates, presumably so you don’t get bored of looking at it while you wait in the long queue. It is worth it though, once you have battled all your way through, as it appears all of a sudden and you have the best view.P1090146.JPG

I have seen pictures of the Taj Mahal so many times but seeing it in person is still amazing. It occurs to me how ironic it is though, that this symbol of India is 100% Persian in style. It would have looked totally at home in Isfahan, but would be out of place in Delhi or Mumbai. I circle around, trying to take photos that are not identical to the ones everyone else has taken, but it is a tricky job. Especially since there are thousands of other people here today alone.P1090147.JPG

Inside, it is clearly a mausoleum. Sadly, this gets no respect either and it is a scrum of tourists, all pushing each other around to get a poorly lit photo of a tomb.

The sun is setting as I leave, however the fog and pollution makes it look murky. It is a striking picture, but not all that romantic. P1090168.JPGI am impressed with the Taj Mahal, it manages to still be moving and beautiful when surrounded by tourists, in smog and totally out of its place and time. Like so often happens, this great architectural flowering was also the beginning of the decline of the Mughal Empire. Shah Jahan was one of the last great rulers, and while the Empire would last nearly another 200 years, it was never capable of anything like this again.P1090174.JPG

Pages of a travel diary: Week 9, Mountains and Temples

Pages of a travel diary: Week 9, Mountains and Temples

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from last year. This week I was travelling from Shimla, to Amritsar and on to McLeod Ganj

 

Day 57, Monday 3rd October: Kalka to Shimla

I am woken by a shout and a hard whack on my foot. It is 5am and the train has arrived, so everyone is being chucked off. I am in Kalka, a small station but a famous interchange. P1080734.JPGIt is the start of the Kalka-Shimla railway, which took the government of the British Raj up into the mountains to get away from the heat of the summer. I assumed it was just a tourist line now, as it is narrow gauge and not directly part of the national network. I could not have been more wrong.P1080737.JPG

The first train I come to is packed full in all the classes and there is literally no space to get on, or even hang on. I get myself an “unreserved” ticket and then find out which train is going next. All the seats are already full, but there is space to stand. I therefore find a spot to call my own and hold it. It is two hours of standing there, on this stationary train, waiting for it to go. I watch it fill up and I learn to stand my ground. If you give someone an inch to let them past, as I would at home, you never get it back. Don’t lean out of someone’s way or even lift a foot to allow someone to get through, you will find no space to put it back down again. Just as the train is ready to depart, and with people being turned away, half a dozen women turn up and they are allowed to board. In a way this is very gentlemanly, but at the same time I find it rather insidious. Here, women get their own carriages on trains, can jump queues and are always given room by men, but it definitely comes with the implication that they are more delicate: I find it offensively patronising.
Regardless, I now have hardly any space to stand and the prospect of standing for at least another four and a half hours to get to Shimla. For most of the journey though, I don’t mind. The railway winds up into the mountains, with impossible drops on either side. P1080850.JPGThere are hundreds of bridges and tunnels and occasional delightful hill stations. P1080757.JPGOur train has huge barrels on it and I find out that they are for delivering water to isolated dwellings.

The higher we go, the more impossible it seems. How can villages and the railway find purchase on such steep sided mountains. We are in the foothills of the Himalayas here, but it is a very sudden climb. The numbers of people reduce as we ascend and eventually I have room to stand comfortably. I am shifting from leg to leg, to give them each a rest, but never feeling like sitting on the floor. In the last fifteen minutes of the journey, I get to sit on the steps and lean out of the door.P1080764.JPGMy legs are very relieved and I am treated to the magnificent view right over the side and off the precipice.
It is 2pm when we arrive in Shimla, meaning that I stood for nearly seven and a half hours in total. I am actually glad, therefore, to be able to walk somewhere.
I powerwalk from the outskirts of the city to the YMCA hostel that I am booked into in the centre. I am so exhausted that I don’t really look around me and am at the hostel in no time. This is a Youth Hostel of the old-fashioned kind. Inside it is like what I imagine an old gentleman’s club looks like. Dour carpets, wooden panelled walls and the faint smell of damp. There are trophies and medals around and the feeling of austere Victorian behaviour about the place. I am given a set of Rules when I check in. I immediately break two of them by washing my clothes in the shower and hanging them to dry in my room and then walking outside again without handing my keys over at the desk. I fear I might get excommunicated, but that’s alright as long as it is tomorrow morning.
My first revelation about Shimla comes when I notice that I walked two miles at speed and did not even break a sweat. I confirm this is the case when I leave the hostel in a long sleeve shirt and trousers without instantly dying. For the first time since I left the UK, the temperature is actually bearable! The sky is grey and clouds surround this city on a mountaintop. P1080779.JPGI am at the long peak of the mountain and the city sprawls in tiers down from it, the lower ones lost in the mist. In the centre, there is a Church, a bandstand, a theatre and a school, all of which look remarkably British.

The passing school children are in ridiculous woollen uniforms and I know exactly what kind of place I am in. It is Disneyland version of England. Everything is olde-worlde and not quite actually like England at all, but you can see what they were going for. It is a city built as a homage to my own country, by the British ruling class who lived here till 70 years ago. It is not like any of India I have seen so far, but right now that is what I need. The best part of it all, is that no one is interested in me. P1080791.JPGNo shopkeepers call out and there are no rickshaws that can manage these steep streets. For the first time in ages, I can browse stores without fear of being dragged into haggling and so I actually start buying the things I have needed for ages. I sit in a café on my own and reflect on my journey in silence, I wander through the clean streets and collect my thoughts. If I was feeling homesick, this totally solves that. I go back to my hostel after dark and don’t have to have another shower, nor turn the aircon on and I know I am going to get a fantastic night’s sleep. I do have to close the windows though, to keep out the moneys.

 

Day 59, Wednesday 5th October: Amritsar

I wake up at 8am in this strange hotel room with no windows, sweating horribly. I make my way out as quickly as I can, thanking the owner for letting me stay, but hoping to not have to endure that place again.

In the light of day, the streets of central Amritsar are a building site, but a really promising looking one. P1080869.JPGThe roads are being paved and cemented by hand, while buildings and statues are going up everywhere. It is a city centre under construction. I am looking for somewhere with Wi-Fi, but the only place I find is a MacDonald’s, so I stand outside and use it, rather step over the threshold of an establishment I dislike so much. I did note a little plaque though, declaring that it is a Vegetarian Restaurant, P1080866.JPGapparently the only Veggie MacDonald’s in the world. I get a message from Robbie saying that they were late and wouldn’t arrive in Amritsar till the 5th, which is now today. Just as I am composing a response to him, I look up and there they are. Aimee, Robbie, Evan and Megan, who came by a different route from Jaisalmer, are wandering lost through the streets. We are back as a team.

I show them to the dormitories of the Golden Temple that I was barred from last night. This morning we are welcomed. It is just one small dormitory room, with a few other rooms off the side. All the beds are basic, with a thin mattress and a sheet, rammed together to make virtually one continuous bed for around a dozen people. There is hardly anyone in here, there is one shower and the toilet is in another building, but it is free and I am with my friends again.

P1080870.JPGOn our initial walk of the city, we deliberately avoid the Golden Temple proper, as we know we will go and see it in a bit, so want to explore. However, there is no agreed navigator, so we end up literally walking in a circle. Robbie takes the lead, but keeps on getting distracted by pretty buildings while Aimee gets increasingly hungry. Just when we decide to head back, we realise we are back where we started.

The ‘Golden Temple’ refers to both the specific golden shrine known as Sri Harmandir Sahib (The abode of God) and the whole complex in which the temple resides. It is the holiest site and centre of Sikhism. The complex is huge, including our accommodation, the much larger Sikh accommodation, the eating hall, schools, libraries and so on. All this surrounds the lake, which has the Sri Harmandir Sahib at its centre. The whole complex is made of while stone, with the walkways surrounded by trees. P1080871.JPGThe floors are made of marble, which causes a couple of interesting problems. Sikhs and visitors are required to wash their feet when they enter a temple, so here there are vast water troughs that you walk through on the way in, to accommodate the large numbers of visitors. This means you are walking on marble with wet feet, which is dangerously slippery in the colder months. This is not a problem in the summer, because it is so incredibly hot that your feet dry out and start burning instead. Hence, there are carpets rolled out on all the main thoroughfares, to make walking around not be agony. Nonetheless, the white of the marble, the green of the trees, the blue of the sky and the Golden, multi-layered temple at the centre does create a legitimately inspiring vision of a holy city.P1080873.JPG

Upon entry, your shoes are stored away and your hair has to be covered. P1080922.JPGAimee was on board with this already, and has a great headscarf, but the rest of us put on the ridiculous bandannas provided. We all feel rather conspicuous initially, but get used to it.

We go for food. They have what is probably the largest kitchen in the world here, serving 100,000 people each day. P1080875.JPGIt is a magnificent production line. As we go in, we see the lines of people washing dishes, chopping vegetables and then handing it out again to visitors. We join the queue and are rapidly provided with a stainless-steel plate and bowl, then are processed into one of the great eating halls. There are two of them, one above the other, so that people can be served continuously in a cycle, but they are cleaned between each shift. There is something of a school hall about them, and we all have to sit on the floor in rows. P1080915.JPGBut without a single word, food is bought in: chapattis, sweet rice, pumpkin curry and so on. They are slopped or dropped into the trays or directly into cupped hands, in the case of the chapattis. This is eating as part of a religion, although you are not obliged to believe to be served. For the Sikhs, this is a very literally interpretation of charity: anyone can turn up and eat, with no questions asked and no money demanded. And over a hundred thousand do, every day.

We eat our fill in near silence, as we are unsure how to behave on our first time in here, and make our way out as others do. The process continues as we leave, watching the dirty plates being taken off to be sorted and cleaned.P1080917.JPG

At last, we enter the heart of the temple complex, a large quadrangle, mostly a square lake, with the Golden Temple at its centre. The bright sun, the white marble and the golden construction all come together to make it hard to live without sunglasses. It is genuinely blinding. P1080890.JPGWhile walking around and wondering what everything is, an unexpected voice calls out to us:

‘What are you yanks doing here?!’ is bellowed in a strong Portsmouth accent and we turn to see a broad grin from a large man who looks the perfect Sikh. He has the beard and moustache, the turban and the hair and all the clothes. He even has his son with him, who is equally perfectly dressed. He doesn’t stand out at all from the other devout Sikhs here, other than his strong regional English accent.

‘Well these guys are yanks,’ I explain, ‘I’m from Oxford’

‘Well you do sound bloody posh!’, he smiles at us again ‘What do you wanna know?’

He tells us the early history of Sikhism and why this place was built, but it is such a large download of new information on such a hot day, hardly any of it goes in. In short, Guru Nanak formed the religion in the late 15th century after a revelation that reconciled Islam and Hinduism, at a time when the conflict of the two faiths was tearing apart all of India, and specifically the Punjab region. He was to become the first of 10 Gurus who formed the religion into what it is today. The fourth Guru founded Amritsar and organised the structure of Sikh society. P1080907.JPGUnfortunately for the Sikhs, and humanity generally, they were viciously persecuted by their Mughal rulers at the time, the British after that and even by the post-independence Indian government. This is why they all carry symbolic daggers and have a collective approach to civic defence. This is a manifestation of the conflicts they have suffered, for they are largely a peaceful religion, focused on helping the community. Certainly, this city is a world apart from the other cities in North India I have visited so far. It is cleaner, more caring and more welcoming than any. The fact that we have all been housed and fed for free is testament to that and something we are increasingly determined to repay. As we return to the dormitory, I have to explain to the Americans that ‘yanks’ refers to everyone in the USA to the British and I learn in return that it refers to only the people of northern states, in the USA.

 

Day 61, Friday 7th October: Amritsar to McLeod Ganj

We remember to donate when leaving the Golden Temple accommodation in Amritsar, as it is technically voluntary. Then, the five of us jumped in one tiny rickshaw to drive us to the railway station. With only the engine from a moped and 6 people with heavy bags on board, it struggled badly to get up to speed and the bumps in the road were painful, but we got there for 50 rupees each. Rather than being dropped off at the station entrance, we are dumped by a hole in the wall and have to dash across several railway tracks to get to the platform and onto our train.
I had had a tough night and am feeling poor by this point. Robbie was hit a lot harder and is sheet-white and silent. We are glad to be taking the comfortable train rather than a bus for this part of the journey. The two of us sit by the open window for the fresh air and close our eyes. Food is not an option. Given that we are being hit by what appears to be ‘Delhi belly’, I am surprised that the others are unaffected. We put it down to the chai that the two of us had last night.
At Pathankot (which we all had fun trying to pronounce), we change for a bus and it all gets a lot worse. Winding into the Himalayas again, the roads were narrow and bendy and the bus’s suspension failed a long time ago. P1080936Each end every swerve and bounce is agony. I try to sleep, or read, or something, but nothing works. We rise into the hills and it probably looks really nice, but I can’t focus. I want to vomit, but I also don’t want to. I am near a window, so at least I can get most of it out the bus if I need to.
Some tortured four hours later, including a bus change, we arrive in McLeod Ganj. This is the home of the Dali-Lama and a tidy mountain town at a similar altitude to Shimla. With the cooler air and cleaner streets, we immediately feel a little better.
P1080938.JPGWhen we reach the hotel, the owner can see we have had a hard journey and tells us to check in later. One of the benefits of having a large group is that you can share the cost, so we have two rooms between the five of us. Outside the window is a spectacular view of the tall tree lined hills down towards the plains. P1080935.JPG
Aimee, Megan, Evan and Robbie all go out for food. Robbie is feeling a little better and wants to try something. I, on the other hand, am feeling even worse, so I stay behind. I try to make some notes, but even that is too hard, so I snuggle up in bed.
When the four get back an hour later, they find me shivering under all the blankets in a boiling hot room. I think I might be ill.

 

 

Pages of a travel diary: Week 8, the deserts of Rajasthan

Pages of a travel diary: Week 8, the deserts of Rajasthan

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from last year. This week I was travelling from Jaipur to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan

 

Day 51, Tuesday 27th September: Jaipur

I ask the hotel owner how much I should be paying a rickshaw driver for a day visiting the Amber Fort. As he does not offer such trips himself, it is not in his interest to inflate the price, so he suggested I should pay between 400 and 500 rupees. Naturally, the first driver asks for 600, but armed with this knowledge, I rapidly bring him down to 450.

I quickly find out that he might not have been the ideal choice, as he starts texting while driving down busy roads, but then I get the impression many such drivers so this too! P1080532.JPGOur little antiquated taxi weaves in and out of modern vehicles and out of the city of Jaipur towards Amber, old Jaipur. This is 7 miles away from the modern city and is nestled amongst the mountains with a lake in the middle.

Standing over us is the Amber Fort, possibly the greatest example of Mughal military architecture in all of India. It was built in an age of cannon, so the walls are long and, while high, very stout. Architectural flourishes are used only on arches and roofs, away from anything that might actually be damaged in a battle.P1080542.JPG

I find out that I have come on ‘World Tourism Day’ which means that entry is free. This is a bit of a bummer, as I bought a combined ticket yesterday, which included admission to this place. It is a double bummer because every single tour group, school and other party has decided to take advantage of the free admission and come here today.P1080546.JPG

Through the hundreds of rooms, tight corridors and looming battlements, ran screaming school children, playing vast games of hide-and-seek, or local equivalents, making it impossible to find or look at anything. Nonetheless, the fort is impressive. Once inside, the architects felt they could be more elaborate and the fine Hindu designs could flower. There is, however, something vaguely Persian about it, the arches, painted tiles and towers do not feel a million miles away from the great fortresses of Iran.P1080549.JPG

Possibly because it is so vast, but also due to the developing nature of the Indian tourist industry, very little is done inside the walls to add value. There are the buildings that the ruling Maharaja lived in, which are nicer, and the gardens, but most of the rooms are now empty and bereft of purpose. In Europe, each one would have an exhibition of sorts in it, but here they are all empty and dark.P1080563.JPG It is a veritable maze and I frequently get lost inside, having to return to the central courtyard to reorient myself. One prominent exhibit, however, is bat defecation. P1080565.JPGMany of the darkest coridoors and towers are infested with the things and the smell of their poo surrounds the place. This naturally added fun for the children.

To escape the children and the poo, I find a ‘secret passage’ that goes up the hill to Jaigarh Fort, the next one up the hill from the Amber fort. It is less technically impressive, but is easier to defend, as it is another several hundred meters up the hill. P1080570.JPGIt is also successful in putting off tourists, although I have to pay for entry to this one. Inside it a lot more empty and I have the chance to appreciate it, after I have caught my breath.

P1080576.JPGSitting high in the mountains, Jaigarh Fort has stunning views of the surrounding area and actually has some exhibits. The staff are keen to show me around, showing off the largest canon in the world (at the time of its construction) and breaking their own rules on cameras by insisting on taking a photo with me. I know why all this is, so after I have been given a full tour of the place, I thank the member of staff with a few more rupees. It seems to be about what he was expecting.

As it was getting into the afternoon, I returned to my rickshaw driver who was very keen to take me to other places. I had read about this in advance: this is where he makes his money. By taking tourists to shops and other attractions, he gains a commission from those places, supplementing the price that he charges you directly.

First stop: an elephant sanctuary. I know that these places are not good for the elephants and I refuse to ride it. However, out of pity towards Sonia, the elephant, I give them some money to feed her. I imagine most of it won’t actually go to her, but I make my point sincerely and directly as it is all I can do.P1080595.JPG

Second stop: The Water Palace. This is on the water, so we don’t actually go to it, but there is a chance to get your photo taken with it in the background. I don’t.P1080596.JPG

Third stop: a visit to a genuine Guru. This will be free, I am told, and I have to wait outside while the Guru meditates. When I am finally let inside, I pay my respects as requested, but it is somewhat undermined by the fact that he is on his smartphone. He is clearly a perceptive man, picking up elements to my character which are not just generic mumbo-jumbo. Some of his advice for where to go in my life was sound and I wonder if I have misjudged him. Then he tells me that the solution to all my problems is to buy a blue sapphire, and I work out what this is all about. I make my excuses in the most spiritual way I can think of and leave without buying any stones. Nonetheless, I can come away feeling like I have met a slightly eccentric therapist and I am better for the chat.

Fourth Stop: the driver’s “uncle’s” textile shop. Once again I am reassured that I will not have to buy anything. Scarves, carpets and clothes are laid before me and I am asked to inspect them. Of course, I don’t have to buy anything. I am asked which ones I like best and the numbers are whittled down to one or two. Naturally, I am not expected to buy any of them. Prices for each of them are suggested and I am asked how much I would be happy to pay. Nonetheless, I am not being forced to buy anything. When I say I am not interested at this point, the bartering tactic changes. First it was about the fine quality, now it is about charity, helping the workers, as the shopkeeper made no profit. I politely decline, as I had been told I could all along. As I leave, with nothing purchased, there is a huge row going on between my Rickshaw driver and his “Uncle”. I think that might have been my fault.

Finally, we arrive back at my hostel. My driver looks rather downcast when I hand over the money. I feel a little bad at this point. I have been very proud of how I have been refusing to buy anything all day, forgetting that he actually relies on these commissions to even make it worthwhile. I therefore do tip him a little, to make up for being a rubbish tourist.

 

Day 53, Thursday 29th September: Jaisalmer

With the camel safari this evening, I sit in the rooftop restaurant, under a fan, and plan where to go for the rest of my time in India. Guidebooks all around me, with breakfast omelette balanced on top of one of them, I trace a convoluted line from Jaisalmer to Kolkata. While sitting there, four Americans appear, two men and two women, having just checked in. They are exhausted and can’t wait to go to their room, but I overhear they have been to some interesting places, so I corner one of them, Robbie. The tallest of the four and with an impressive beard, looking like a young Santa Claus, I find out he is from Chicago and the four of them have just come from teaching English in South Korea. Not only does he have some suggestions for places to go (Goa sounding like a good idea) but he is the first backpacker I have met with a mutual love of video games. So rather than discussing anything relevant, we discuss how much we’re going to be missing the new Pokémon games.

After they leave, and I am still sitting there, the manger comes over and asks if I could move my camel safari to tomorrow, instead of tonight, to group everyone together and save on cost. This would mean joining the four Americans, who seemed nice, so I agree.

 

I now have the afternoon free, so I decide to have a look at the great fort of Jaisalmer. It is not hard to find, from outside my hotel I can see it looming over the heart of the city. However, when I walk over towards it I find there is a problem: I can’t find the entrance. P1080602.JPGIts bastions are so imposing, its walls so high and the promontory it is on is so defensible, there is no obvious way in. There are people up there though, so I know you are supposed to go inside, so I begin the long walk around.

From every angle it is impressive, the earthen ramparts and high walls silhouetted against the deep blue sky. Everything is a light brown, the colour of the sand and earth here. The streets here are nice too. P1080599.JPGIt may be really hot, but it is a dry heat, so as long as I drink half a dozen litres a day, it is bearable. Plus, this is not nearly so touristy as anywhere else I have been in India, so the streets are not filled with rickshaw drivers, beggars and con-artists. After a very long loop, I arrive back where I started and realise that I had been nearly looking at the entrance where I first began. P1080609.JPGFeeling a little silly, I walk inside. There are a series of gatehouses going up into the fort, each one tougher than the last and each one a death trap for an invading army. It is a 360’ degree museum too, with the old walls in perfect condition.

At the top of the climb is the final and largest of the gatehouses, which reeks of bat poo, but is spectacular in style and through it I find another city.

I had assumed that it would be a museum in here, but it turns out people still live here, in streets more tightly packed than I have seen before, other than in the slums of Mumbai. They are, however, tidy and the almost total absence of vehicles, bar motorbikes, makes them a lot more pleasant to walk around. P1080616.JPGHere, everything is still made of the sandy bricks of the fort and the shops and homes are looked after. It is sort of a museum, but it is a living one. I walk to the edge of the fort and stand on one of the towers to look over the modern city below. It is quite a view from all angles, seeing the city sprawled out in all directions, but with the savanna and dessert beyond.P1080620.JPG

Just as I am about to leave, I run into the Americans again and since we are going to have to put up with each other tomorrow, I decide to join them. Other than Robbie, there is Evan, Megan and Aimee and they are accompanied by a French guy called Bryce. They are all trying to pronounce his name, with increasingly outrageous French accents. He declares that if you can produce it correctly, you can speak the entire French language.

Bryce wears a Stetson and sunglasses and is everything you’d expect from that kind of guy. He is constantly friendly and yet chilled and is totally not the kind of guy you want to be around walking through an Indian city. Everyone who calls out to us, offering cheap clothing or the best food, he goes and chats too. Someone offers a camel safari for a better price than our hotel, so immediately he tries to persuade us to join this one, without asking for any more details. Luckily, the other guys are not so easily persuaded, and we drag him away from the touts. Evan explains that this is a problem they’ve been having for a while, but that Bryce is good fun regardless.

Bryce moved onto the English language to have a good French moan:

‘Your language is stupid’, he says, with comic exaggeration of his French accent, ‘you have so many words missing.’ Apparently, this is one of his favourite complaints, Evan tells me, ‘why do you have no word for a girl who is your friend, but not your girlfriend?’ he finishes

‘Because we just call them our friends?’ Evan suggests, ‘describing their gender isn’t really that important’

‘Its just stupid’, he smiles, ending that little dig at the English

 

Evan is a well-built guy and before talking to him I would have assumed he was into hanging out with the lads in the gym and infidelity. Maybe that’s just my impression of Americans. Actually, he is a really relaxed and pleasant guy, a mediator of arguments and very loyal to Megan, who I find out is his girlfriend. Him and Robbie have been friends since childhood. Back at our hotel, with Bryce safely returned to his, the five of us spend an evening on the roof, appreciating the cool air, eating curry and drinking rather too much rum. Having been on my own for so long, and not having anyone to just chill out with, I am talking too much, but they put up with me. Aimee is all smiles and fiery red hair, able to keep up with the guys in drinking and the banter. Megan initially comes across as the most demure, like a polite host at a conference or in a cocktail party, till we all get comfortable chatting. I learn that she is kind, but can stand her ground and always gets the deciding vote. She and Aimee are also childhood friends, and the two of them make a fearsome, and noisy, duo. They all quickly make me feel part of the team by filling me in on their adventures. I learn about their teaching in South Korean and how much they love the country. They are travelling before going back home to the USA, where Robbie wants to continue teaching. Unfortunately, we get discussing politics, both the UK and the USA are in a bad place right now. I reassure them that at least they have the chance to turn it around still: the Brexit referendum might have happened, but the US Presidential Election is very much still anyone’s’ game.

 

 

Day 54, Friday 30th September: Jaisalmer

In advance of our safari later, I have to get some cash out. As I walk into the street, a relative of the owner, who I have seen before, asks to help. I can’t really complain, because I don’t know where the cash machines are, and it is impolite to refuse help from an acquaintance. He takes me to one over the road, but there is a long queue. So, he says there is another. We go down some dodgy looking alleys, jumping over sewage in the road and round the back of a number of shops, to the next machine. This one is broken. So, on he beckons me, to a further machine, which has run out of cash. At this point, I am pretty sure he is trying to kill me, but I am more annoyed at the fact that if I had queued at the first place, I’d have my cash by now. However, we eventually find one, in its own little airconditioned booth, that works. I get a couple of thousand rupees out and find that he has walked off. I now have to navigate my way back across the city on my own. Well done me.

 

It is the early afternoon when we assemble and head off on our Camel Safari. It is Aimee, Megan, Robbie, Evan and myself, accompanied by Bryce, two more Americans and an Australian called Harley. We are all bundled into a jeep and driven out along the desert roads towards the wilderness. P1080634.JPGSafely in the back four seats, my friends are alright, but I am crushed between Harley and his friend, who use the opportunity to start handing out Bhang cookies. Bhang is reconstituted cannabis, and can be found cheaply here in milk drinks (bhang lassies) and for baking. The four recently-teachers decline them, as do I, but the others, including Bryce, munch away. This is where I truly appreciate the two different kinds of backpackers in India: the ones looking for adventure and the others looking for a ‘good time’. By the time we pull up just off the roadside, they are all a bit energetic.

We have arrived at a random patch of desert, although it is still more like savanna here. There is a team of locals with camels sitting around them and the humans come over to help us out. P1080638.JPGThey load the camels with bottles of water and other supplies, then show us each how to mount a camel. This is a tricky process. It is hard enough to swing your leg over their formidable back when they are lying down, but when they stand up is the hard part. Their weirdly flexible legs mean that they lean violently forward as they stand up, so you have to lean backwards so as not to slip off. Once up, you are so scarily high and feel unbalanced. Once I was up and could look around, it was hilarious to watch other people as the camels stood up. I was very glad the camel owners knew what they were doing, as we were all clearly useless.

Once you have got the rhythm of the camel walking, it is easy enough to stay on. You rock with its motion and so, even when going up and down hill, you stay firmly on its back. I quickly realise why camel trains have been such an important part of history: you can ride them for hours, totally comfortably and they can carry so much. It is so pleasant a rocking sensation, that I find myself nodding off to sleep.P1080651.JPG

Around us is short grass, a few grazing goats and the odd peacock. In the distance is a wind farm, reminding us that we are still in the 21st century. Then, out of the blue, a very old tractor comes past with a trailer behind full of straw and family members. It is a mildly ludicrous reminder of the true nature of rural Rajasthan, as compared to the nostalgic but technically incorrect image of these camel riders. P1080667.JPG

After an hour or so of riding, much of it in a pleasant silence, the dunes emerge. This is proper desert: rolling waves of sand, bereft of life above the microscopic level and baked by the sun. We go some way into the dunes, then go through the equally scary dismounting process.P1080685.JPG

With our camp made, I go with the other guys to sit at the top of a ridge of sand, just a few meters away. The sand is perfect, better than on any beach I have ever been. It is so dry that it doesn’t stick, but flows perfectly between your fingers. We take turns to jump off onto the steep bank, sliding down the flow of sand, then trudging back up. It is warm and comfortable but hard to wade through where it is thick. In the context of the open desert, different minds work in different ways. Harley started asking riddles in the falling dark. I didn’t feel in the mood, so I walk away, off into the night alone. I had the camp fire behind me for guidance, but found a spot where I could hear nothing and see no one. It was so strange to be alone in this dark place with a totally flat horizon.P1080712.JPG

Eventually, I return to the campsite. There is a simple curry being dished out, as we all sit on the sand. The desert is a very fun place to be at night, if you are safe and welcome like this. I find Robbie, Evan, Megan and Aimee and sit amongst my friends.

Pages of a travel diary: Week 7, A Warm Welcome to India

Pages of a travel diary: Week 7, A Warm Welcome to India

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from last year. This week I was travelling from Mumbai to Udaipur

 

Day 42, Sunday 18th September: Mumbai

This was not what I expected Mumbai to look like. Polished marble, orderly queues and smartly uniformed guards. I am processed swiftly through customs (they don’t check if I have an onward flight) and I am deposited in the empty entrance hall. It is 5am. There are taxis taking people expensively to onward destinations, but I know what I am looking for: the autorickshaw rank. This is where I find the Mumbai I was expecting.

It is the tail end of the monsoon season; the rain is thundering down and a line of bedraggled autorickshaws (also known as Tuk-tuks) sit just under the crude concrete roof of this side exit to the airport. The dozen drivers are huddled around, smoking, and look up at the white tourist as he appears. They all rush over to help, even if they can’t, because the one who gets this faire will be able to take the rest of the morning off. I know this, and on a better day would be ready to haggle them down, but it is still dark, I am exhausted and I just need to get to my hostel. One man works out the address of my hostel and translates it into Marathi, the local language, in the hope that someone will then know where it is. Several of them shake their heads, but one perks up and beckons

‘I will take you. No problem. Come, come with me.’

I know there is a fair chance he is talking bollocks, but I need to get moving in the right direction, so I hop in the back of the tuk-tuk and off we go. An autorickshaw is a motorbike converted into a small taxi. The back seat can fit two people, as long as you are not too wide or tall, with a basic roof that comes from the two back wheels around to the simple windscreen. In traditional Indian fashion, the wing-mirrors are inside (they wouldn’t last long outside) and the whole thing rattles. Tuk-tuks are a horrible way to travel long distances, they are noisy and polluting and you will get ripped off by the ‘enterprising’ drivers. But they are the cheapest way to get around, they can go where no other vehicle can and you really don’t want to walk.

The price goes from 50 rupees, to 100. When he finds the estate but not the hostel, the price goes up to 200. In the end, I have to insist that he just drops me off, as the driver obviously does not know where he is going. He seems appalled that I would consider going anywhere on foot.

Mumbai is a vast city, some of it hugely developed and modern. Some of the streets we went down from the airport were broad and tidy, even if dark and soaked. But it is also overcrowded and even the most important roads have a creep of people and stalls and parked cars out into the main lanes. The monsoon has also been long and the roads are ruined, making it a bumpy ride. They don’t bother to repair them till the weather dries up. The ‘estate’ I am staying in appears to be a densely packed area of high-rise flats. As I get away from the main road, the tall building press in and it gets darker, but still unbelievably wet. How Indians construct things is hard to describe, but no space is wasted.P1080237.JPG These potentially roomy streets are made into narrow thoroughfares, with no passing space for vehicles due to the canopies and detritus that encroaches on either side. Few people are around at this time of the morning, but that makes it only more terrifying, walking through this obviously well-lived-in domestic conglomeration as an outsider. Eventually, I find the tall and slim building that has the correct address. The first thing I notice is two signs, from two and four years prior, declaring the hostel there illegal. I smile, this is the evidence I need that it is the right place. I step around the person sleeping at the bottom of the stairwell and up two flights and knock on the door.

A young Indian man introduces himself: he is Bunty and I have clearly just woken him up. Nonetheless, he shows me to my bed and tells me to worry about the paperwork later. I put my bag down and climb into my top bunk. It is a tiny room, with six bunk beds crammed in. It is very dark, the only light coming from the murky dawn outside. The window is open as there is no working air-conditioning, so the rain is coming into the room. I fall asleep.

 

It is now 10am and I have just woken up again. It feels like a new day to me, but there are still a lot of hours left. I explore the hostel; it is very small. There is another room from the one I am in, separated by a curtain, this is the female dorm. The family who own the place, organised by Bunty, have another, then there is just a central communal area with table and a kitchen. I try a shower and it comes out cold. In the humid air, this isn’t too bad. Someone asks Bunty later:

‘You advertised that there was hot water here. Why doesn’t it work?’ and he replies,

‘If you want hot water, I can get some for you in a bucket!’

But the tiny place is buzzing with backpackers. This is not a place for casual tourists or even gap-yah types, everyone here is a proper traveller. I learn how to book tickets on the incredibly complicated Indian railways website, learn about the best places to visit across the country and begin to plan my route.

However, I cannot sit around for long, so I go outside, still in shorts, t-shirt and sandals, but with my raincoat thrown over the top. Even that is a bit too warm, but it keeps the rain off. The nearest station is Andheri: a concrete disaster with baffling flyovers and a dismal brown/grey ticket ‘office’. It is open on two sides to the rain and the queues sprawl out into it.

This is my first experience of Indian Railways and it does not disappoint. After a scrum to get the ticket, with a confusing fare structure and much shouting, I make my way over to the rammed platform and bail onto the train. Bizarrely, there are actually seats available, which comes as a shock, but then I realise that I have got on the slow train. I watch the slums mingling with shining new offices, people living on railway tracks and people living in mansions. At each station, we are joined by beggars and tradesmen, offering food, demanding money and respecting no personal space. You never have room or time to yourself here and it is exhausting.

In the tip of Mumbai is the old British city. I visit Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station, formally known as Victoria Terminus, one of the busiest railway stations in the world. P1080222.JPGOutside it is dramatic European gothic, but inside it is practical Indian concrete and steel. It is as if everything beautiful in Mumbai was built in the past, in the present there is only time for the most hardy and practical of structures, to manage the huge flow of people.P1080218.JPG

There are other such structures, museums and churches, post offices and monuments, built by the aristocracy of the British Empire but now used by ordinary Indians. It is raining heavily again as I reach the ‘Gateway to India’. It is not as large as I expected, possibly because the cameramen of documentaries have an incentive to make it look dramatic. A bit like the White House. The skyline is bleak and the day dismal, but the intensity of Mumbai has already made an impression on me.P1080231.JPG

 

Day 44, Tuesday 20th September: Mumbai

I may be determined, but in the face of the monsoon, most plans fall apart. I speak to my parents, who have experience of India, and they tell me to get out of Mumbai as fast as possible. With the earliest train out already booked (they have to be made at least several days in advance), I use the time to plan where to go next. Sitting with a map and a guidebook, I plot a course around India, with the main tourist sites as the trunk route and branches off to other places of interest. I have six weeks in India till my booked flight, but that is starting to look like no time at all.

They get takeaway delivered straight to the hostel en-masse and those of us still stranded here dine in style. I can tell you that Indian food in India is quite different to elsewhere and infinitely preferable. Just as I am going to sleep again, I realise that the first ticket I booked I had done wrong. I might not be getting out of Mumbai tomorrow as planned.

 

Day 48, Saturday 24th September: Udaipur

The City Palace of Udaipur is the archetypal ‘Indian Palace’, perhaps it is the one American filmmakers all go to for an idea of ‘what Indian looks like’. Regardless, it is stunning, if somewhat strangely familiar. P1080348.JPGBuilt under, and stilled owned by, the Mewah Dynasty, it is a triumph of fine, delicate architecture, thousands of arches and pointy roofs and hundreds of bejewelled rooms with no particular purpose. I had seen the palace in the sunset last night, but this morning I walk up to it in the baking sun to take it in properly. Like any sensible backpacker, I get a student ticket using a usefully misleading card I carry and get in for half price. I head to the museum, which is the part of the palace open to the public. The whole place is not open, as the Maharaja still resides here some of the time. However, he no longer rules anything, since Mewah was incorporated into the state of Rajasthan. At the entrance to the museum I read that they charge to take your camera in and, to stop people cheating, you have to deposit your camera if you aren’t paying. Not wanting to risk my photo collection, but also not wanting to pay to take photos, I come up with an ingenious plan. I put my camera in my pocket. The guards search my bag thoroughly and find nothing, so I walk in with my camera. Being an honest man though, I do not use it to take photos.

The Palace museum has dozens of great exhibits in its many rooms: great artwork of their victories over the Muslim Mughals, battles with their Hindu neighbours of Maharashtra and never really giving in to the British. They have a proud tradition of opposing just about everyone. The museum also contains the actual glasses of Gandhi… the 1982 movie that is, as worn by the actor Sir Ben Kingsley. Perhaps more interestingly, there is also a letter from the Maharaja, from 1969, declaring that if Communism is the only way to solve India’s social problems, then he was happy to give up his wealth to that end. Either he had a change of heart, or someone decided that communism didn’t seem to solve much.

Back in the Palace gardens, my phone decides to shut down because it is too hot. P1080368.JPGThis is a feature that I didn’t know about, but my reliance on Google maps to get around the winding streets of this city rather puts me at a loose end. I therefore revert to the old-fashioned method of navigation. I see a thing in the distance and try and walk there.

To get up into some of the mountains around Udaipur, there are cable cars. I can see them from the palace, so proceed to walk the 2 miles along the lakeside towards them. The gardens carry on here, and I pass a number of guards to each different area. P1080377.JPGThe lake is serene, with a boat drifty lazily towards another palace that sits at water level in the middle of the lake. P1080372.JPGAll is well and I am almost there, till I hit a closed gate.

‘You cannot go through here’, the guard explains, briefly

‘I’m just going to the cable cars, right there’ I point

‘No entry, you must go back and around’

‘How far back?’, I ask

‘Just back. Not far’

Nothing to worry about then, I think, and wander back to the previous guard I passed

‘Excuse me, how do I get to the hills over there’, I start again

‘No entry through here’, he says, despite the fact that I obviously know, as I am walking away from the locked gate, ‘you must go back’

‘How far back?’ I ask

‘Just back. Not far’

This is roughly repeated, till I reach the City Palace again. I have now walked nearly four miles in the midday sun for nothing. I find that I have to walk along the main road to get there. Because who’d want to walk along the lakeside between two of the area’s major tourist attractions(!) I remember that this is because the locals don’t do walking. If two things are more than a couple of hundred meters apart, anyone with money will take a rickshaw, taxi or drive themselves the distance. And the only people who can afford to be tourists, have enough money. I found this in Mumbai and it continues to be a problem: only weird tourists walk.

Thrown onto the cable car, I am whisked over the tree tops to the highest point on this side of the city. It is a stunning view and I can finally make sense of the area: how the lake is the centre of the old city, where the palace is relative to the hostel and so on.P1080388.JPG

Now it rains apocalyptically.

I am just getting an ice-cream from the little shop at the top of the cable car and it gets torrential. There is no way I can explore the mountain top in t-shirt, shorts and sandals. The cable car stops too, for a bit, so I sit and think about life and the solitary nature of travel. If I had someone to talk to, this would be rather fun. Instead, it is just kind of miserable. P1080398.JPGThe cable car gets going again and when I arrive back down the rain is just stopping. I resign myself to getting a rickshaw. However, I have acquired a belligerent streak and walk past every single driver who is calling out to me. I find the one driver who is sitting quietly in his tuk-tuk and not bothering anyone and ask him politely if he could take me back to the centre. He does, and for a very good price too.

 

To round off the day, I want to go up to the ‘Monsoon Palace’, up on the opposing hill overlooking the lake. It is the best place to take photos of sunsets. My guidebook says that there is a man who takes a mini-bus up the hill each day at 5pm, so I wait in the square for him. In the minutes leading up to the hour, over a dozen rickshaw drivers try and temp me, and the others who turn up, to go with them. Much to my annoyance, several of them give in, believing their talk that the normal driver is not coming. He does, at 5pm, as promised, and is rather miffed that there are now only two of us waiting. However, the person still with me is a young woman from Delhi, here on a weekend away, and she persuades him in Hindi that two is enough to make it worth the trip.P1080406.JPG

This is typical of my experience thus far in Mumbai and Udaipur. People are prepared to make anything up to get money out of you and constantly undermine the authority of the government and genuine services to make a bit of cash. The good service is then less effective or closes down because no-one is using it honestly. Then people complain that there are no services and the government never helps them. Another example is that I saw people throwing rubbish on the ground everywhere, saying that they had to because the government doesn’t provide bins. It is this kind of lazy logic that makes big projects or larger businesses impossible in these cities.

Complaining aside, we are taken to the Monsoon palace atop the mountain and the view is even better than the one earlier. P1080414.JPGThe city looks great, but it is the view the other direction, over fields and distant mountains, that truly inspires. P1080425.JPGThere is one perfect place to stand on the top floor of the palace, with the sunset over a forest, framed by a carved stone window. The trouble is, you can’t get a photo of it, because everyone is standing in the way taking selfies or photos of each other. I wouldn’t mind if they were getting good photos, but as any photographer knows, you can’t really take a selfie with the sun. P1080435.JPGIf your only light source is behind the object you are photographing, you either get a silhouette, or a person with a totally wiped out background. It is almost funny, watching people take a selfie, inspect the picture, groan, try again and again and again. It isn’t funny though, because it meant I can’t find the 5 seconds required to take a nice photo of the scene.P1080437.JPG

Clearly my irritation for other travellers is growing. And maybe even for travelling itself.P1080454.JPG

Pages of a travel diary: Week 6, Intriguing Iran

Pages of a travel diary: Week 6, Intriguing Iran

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from last year. This week I was travelling through Iran

 

Day 34, Saturday 10th September: Tehran

Don’t go on flights that take off in the middle of the night. As the first one of my journey, I am quickly reminded why I don’t like them. We arrive before sunrise in an ordinary looking airport. You can never tell anything about a country from its airports. The immigration queue is slow: there are genuinely people arriving without Visas just expecting to get them and getting turned away. When it is my turn, I try not to look conspicuous. My visa was a pain to get and the embassy charged me a lot. I know the Iranian government doesn’t like the British (for understandable historical and present reasons) but I hoped it might all work. The guard types something in on a keyboard, he didn’t do that for anyone else. He keeps looking at me and going back to the PC. A moment lasts eternity. Then he nods at me, professionally and wordlessly, indicating that I can pass. I try not to breathe a sigh of relief, in case security pounce on me. But I am in, to a country most people told me I was mad to go to, and without a fuss. I do have to go on a tour, but that it probably for the best in a country I am totally unfamiliar with. A man who speaks no English meets me at the exit and takes it on faith that I am his passenger. I have to take it on faith that he is the right driver too. I get in a taxi and we drive out of the airport as the sun rises.P1070822.JPG

Tehran airport appears to be in the middle of the desert. It is connected by a huge motorway that stretches over the flat horizon and we thunder along it. There are hardly any lines on the road and those that there are, are ignored. I don’t know what the speed limit is, but the driver must be going faster than it! Even in the suburbs of Tehran, he doesn’t slow down much. The buildings are vaguely eastern, but no more so than in Turkey and, in this part of the city at least, fairly small and low.P1070824.JPG

Eventually, we arrive at one of many hotels and I am met by my guide, a young woman called Emel. Like all Iranian women, she wears a headscarf, and like most of them, it is brightly coloured and does a poor job of actually covering her head. The impression of her is wide eyes and teeth, like a stereotypical geek with glasses and braces, but without either actual props.

Her English is near perfect, if American English, but littered with odd turns of phrase and strange pacing. It is like she is reading from a child’s script of what a tour guide should say. She tells me she has never left Iran and I believe her. Her manner is warm and friendly though and she asks if she is talking too much, only a few sentences in.

‘No, not at all,’ I politely reply.

‘Okay. I do not want to “talk-your-ear-off”’, she replies.

Only 10 minutes later I regret not being more honest and asking her to lay off a little. I have had less than an hour’s sleep all night and the plane food has given me cramps, and here is an Iranian woman trying to get me to run around Tehran at 8am!
I am surprised to discover that there is no one else on the tour. I had thought it would be a large group, but actually it was supposed to be two and the other person failed to turn up. From several days of being solitary in Istanbul, I am suddenly subjected to a woman who is literally able to talk for her country.

My tour of Tehran is quick but detailed. I learn that most of the city was built in the last 100 years by the Pahlavi dynasty, who were keen on amalgamating Persian and Western styles. If I imagined I had left the west behind, I was quickly disabused of that notion. One of the reasons for the Iranian revolution of 1979 was that their rulers were perceived as too Western.

Further highlighting the connection of Iran and the countries to the west, is the Tehran Archaeological museum. I couldn’t have read most of the descriptions, as they were in Farsi, but didn’t need to; Emel talks me through everything at horrifying speed. The Persians have been there since the beginning of civilisation. In fact, some of the first great human cultures were Persian, from the Sumerians to the Assyrians. In Europe, we have a reinforced negative view of Persia because our whole history has been in conflict with them. The Israelites, the Greeks, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottoman and the British Empires all fought against Persians. To us, they were always the villains. But notice something: all those civilisations have ended, while the culture of Persia, now Iran, is continuous, if constantly changing. P1070832.JPGTo them, they are the same people as they were 3,000 years ago, something no other culture can even take a stab at. Fundamentally though, Persia and now Iran, has a history that is intertwined with European civilisations. While Rome and the Persians never permanently conquered any of each other’s territory, they learned everything from each other. Rivals often end up emulating each other and so the organisation of Persian armies, law codes and sanitation, was very similar in to in Roman Italy. Far from entering a totally different world, I realised that in Iran I had found the descendant of a sister culture to Rome.

Back in Modern Iran, Emel shows me how to hail a cab. The road sides are always crowded with parked cars and people, so you walk out into the road, right into the edge of the moving traffic and shout at passing cabs. They slow when they see you, you shout the destination, and if they fancy taking you, they stop. You then haggle a price one the side of the road, prepared to walk away if it is not good enough. What should have not surprised me, but did, was the willingness of anyone to do this. Emel and other women I saw, were totally happy to do this dangerous procedure and have a shouting match with (usually) male taxi drivers. It showed a level of confidence amongst women that I did not see in Turkey nor in most of Europe. I see the same around the Tehran grand bazaar, women out and about as freely as the men, showing self-confidence and control.

Here at the Bazaar, we stop for lunch, in a traditional local restaurant.

This is what being on a proper tour does for you. We are in an old bath house and once again it is comparable to Turkish and ancient Roman styles. There are distinct rooms which had once been for the different temperatures. Now they represented different types of seating. We go for chairs, rather than the lounges in other rooms. Inside the conical brick room, with aquatic stylings and stained-glass windows, we are presented with a traditional meal. We have barberry rice, a kind of curried chicken and doogh, a yoghurt drink. I am immediately struck by how unique, but also how understandable, it was. If you had to describe food half way between Turkey and India, between kebab and curry, this would be it. Their love of yoghurt matches too. It is far too heavy for me though and the excess of flatbreads makes me want to lie down for a bit. No chance though, Emel has a full itinerary for me.

Back on the move, I discover how rare tourists are in Iran and how far they still have to go towards gender equality. On the metro, there are women only compartments, but we have to go in the mixed ones. For the entire journey, we are starred at by men who are confused or disapproving at a woman travelling with a white man. I ignore it, I am used to being weird in foreign countries, but I know I can only be so confident because I am a tall white man. What pleases me though, is that Emel is totally not okay with it. She rants about the backward and creepy men. If she is prepared to say such things so openly, then it is a sign that their society is changing.

The metro journey is worth it though. We arrive at Dar Band, high in the hills above Tehran, it is cool here. Further up in the mountains, there is actually skiing in the winter: not all of Iran is desert. Dar Band is where the people of Tehran go in the evenings: a winding river meanders down and there are restaurants all the way up on both sides. Some of them even sit on the water.

It is green, cool and pleasant. However, I am feeling pretty awful. My tiredness is compounded by continuing stomach ache. Emel insists that I try some of the local street food and I politely accept, despite my agony. In a bizarre twist of fate, putting vinegary food into a pained stomach does exactly what it needed to do. I feel a sharp stab of pain and rush over to the riverside. There is a small stone wall which I lean over and, as delicately as I can, I deposit my stomach contents into the river. I am sick several times, over the edge and down several meters into the swirling current. All the process lasts few seconds and I find myself a new man, it is transformative. Suddenly I can enjoy the place, I have renewed energy and I am not tired. I dash up the stairs, bounce up the ledges and up further into the mountains.

Eventually we stop for some food and tea on one of the river restaurants. The waiters jump from table to table across the water to serve the food and we relax with the water cooling the air. This is our last chance to stop before going to catch our overnight bus to the next city. Iranians love their tea almost as much as the Turks. It is similarly presented: black in glasses. In fact, Emel is visibly disgusted at the idea of putting milk in it! They have more ceremony about it here though. The pot and glasses are decorated and the person who pours it has special status. While in Turkey, tea is a habit, here it is like a blessing, a ceremony of companionship. We finally talk as equals, rather than tour guide and tourist. Emel has a lot of trouble with the conservative elements in Iranian society. Most men she knows, want an obedient wife who stays at home, whereas she wants to keep her job and be independent. She believes it is a serious problem for all working women in her country. Parents are also still quite a conservative force for many, rather than encouraging children to be what they want, as mine did. The problems she faces I have heard from many others around the world; the troubles of being a modern woman in a culture that is not quite so modern.

 

 

Day 40: Friday 16th September: Persepolis

Persepolis. You might not know what it is, I don’t until Emel fills me in, but there is a good chance you have heard of it. Bits of it sit in the British Museum and the Louvre. Some jump to call it the Persian Pompeii, but that invites unhelpful comparisons.
The city of Persepolis was only ever a ceremonial capital, basically an elaborate palace celebrating the Achaemenid kingdom at its height. It was in use from around 550 to 330BC and was never lost, only abandoned after its destruction by Alexander the Great. Because of its importance, the ancient Persians couldn’t help but give it their signature sense of occasion. The whole city is on a vast man-made plateau on the plains, backing up to the mountains. This means, as I approach, all I can see are sheer walls, with the impression of some buildings on top. P1080108.JPGI enter by the right hand of two sweeping staircases, symmetrically doubling back on themselves. At the top, lies the Gate of All Nations with guarding winged centaurs standing either side of the pillars. P1080116.JPGWhile the superstructure was built of stone, most of the actual walls in Persepolis were constructed of sun-baked clay, as was common at the time. This means that what has survived is the ‘frames’ of buildings. I could easily have walked around the Gate of All nations, if there wasn’t a polite rope suggesting I ought not. Inscribed on the side of the Gate, is aristocratic graffiti: British explorers and generals who had their names professionally carved into it, to mark their discovery.
In a moment of national pride that went on far too long, Emel shows me one memorial which has survived perfectly. A vast carving, showing a procession of the people the Achaemenid kingdom had conquered, runs along one wall. She explains each ‘nation’ of the 28, describing them in detail and how the Persians conquered them. The ancient artists used racial stereotypes heavily, as they expected any observer would know who the people with donkeys were, or who had curly hair. The Empire was massive though; from India to Greece, you have to give them that. P1080122.JPG
When I manage to tear her away, Emel quickly loses interest in the rest of the site, I guess she has seen it dozens of times before. I venture on alone, walking through the remains of palaces and climbing up into the foot of the mountains. A little way up there is the Tomb of Artaxerxes II, who wasn’t all that important, but they ran out of space where all the other Tombs were, which I am told I will see later. From the entrance, of his tomb, which is now sealed, you can see back over the whole city and I try and take in the view.


This is somewhat hampered by some Iranian tourists, who think I am more interesting.
‘Hello!’ comes a shout from behind me. I swivel around and see a small girl running away from me. She returns with her older sister in hand and tries again, ‘Hello! Where are you from?!’
‘I am from England’, I reply in my most patronising voice, hoping that there are no fluent English speakers around, because I will look like a right idiot to them. ‘Where are you from?’
She ignores that, ‘Do you like Iran?!’ she continues, every question also an exclamation
‘Yes. It is a beautiful country’ I reply, wondering if I should have used a shorter word. This stilted conversation goes on a little longer and draws a crowd of half a dozen young Iranians. Eventually she runs out of questions and runs off again. The elder sister then turns to me and says:
‘Thanks for that, she is working really hard on her English’.
I feel like such a white tourist, but it appears that this is what they wanted.

Accompanying Persepolis is Necropolis, an even more familiar name because it means the City of the Dead. This is the valley of the Kings of Ancient Persia, except it is less of a valley and more of just one massive a wall. Along it are a string of huge tomb facades, all well off the ground so that they cannot be reached. P1080158.JPGCarved underneath are the accomplishments of the Shahs, such as the defeat of a Roman Emperor in battle, or the making of an alliance. It is a remarkable reminder that the Persians were once as powerful as the Romans or the Egyptians in their own time, able to command huge empires and build great monuments. But they did it all without slavery.

At last, a train. Iran has a railway network, but I didn’t pay enough to use it for all but this last stretch. P1080164.JPGWe are to take a sleeper train back to Tehran and Emel and I will be sharing the four-man compartment with a father and son. Their whole family come in and out over the course of the evening, as they change places. Emel translates conversation for me as they ask where I am from and where I am going. They want to know what I think of their country, as so many Iranians do. I avoid anything political, not least because it feels weird talking about it through a translator.
When tea is served, Emel is out of the compartment and using hand gestures, I am not allowed to pay for mine. When she returns the father explains that I am their guest, in this country, and the guest should always be made tea. They then invite me to visit their house in Tehran next time I am in the country. I am not sure how to answer and realising my awkwardness, Emel explains that this is a formality, offering accommodation, and one that is not expected to be taken. A simple but genuine ‘Thank You’ is what is expected. This is the first I have truly encountered of true Iranian politeness. It is a whole world of kindness and ritual and it has striking similarities to traditional British hosting of old.

Pages of a travel diary: Week 5, Eternal Istanbul

Pages of a travel diary: Week 5, Eternal Istanbul

I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from last year. This week I arrived in Istanbul.

 

Day 30, Tuesday 6th September: Istanbul

Arriving at Istanbul Serkeji station is an iconic moment in any travellers’ journey. It was the end of the Orient Express and countless stars and celebrities have extolled its grandeur. However, we arrive on a bus, next to the station, at 6am. Nonetheless, I walk inside, to have a look what it is like these days. The platform is lit only by minimal lamps and it is silent except for two cats are fighting on the marble floor. The restaurant which has taken over the old ticket office is still shut. But the beautiful stonework is clean, the vegetation is well looked after and the verandas that cover the platform are intact. This is a station in temporary hibernation, which I have seen in use before and sincerely hope will return to use once again, even when the new trains go underground and underwater, from Europe to Asia.P1070683.JPG

I have been two Istanbul three times before in the last five years. This is one stop on my journey that is not about discovery, it is more of a homecoming. But I also wanted to see what had changed. When I was last here, in early 2015, it was quiet because it was winter. But just this year we have had the attempted military coup, two and a half months ago, and the four bombings in this city alone.

I walk with the Belgian who I had been with on the train, I still have not admitted that I have forgotten his name. We find a small café opposite the station and we have breakfast. While we wait for his Turkish friend, we watch the city wake up, the trams start moving and the sun start to rise over the busy square. One of the trams that passes has huge slogans in read on a while background. I don’t speak Turkish, but I have no doubt that it is denouncing the attempted overthrow; it is unnerving to see in a place that should feel safe and familiar.P1070685.JPG

The Sultanahmet district is the heart of old Istanbul, of Constantinople. This is where the tourists come and the most history is. At its centre is a fountain, which changes patterns every few minutes, surrounded by well-tended grass and trees. At one end of these long gardens, stands the ‘Blue Mosque’, with its six minarets. It is four hundred years old, an icon of Turkey and a model for all other mosques to emulate. P1070687.JPGWhile this comes across as the most picturesque, at the other end of the gardens is the finest structure in Istanbul and perhaps the world, in my opinion.
The Hagia Sophia looks, at first glance, like another one of Istanbul’s many great mosques, but it is not four hundred years old, it is over one thousand and four hundred years old. P1070689.JPGThe minarets were added much later, but otherwise it is a structure of immense architectural skill, exquisite beauty and the centre of so much of history. The largest Cathedral in the world for a thousand years, and still unmatched in its design (given the materials they used), there is no building in the world, in my mind, which can come close to its combination of age, craftmanship and beauty. It was also built in just five years, which compares favourably to modern construction projects, let alone medieval European cathedrals (mostly built between five hundred to a thousand years later) which often took over a hundred years to build. And they constructed next to an earthquake fault line.

I could go on, but I am hungry and tired and want to find my bed. After weeks of uncomfortable hostels, bed bugs and poor sleep, I had booked a room to myself, in a hotel I knew from before. Even better than this, they show me to a spacious double room, at no extra cost. This is the first clear evidence I have that the tourists have all disappeared.

Having showered, I go out onto the balcony that overlooks the Hagia Sophia. It is a great view, which I last saw in snow and now is in dazzling sunlight. P1070692.JPGI turn to go back to my room and find that the door is locked. I assumed this is just me being stupid, so I try turning the handle in a number of ways, and yet nothing happens. After contemplating jumping off the balcony three floors to the entrance, I phone the reception. The hotel owner comes and finds me and laughs. ‘Why could you not open the door?’ he asks, ‘it is working fine’. He then proceeds to shut it with us both outside. I just smile. Within a couple of minutes of trying the door handle, he is phoning reception again, to get someone else up to unlock it again.

Finally released, I dash off to the Grand Bazaar, the world’s greatest medieval shopping centre. I need to get some clothes for the more conservative country(ies) I am going to, where shorts and t-shirts with western slogans might not be appreciated. The Grand Bazaar is a huge network of covered streets, each looking the same and branching off into a several more. Each alley has hundreds of tiny shops on both sides, with traders coming out of their small stores to sell their wares. 100_3505.JPGYou can find nearly anything here, as long as they make it or need it in Istanbul. You need a compass though, as it is easy to come out somewhere totally different to where you entered without realising. You have to willingly lose yourself in there for hours. But one thing here has changed, there are no longer the crowds I am expecting: I can now walk at speed past the shops, rather than struggling through a crush of people. After walking around, baffled, for a while, one store owner shouts out to me:

‘Are you English?’, he calls. I smile and nod

‘Yes I am, from England’

He runs over to me and gives me an inappropriately warm hug, ‘Welcome, it is good to see you! Where have you all gone?’

Unfortunately, he knows the answer better than I do. I go to another of his shops where he sells clothing, as he ascertains that is what I need. It is a tiny little store, with barely room for two people to sit near the counter and there are clothes piled up in all the corners. He is a professional at this, but I have some experience too, so we sit down with some Turkish tea (a unique experience which I shall have to describe later) and the haggling begins. This is a form of conversation where you weave serious chat, with idle comments, and hard bargaining. In the process, I learn of the concerns of the ordinary Turks, the fear they have of the terrorist attacks and the war in neighbouring Syria. Mahmud, as he introduces himself, gets out the clothes he has and sends off his family members to collect a range of things to my specification. Some Turks blame the Russians for recent troubles, but most blame the Americans. He believes that it is all a big American conspiracy to destroy the middle east and the Muslim countries. I don’t believe that it is a conscious effort, but I have to agree with him that this is the effect that the USA is having. I pick up some new trousers. There is more tea, some of it apple tea. We discuss the troubles that shopkeepers are having now that the western tourists are gone. I get some long sleeved and some modest shirts, all appropriate for the climate and the local sensibilities of upcoming countries. He explains that most tourists are from other middle eastern countries, very welcome but they do not spend like Europeans and Americans.

Eventually I do get to leave, with a range of new clothing, costing slightly more than I would have liked, but better than I expected. I also managed to avoid buying anything for my family, who he knew all about by this point, or any jewellery. The Turkish shopping experience is a strange one for those used to modern malls, and in the past, I have remained aloof. But today I went in at the deep end, trusting someone who was trying to sell me stuff, meeting him on his terms and haggling for over two hours, and I had learned a lot. I did spend too much, and felt guilty about that, but I knew that I had lost to a professional and would not need to go clothes shopping again for years.

 

Day 33, Friday 9th September: Istanbul

I ask the receptionist if I can print out my flight details. He looks at me quizzically. I explain that I am intending to fly in a plane, and that I have a ticket on a computer and it needs to be on paper. He is not getting it. He finds the hotel owner. He too is confused, so he finds a young person. The carnival of puzzled faces is finally sorted when the young man who knows computers points at a printer. While that is being sorted, I am invited to tea.

If you were asked which nation consumed the most tea per person, you might guess the British, or perhaps the Indians or Chinese. You would be wrong; Turkey is, by a substantial margin, the winner. P1030208.JPGIf nothing is happening, they drink tea, if something important is happening, they drink tea and if something important has happened, they will drink tea. Like three days ago, when I was shopping, the shopkeeper provided me with several cups of tea in the process. And here, because we are waiting, there is tea provided. Turks grow their own leaves with a unique taste. They drink it black, with no milk and often heavily brewed. If it has been brewed for too long, they just put lots of sugar in to sweeten it. It is served in small glass cups, with no handle, which contain around 100ml, so several are drunk in a sitting. There is not a tea ritual as such, it is more of a habit. The moment you stop walking, there is tea offered.

I drink the tea graciously and we talk about Turkey, the instability, the government and the war in Syria. They are the topics on everyone’s mind. The hotel owner still tries to sell me a carpet at the end.

With another whole day to kill in Istanbul, I go to the Süleymaniye Mosque. P1070776.JPGThis was designed by Mimar Sinan, who was responsible for thousands of buildings from the Balkans to the Arabian Peninsula. Supposedly, when the Sultan was about to walk into this great mosque, the largest in the city at the time (but still smaller than Hagia Sophia), he stopped. He beckoned to Sinan and said that the great architect should have the honour of walking in before the Sultan (something unheard of), for all he had done for the Empire. Regardless, that Sultan, his patron, it better known: Suliman the Magnificent. His tomb, and that of his sole wife, Hurrem Sultan (known in the west as Roxelana), are outside. I have never seen these before, so I had to dive in and have a look at the most famous Sultan of them all.

It is impossible to tell the tale of Suliman and Roxelana in brief, but they are names that echo down the centuries. Their achievements and those of Sinan, around 1550, were to be the apogee of the Ottoman Empire though. It lasted from circa 1300 to 1923, but it was a long decline, of resting on laurels, then harking back to the past and finally becoming a pale imitation of itself. Now little known in west to those who don’t study history, but knowing the Ottoman empire is vital to understanding the modern world. A list of the countries that have come out of it, is to list the many of the trouble spots of the last century:  Algeria, Lybia, Egypt, Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, the Balkans.

I decide to go back even further and walk to the walls of Constantinople. Not built in 1550, but in 550, these Roman masterpieces still stand strong, albeit with roads running through them all along the length. P1070798.JPGIstanbul is a great place to see the overlap of empires, of the changes of the centuries. These walls were the envy of the world, three deep, each one larger than the last. No army broke through from when they were built till 1453, when they were hit by history’s first artillery barrage. Walls built to fight off catapults and slingers, finally fell to cannon and guns. P1070803.JPGNow, the gaps in the walls are used as vegetable gardens and the old gateways are occupied by the homeless of the city. They are too long to be all a museum, so they are part of the city, and life goes on around them. Istanbul is far too large to fit within these walls now.

This is the last of ‘Europe’ I shall see. The Roman and the Ottoman empire spanned into Asia, but the provinces Cappadocia and Syria are too dangerous at the moment, so I must fly over them all. I am leaving behind these cultural backdrops that I have been living with. I have a flight at 1.20am into Tehran, so I make my way on a packed metro out to the airport that was bombed only a few weeks ago. There is no sign of it.

I sit in departures and drink my last Turkish tea. Am I leaving ‘the west’ behind? I have already moved from the majority Christian countries to a majority Muslim country without any kind of historical, culinary or architectural break, but will that happen now? For all my advanced reading, going to Iran is stepping into the unknown.