May 8th – Mumbai

Song of the day: Stretch Out and Wait by The Smiths “Amidst concrete and clay and general decay, nature must still find a way”

Our final full day in Mumbai. We took the train north from Mumbai Central to Mahim Junction. We climbed a footbridge over the tracks and from that elevated viewpoint we were able to see the undulating patchwork of corrugated roofs that make up the Dharavi Slum. Squeezed in amongst skyscrapers, flyovers and train tracks, Dharavi is a place where a million people live on top of each other within a square mile of the city. It featured heavily in the film Slumdog Millionaire, although now that we’ve been to Dharavi and seen for ourselves, I think that film paints a pretty bleak picture of a place that was in fact in a bizarre way, almost uplifting to visit.
When Luke suggested that we visit one of Mumbai’s infamous slums I was a bit apprehensive – I don’t mind being out of my comfort zone or I wouldn’t have come to India in the first place – but I was a bit worried that we’d be so alien to everything that was around us that we’d be chased away, or attacked, or robbed, or something else bad. Now that we’ve been I feel guilty for having held such a low opinion of the people who live here. My other concern was that we were going to the slum just to go on “Poverty Safari” as it’s described in the Lonely Planet. I don’t know, maybe we were, but Luke shares my curiosity for this kind of thing and I do believe that seeing places like this makes you a better rounded person.

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The slum housing of Dharavi alongside the railway tracks

We came down the steps and passed a huge open wasteground where barefooted kids were playing cricket in the dust. We turned onto a long tarmac road which was lined either side with tiny two storey huts built of random materials. Many of these huts even have satellite dishes poking out of the top – not everybody living here is completely destitute, but they lack alternative housing options. The street throbbed with the usual hustle and bustle of everyday Indian life. Goats and cows of similar stature roamed as they pleased. Beautiful children with mucky faces beamed up at us, occasionally daring to offer an English greeting before running off giggling into the shadows. Some of the huts were entirely open to the street as the owners ran their businesses out of them. Cobblers, tailors, Chaiwallers, butchers, restaurants revealed not only the extent of their craftsmanship, but also the spaces where they and their families eat, sleep and pass the time of day. It’s a humbling sight to be able to fix a family of five and all of their worldly possessions with a swift glance out of the corner of your eye.

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Some of the more “permanent” houses we walked past

At the end of the paved road the slum stretched itself out into dusty, unadopted side streets that existed more out of necessity than design. Thin slivers of dry mud are the corridors that seperate the serpentine rows of makeshift housing, and a million different people tramp the dirt flat as they make their way from one improbable location to another. We saw handshakes and shaking fists, smiles and sneers, laughter and tears. All of human life is here, existing and thriving in conditions that couldn’t be dreamt up in the grimmest of nightmares. If you want a monument to human endeavour – our ability to survive and endure against all odds – don’t look for it in skyscrapers or palaces or parks. Come to Dharavi.
We walked back to the station and took the train south to Mahalaxmi. Here we stood overlooking a little circle of houses, in the middle of which 1026 washing pools are situated. Hundreds of women stood soaking, rinsing, wringing and beating clothes in each of the segregated stone basins. It was one of the first times on our travels in India that the air felt sweet, fresh and clean. Clothes hung everywhere on rooftops and outside windows. On one roof a dozen or so police uniforms swayed in the mid-afternoon breeze, and I wondered how easy it’d be for a crook to pinch one and get up to all kinds of mischief dressed in the attire of the law. Owing to the lack of laundry services we’ve found on our travels, Luke and I have been handwashing our clothes using a bucket of water and a bar of detergent, with which we scrub the clothes. It’s hard work, I can tell you! Usually I’ve washed my clothes just before going for a shower myself, because the process of washing them is that intense in these hot conditions that you end up drenched in sweat. Wringing clothes out is a particularly arduous task which has left me with callouses on my fragile, unworked hands – I never thought I’d be in a position to appreciate the mangle as an invention! Our hats must go off to the ladies of Mumbai who keep the city’s laundry fresh and clean without drawing upon the luxury of a washing machine – an invention which I take all too much for granted back home.

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Beyond the corrugated roofs, hundreds of washing basins at Mahalaxmi

We returned to the hostel to pack up for the following day’s transit to Bengaluru, before returning to Girgaum Chowpatty beach for a a final Bhelpuri and people-watching session. Mumbai was a bit of a slow-burner for us.  That first morning we wondered what all the fuss was about, but as we’ve explored and soaked up the atmosphere here we’ve begun to appreciate the city’s importance to India. There’s no doubt that Mumbai is a city on the move – you’ve only to look at the skyline, which far outstrips London for skyscrapers. There’s also the inevitable poverty which blights such an overpopulated country, and in Mumbai the contrast between rich and poor is made all the more stark by the fact that the different classes live on top of each other – sometimes literally. Here more than anywhere else we’ve been though, you get the impression that even the destitute are on the lookout for a way to break out of that perpetual cycle of poverty. What’s that Oscar Wilde quote? “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars”.
Tomorrow we fly to Bengaluru.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour
Tommy and Lukey

May 7th – Mumbai

We got up and had a dhosa at Sai Samrat, creatures of habit that we are. We walked to the nearby Mumbai Central Railway Station, and bought a ticket to Churchgate – the final, most southerly stop on the line. The journey cost us five rupees – or five pence – each. From Churchgate Station we walked through a very grand, Victorian-looking part of Mumbai. On our left the gothic High Court of Mumbai building towered over us, and to our right a long strip of park. We peered through the railings to watch overs of various cricket matches that were going off. It was a saturday morning and I suppose what we were watching was an equivalent of pub football in England. There must have been a dozen cricket matches going off at once, each on a full sized pitch. As we walked further along, two bare-footed young boys stood beneath a tree with open carrier bags. In the branches of a tree overhanging the road, their mate was picking mangoes and dropping them into the bags. They looked to have already bagged themselves a good haul, and we wondered whether they might take them to the nearby Crawford market and flog them to a shopkeeper.
Eventually we made it to the southernmost part of Mumbai, where the land meets the sea and a huge ornamental stone arch, known as the “Gateway to India” is situated. The gateway was built by the British Empire to commemorate Queen Victoria’s visit to Bombay. When India gained it’s independence in 1947, the last British soldiers to leave Indian soil marched under the arch and onto their troopships – an iconic moment in this country’s history. Needless to say, we were bombarded with the usual requests to pose for photographs by some Indian lads. They were friendly and polite, and got very excited when I said that I wanted to take a selfie with all of them – they chanted the word “Selfie, selfie, selfie” over and over like some kind of primitive tribe.
We boarded a boat to Elephanta Island. A mile or two out from Mumbai’s busy harbour, a small mound of land juts out of the water, where ancient Hindus carved a network of caves into the rock. Boat journeys are quite cool and novel for the first ten minutes, but in my experience they tend to make time feel as if it’s passing by very slowly. I can’t imagine how I’d have got on in the olden days when it took months by sailing ship to get anywhere – I think I’d have ended up walking the plank out of boredom. Luckily, the tedium of this particular voyage was loudly and spectacuarly interupted by a man throwing up over the side. His wife patted him on the back as he jettisoned his breakfast in several gut-wenching heaves onto the side of the boat, whilst the seagulls provided a mocking chorus of laughter. We passed menacing looking ships belonging to the Indian Navy and an oil tanker the size of a stadium, before eventually arriving at a stone jetty that jutted out a few hundred feet from the island.

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We walked along this causeway, passing up the opportunity to take the miniature train that runs along it’s length because it looked dreadful and had to pause for several minutes whilst a cow was shoed off the line. As we walked along the causeway the waves lapped gently in to shore, bearing upon them all kinds of household junk that had been thrown into the sea. A layer of rubbish about two metres wide seperates open sea from solid ground, like mouldy cornflakes bobbing around in a sea of curdled milk. Elephanta Island itself is beautiful – a rocky outcrop covered in jungle vegetation and patrolled by monkeys – more on these treacherous rogues later. We climbed a set of steps which seemed to wind on into the heavens, though climbing them felt as hot as hell. At the top we posed for more photos with a random Indian family – they told us to say “Cheese!” but Luke substituted this for the word “Paneer”, which apparently provided the family with the most hilarious joke they’d ever heard. We paid our “Foreigner’s Entrance Fee” and explored the impressive cave complex.

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The most impressive thing when studying the length and depth of these caves, is to acknowledge that they were carved out of solid rock. Many hands and many years came together to create something as special as this, and in our age of instant communication and internet, where a million distractions are available at the touch of a button, it’s hard to imagine any civilization having the time and inclination to create something like this ever again. Perhaps in another thousand years we’ll marvel at ancient wall carvings of selfie-stick wielding tourists, but I doubt it.
Statues of Shiva as destroyer and creator stand at the rear of the main cave, holding various ceremonial items in multiple sets of arms. Multiple limbs are a feature of most Hindu Gods, and often if a child is born here with some kind of birth defect which provides it with an extra arm or leg or something, it is seen to be an incarnation of a God. We walked around the other caves that form the Elephanta network. Some of these caves contain large blocks of stone with a kind of trough around them – altars upon which living things were sacrificed to the Gods. There are an alarming number of these blocks scattered around various ancient Hindu buildings we’ve visited, and I wonder just how many animals (or even humans!?) were sacrificed on a daily basis in ancient times.
We sat resting in the sun for a while after completing our tour of the caves. An Indian man came up to us and said: “I am curious, why do you sit in the sun? the shade is much cooler.” We explained that in our own country, we didn’t get much chance to sit in the sun. However, after standing up and looking at the sweaty patches of where we’d been seated, I concede that the man probably had a point. As we walked back we pointed and laughed at a group of monkeys that had surrounded a lady and snatched her water bottle. When I was young my Grandma had a saying: “Don’t laugh at others, because you may be struck comical yourself one day.” How right she was, as instant karma came to bite me in the arse, almost literally. A monkey came sprinting out of the undergrowth and blocked our path. I greeted it with a cheerful “Hello!” the way I would any other sentient being. It hissed and raised it’s chin – a sign of masculine challenge, as I learned in Cambodia – then went for my bottle. At this point I metaphorically (and almost literally) shat myself, and ran as fast as I could away from the creature in question. The word “RABIES, RABIES, RABIES!” screamed an indelible mark into my consciousness like a World War Two air raid siren. After setting a personal best time for the hundred metres, I allowed myself to look over my shoulder. No monkeys were in view – just Luke, doubled up in hysterical fits of laughter. I took a long swig from the coveted water bottle to replace the fluid I’d lost in the sprint, and we continued down the hill to the boat.

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The journey back was unremarkable until we reached the jetty at Mumbai. Owing to the short length of the platform, our boat was forced to moor up against another boat, which was in turn moored up to two identical boats. This meant that in order to reach dry land, we had to hop the gap over to the next boat, and so on until we reached the safety of the jetty. As I have alluded to before in this blog, Indians have a very different attitude to queueing – ie: they don’t do it. Luke and I stepped back and allowed fifty to a hundred odd people to cram onto the starboard side of the boat, pushing and shoving as one person at a time hopped onto the next boat in the sequence. There are times in this country when you can picture yourself being the subject of a rolling news headline passing along the bottom of the screen on BBC News 24 – something along the lines of “Twelve people crushed in boating accident in Mumbai Harbour” – this was one of those times. Fortunately, the entire party was safely transferred to shore and we returned to dry land to continue our adventures.
There is a legendary book called Shanteram, which is set almost entirely in Mumbai. It’s the true story of an Australian man who escaped from prison where he was serving a sentence for armed robbery, came to Mumbai to hide out and ended up falling in love, becoming a kind of doctor for people in the slums, and generally living an extraordinary life. Luke has read it and I’m now in the process of doing the same, so our next stop was a bar called Leopolds, which features heavily in the book. Leopolds was established in 1871 and became a hangout for the seedier characters of Mumbai. These days, due to the popularity of Shanteram the place is a lot more touristy, but it still made for a really atmospheric place to have a beer and some food. In a break from curry, I had a buffalo burger (no beef on the menu in India, remember) and it went down a treat.
Our final destination for the day was the Chhatraparti Shivarti Terminal (formerly known as the Victoria Terminal) – another example of respledent Victorian architecture, with turrets, towers and stained-glass windows in abundance. It is still the main railway station in Mumbai, and officially the busiest railway station in Asia – which is some claim to fame, I can tell you. Anybody who’s seen the film Slumdog Millionaire will be familiar with scenes that were shot in and around the station area. Sadly it might also ring a bell in people’s minds because of the terrorist attacks that occurred here and a few other sights in Mumbai in 2008, when 163 people were killed. There is a large armed presence in most of the places we have been to in India, as well as metal detectors in every railway station. This being my first trip I have no basis for comparison, but I imagine security has been tightened a lot since before 2008.

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We returned to the hostel for a bit before going to a restaraunt round the corner for tea. Here we witnessed the most bizarre excesses of Indian hospitality yet. Our waiter was short and smartly dressed with a pencil moustache. Both in looks and latterly in mannerisms, he could well have played Manuel in a Bollywood version of Fawlty Towers, or if you’ll indulge me… Balti Towers. Firstly, I got as far as ordering my own food before he abruptly buggered off, having taken only half our order. He disappeared for five minutes and then returned. We attempted to explain that Luke wanted to order his food too, which was lost on him. In the end a bloke who spoke good English at the next table had to translate for us. Even at this point, Manuel suddenly walked off halfway through Luke’s order. When he returned, he had a jug of water, pouring a glass for each of us. Luke completed his order and eventually the food came out together, which was a minor miracle. Many Indian waiters have a tendency to spoon your curry out onto the plate for you, and Manuel was no exception. He also topped up our water and poured two fresh glasses for us, in spite of the fact that we hadn’t touched the first two.  By now the table was getting quite crowded. He retreated to the end of the room and watched us like a hawk, returning at random intervals to spoon various bits of food onto our plates, in spite of our looks of bafflement. Towards the end of the meal, when I thought the coast was clear, I picked up the spoon to scoop the last of my Jaipuri onto my plate. From out of nowhere Manuel materialised, snatched the spoon out of my hand and proceeded to do what I could have done for myself. He was too wierd and whimsical to get annoyed with, and at the end of the meal he recieved a large tip for the entertainment value that he’d provided. As we were about to pay he poured us each a third glass of water, which needless to say remained untouched.

The deference shown by some waiters in India has made us somewhat uncomfortable – though amusing at times, I can’t help thinking that this excessive desire to please might be borne out of the Caste system, or even represents a hangover from the days of the British Empire. After Episode one of “Balti Towers”, we went back to the Central Guesthouse to sleep after another successful day.

Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

6th May – Mumbai

Song of the Day: Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny) by A.R.Rahman and the Pussycat Dolls. Why? It reminds me of the film Slumdog Millionaire (Luke would like to point out that he does not like this song, but reluctantly agrees that it is a good choice because of it’s connections with Mumbai.)
My first night’s kip at the Mumbai Central Guesthouse wasn’t good. Perhaps it was the whirring of the fan, or the distant sound of traffic horns, or the too-close-for-comfort squeaking and scrabbling of rats in the roof above. Luke managed to get a full night’s kip, and it seems to have been a feature of this trip that one of us sleeps like a log, and the other lies awake for hours. We lay in for once and had a kind of brunch at the Sai Samrat restaurant, which was next door to our lodgings. The dhosas were divine and the chai – well, I’ve had one bad cup in the whole time we’ve been out here – it rarely fails to revive and revitalise.
On first appearance, this city is more orderly and affluent than previous destinations. This is an illusion – after all, this is India. Apparently, 60% of the population of Mumbai live in slums. For every skyscraper, gated community and speedboat in the harbour, there are a thousand people living in poverty. It sounds grim, but, many of these people have migrated from elsewhere in India to be here. There are jobs to be had and money to be made, and relatively speaking, many of these people would rather be here than anywhere else. The term “slum” is in some ways quite degrading, and does a diservice to a large portion of these resourceful people, who in the absence of proper housing have built their own shelters out of whatever materials they can find. They operate trades out of their little corrugted shacks – tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, butchers, you name it. Theyre all here, earning a relatively honest rupee from providing a service to their makeshift communities.

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We spent the early afternoon walking around, getting quite hot and bothered and not seeing all that much. Though the temperature is a bit cooler than Varanasi and Kolkata  – 35 instead of 40, the heat here seems to suffocate you in exactly the same way. In spite of the heat we covered some serious ground and came to our first sight of the day – the impressive Crawford Market. This grand colonial building of a slightly gothic look was purpose-built to house the market by none other than Rudyard Kipling’s Dad, Lockwood Kipling. The dimly-lit market that the building was constructed for is quite opposite to the orderly, pompous regime who built it. It’s a pungent, humid, throbbing throng of hard bargaining. Mangoes piled as high as people teeter in impossible piles, whilst watermelons as big as beach balls are hacked into managable portions by murderous-looking machete men. A menagerie of caged animals barked, scratched, squawked, and croaked at each other from opposite sides of the narrow gangway between two shops. This is something I don’t get about Indian businesses – instead of setting up shop in a unique area which might require the services of that particular business, it seems that tradesmen selling the same wares will congregate together. Surely there would be more money to be made from finding your own patch, instead of becoming the fifteenth pet shop in the same square mile of Mumbai? A peculiar habit.

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After another hour of hot, sweaty walking the huge, looming presence of the Wankhede Stadium (no sniggering) came into view. The Wankhede Stadium is Mumbai’s main cricket ground – host to the odd international test match, and home of the Mumbai Indians, the city’s IPL team. As soon as we knew we were coming to Mumbai we got excited at the prospect of watching a 20/20 game. We checked the fixtures and discovered that there was a home game on the Sunday – our last night in Mumbai. Armed with this information we set out for the stadium with the intention of booking tickets. We walked along a glorious sun-baked promenade that overlooked the Arabian Sea, and attempted to enter the ground to buy tickets. Several security personell blocked our way and said “It is not possible. There is no game here.” Then something that we’d read weeks ago suddenly dawned on us! Because of the intense heatwave and drought that parts of India are currently suffering, the Mumbai Indians were banned from playing at their home ground because it would drain precious water supplies from the city in order to keep the pitch in a playable condition. The “home game” that was advertised was due to be played in Jaipur, some 900 odd kilometres away! This, along with the fog which obscured the mountains in Darjeeling, is the second time that the weather has denied us. For all the cricket matches in England that are called off due to rain, we came all the way to India to have the opposite issue.

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We went back to the hotel to cool down and rehydrate before one last foray into the unknown. The beach at Girgaum Chowpatty is an incredibly popular location, and we thought it’d be a great place to watch the sunset. Crawling with holidaymakers, chaiwallers and nine to fivers looking to relax after a hard day at the office, Chowpatty is a great place to spend a few hours peoplewatching. Up until this point, we’d gotten used to seeing the everyday people of India with their nose to the grindstone. Whether driving, selling, crafting, building, begging, hustling or farming, we had seen people occupied in the act of getting by. How nice it was to see kids playing, couples courting and families united in having a good time. We sat down at a beach cafe and each had one of Mumbai’s legendary Belhapuris. A belhapuri is a mound of puffed rice, dough, chutney, onion, tomato, chilli, coriander and anything else the chef can think of. The puffed rice gives it the same audible “snap crackle and pop” as rice crispies, and the chutney and chilli make it a slightly spicy sweet and sour treat. We rounded the evening off with a couple of Kingfisher strong and a curry in one of Mumbai’s very trendy, up and coming bars.
That’s all for today.
Have a good day, whatever your endeavour
Tommy and Lukey

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5th May – Varanasi to Mumbai

Luke’s alarm struck at half four, and it was difficult to overcome the initial fatigue that comes with being on the road without the appropriate level of shut-eye. These early starts have been a battle, but at the end of the day not once have I regretted getting out of bed. We headed for the Brown Bread Bakery, which was completely covered in metal shutters. We found ourselves in a pitch black alley in the company of half a dozen stray dogs, a cow and various piles of rubbish. After a while a bloke walked up to us and said “Brown Bread? I am your boat man”. We gave him our voucher and followed him down to the riverbank, where he immediately delegated a small boy to the task of rowing us out onto the river. We had inadvertently become employers of a child labourer without having any say in the matter whatsoever. The young lad bumped into several boats as he struggled to get us away from the ramshackle flotilla that was moored up to the bank. When finally we broke free from the other boats, a man called to him from the bank, and the boy started rowing towards him for all he was worth. For a short while we were concerned that we were going to be boarded by a barbaric pirate of the Ganges, but our fears were shortlived.

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The man swapped places with the young boy, who scurried off into the town. The man rowed us towards the Manikarnika Ghat of yesterday. Even at this early hour, the pyres were burning and families were surrounding their dearly departed. From the other side of the river, through a clutch of cloud, the sun began to rise on a new day. Each bank of the river offered a different perspective – on one side death, and the past. The other offered life, the present and the future. As I always do at moments such as these, I’d like to point out that you don’t need to be religious to appreciate the power of these moments. The boat ride lasted an hour and to anybody who wants to go to Varanasi, I would recommend a thousand times the sunrise boat trip along the river.

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We returned to the and pottered about a bit before taking a tuk tuk to the railway station. The plan was to fly to Mumbai, but we wanted to take advantage of the pre-paid taxi stands that operate at most major stations in India. We bagged a rickshaw from the station to the airport for 450 rupees – an excellent price considering the journey was some 35 kilometres. We got to the airport four hours before our flight, and spent the meantime bored, pottering about in the thankfully air-conditioned terminus. Of course, our Spicejet flight was delayed by forty minutes – on the screen it claimed that the reason was “Security”.
Our flight took off at ten past eight, and the next two and half hours held nothing but anxiety for me – not so for Luke, who somehow managed to bury his head in his jacket and go to sleep. We hit turbulence and flew through a storm during which I could see the lightning flashing in the distance. The seatbelt sign was on for almost an hour after takeoff, then, bizarrely, the Captain of the plane came out and began serving food and drink to the passengers! I’m glad he had confidence in his copilot, but in my mind I had visions of the spotty work experience kid flying the plane, whilst the pilot ensured the passengers were well fed and hydrated. As we were about to land he finally buggered off back to his cockpit to start earning his money. We flew in over a moonlit sea, over hills covered in slums, and finally touched down onto the tarmac at Mumbai.
We purchased a pre-paid taxi journey to our hotel, although our driver clearly had no idea where it was. As we attempted to engage him in conversation about the directions, he said “No English” and put his foot down. We drove past legions of skyscrapers – far more than the London skyline has to offer. Our driver wound the window down a couple of times to ask fellow taxi drivers for directions, before finally coming to rest outside our hostel.

On the pavement in front of us two portly, ageing police officers were standing over a drunk who had fallen into the gutter. They both held bamboo canes in their hands and in the absencce of any better ideas, they were applying gentle whacks to his legs and arms in order to get him on his feet. To be fair to them, their hearts clearly weren’t into police brutality. I don’t think it would matter if they beat him black and blue right in front of us, the guy was too hammered to even sit up straight, and we left the spectacle outside in order to climb the stairs up to our guesthouse. The Central Hotel is a grotty, tired kind of place which passed it’s sell by date about forty years ago, but we didn’t care – we just needed to sleep.
That’s all for today – a day of travel and not much else.
Have a good day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey

4th May – Mughal Sarai to Varanasi

Song of the day: The Beatles – Tomorrow Never Knows “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream – it is not dying… it is not dying…”

Luke’s alarm woke us at five, and we had a couple of chais from the vendor as he came past. From talking to my mate from the evening before, we discovered that the train was now running two hours behind. We sat playing cards and watching the world go by for a couple of hours until we arrived in Mughal Sarai station. My new friend asked me for my e-mail address so we could communicate as I had some “Good ideas”. I’m not sure what he meant by this, but I gave him my e-mail all the same as he seemed like a nice geezer. He shook our hands several times before we excused ourselves and hopped off the train.
We were immediately confronted by three men who followed us along the platform, quoting prices at us for a rickshaw journey to Varanasi. The disadvantage to being an obvious tourist is that touts and dodgy salespeople see you coming a mile off. We looked for a pre-paid taxi meter, all the while ignoring the attention of three seperate blokes quoting prices and asking us where we were from. When finally our patience was exhausted, we asked one of the blokes how much it’d cost to Varanasi. “100 rupees” he said, and smiled, exposing a gap in his teeth. In the absence of a better option we took him up on it. When we’d loaded our bags into his tuk tuk he asked us where we were staying. We told him the Hare Rama guesthouse and he let out a sigh and shook his head. “Main bridge is closed so we will have to drive many kilometres round. 400 rupees for the extra journey.” To be honest readers, we couldn’t be arsed to argue. The amount was nominal – four quid instead of one quid for a 15 kilometre journey. But it’s often the principal you find yourself arguing over, rather than the actual amount you’re being overcharged. We accepted the quadruple hike and buzzed along into Varanasi. Predictably, he zoomed straight over the bridge which he had claimed to be closed. We paid him the money and stepped out of the tuk tuk into pandemomium.

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Scooters, cars, cows, holy men, beggars, tourists, market traders, cycle rickshaws and dogs contrived to make walking in a straight line completely impossible. We made our way as best we could down a “pedestrianised” street which hung heavy with the exhaust fumes of tuk tuks. We walked through a market where traders had assembled fine arrays of vegetables on sheets of linen. There were cows everywhere, strolling around as if they owned the place, which to all intents and purposes, they do.

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Following the map in our Lonely Planet guide, we walked towards the river and were rewarded with our first view of the Ganges. With backpacks front and back we had little time to enjoy it, as the immediate concern was that of finding shelter from this absolute insanity. I confess to having one of those rare moments on the road where you think “What the hell have I done, why am I doing this to myself?” But then a ray of light came, in the form of a toothless simpleton. He approached us barefoot, in a filthy open shirt and asked us where we were going. We told him the “Hare Rama Guesthouse” and he said that he knew the place. A Chinese girl who had been trying to help us read our map shrugged her shoulders to suggest that this was our best option. Against our better judgement – especially after the tuk tuk incident – we followed him as he hopped and weaved his way up some backstreets, singing the Hindu mantra “Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama. Rama Rama, Hare hare, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna….”
A bunch of lads were preparing the most gigantic vat of curry I’ve ever laid eyes on as bhangra music pounded out from an ancient speaker. Possibly the fattest cow I have ever seen leaned against the wall of the narrow backstreet, reducing the passing space to about 25% of what it should be. Normally it would cause me a great degree of trepidation to pass such potentially unruly beast, but the cows of Varanasi are a particularly pampered breed – they want for nothing and they’re not on the menu, so they don’t appear to have the same unpredictable temperament as their British brethren. We continued to follow the toothless simpleton until he stopped outside a dark, filthy alleyway leading off from the larger backstreet. “Hare Rama this way!” he beamed, then dashed off up ahead singing his mantra. We followed through the dark, filthy passage, breathing through our mouths and trying to ignore the squelch of whatever was underfoot. He took us to a door and stood there, proud as punch before beckoning us to go in. I had no other money to hand so I gave him ten rupees for his troubles – he was indeed toothless, but simple he was not. He bowed deeply before melting away into the morning chaos.
In spite of the filthy approach, the hostel was good. A huge old house on four storeys owned by a Hindu family who occupied the ground floor. The room numbers were creepily painted onto each door with red paint that had run to look like blood, but the room was big and airy, with aircon and wifi – and all for 3 quid each a night. As I showered a perverse lizard clung horizontally to the wall and stared down at me – I’m not used to having an audience, but it seemed fairly content to remain where it was. After taking an hour to gather ourselves we ventured back out into the city.

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“She’s well acquainted with the touch of a velvet hand, like a lizard on a window pane!”

Our first mission was to locate a little shop called “Brown Bread Bakery”, who as a sideline provide reputable boatmen to take tourists on a sunrise trip up the river. The labyrinth of back streets and alleyways in this town are more than a little confusing, but we recieved help in the form of a well-spoken young English gent who appeared to have “gone local”. Fascinating as this place is, I can’t imagine ever living here – the cultural void would be too great a gap to leap after a few weeks. Following his directions as best we could, we managed to locate the bakery and book a tour for the next morning, which set us back 150 rupees each. This was infinitely preferable than negotiating with the oarsmen by the river, who apparently enjoy the trick of saying “The price is 100” and then waiting until you’re literally up the creek without a paddle before they say “100 US dollars”.
Varanasi is the holiest city in India – integral to the Hindu faith. Millions of Hindus make the pilgrimage here to wash away their sins in the sacred river Ganges – although I have to say you wouldn’t see me dipping so much as a toe in there. To die in Varanasi is thought to be a particularly good use of your time, as it provides you with Moksha – liberation from the cycle of reincarnation that forms a central part of Hindu ideology. Families from all over India will come to Varanasi to have their dearly departed cremated on the banks of the river – a very moving ceremonial process, which we were priveledged to witness.
We walked past our hostel and down to the river. Varanasi really hasn’t changed much in hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Various invasions have lead to the destruction and rebuilding of the town, but culturally it seems that things are pretty much as they have been for a loooong time. For almost the entire length of the city, the bank of the river is paved with steps leading down to the water – these are the ghats. Some ghats are used for cremation, some are used for washing clothes, and some are purely to allow access to the water. We made our way north, walking along the riverfront which even at this early hour was thronging with orange-clad holy men, goats, cows and touts. The touts are desperate to flog you something, anything, and this is evident in their line of questioning. “You wanna boat trip?” “No.” “You wanna tour guide? “No.” “You wanna see my Uncle’s shop?” “No.” “You wanna buy hash?” “NO!” Some are more persistent than others and they can make standing and admiring the view very difficult. The saddest thing about this is that so many people in India are genuinely friendly and like to help you or just pass the time of day with you. The more annoying touts you meet in a day, the less inclined you are to stop to chat with somebody who might be genuinely just be being nice.

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We made our way north along the bank, ignoring the attentions of men lying in the bottom of their rowing boats, trying to make a sale. We passed a dozen water buffaloes that were being supervised in their morning ablutions by a string bean of a man. As we approached the Manikarnika Ghat, the smell of smoke began to hang heavy in the air. We rounded the corner, and touts advised us that no photos were to be taken beyond this point as it was a holy place, before using this piece of advice as a stepping stone in the process of asking us to buy stuff off them. We climbed some steps and found ourselves standing over a muddy bank of the river. Three pyres of wood burned the same shade of orange as the robes of the holy men who gathered at the banks. A body wrapped completely in brightly-coloured cloth and borne on a bamboo stretcher, was lowered into the Ganges before being placed atop another pyre. Family members huddled around, praying and singing and chanting.

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Credit to Luke Partridge for this photo!

Though all of this was a strange and sobering sight, we felt hugely pr to witness this ceremonial end to a person’s journey upon the Earth. There was nothing really disturbing or macabre about the process – this is how it’s been done, right here, for more than a millennium. We lingered a few minutes before climbing a set of stairs that took us onto the backstreets. Piles of wood, twenty foot high, dwarf the people who pass by beneath them. This is the wood used in the cremations – a big business in Varanasi. Sets of cast-iron scales are loaded with logs and counter-balanced with weights to establish how much wood is needed to completely cremate each body. Different kinds of wood seem to have become a bit of a status symbol, with sandalwood being one of the most expensive woods on offer to those who can afford it. The sun was intense as ever, and the heat from the pyres even from fifty feet away had taken it out of us. We decided to go back to the hostel and sit out the hottest part of the day.

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After another shower and chill-out – may I remind you it was 40 odd degrees celsius! We walked south down the banks and investigated the various ghats. The touts were less frequent here and the general lack of people made our meander a bit more soothing. More water buffaloes were being washed and kids played cricket using bins or painted bits of wall as a wicket. 20/20 is understandably massive in India with the advent of the Indian Premier League, and as a result kids seem to enjoy smashing the ball as far as possible and dreaming of making the big time. No boundaries are marked out here, but if your tennis ball lands without bouncing in the putrid filth of the Ganges, among the weed-ridden boat ropes, you can be sure you’ve hit a six. A man approached us and pointed to the middle of the river, where a big metal boat appeared to be dredging the bottom of the river. “It’s to make the river clean.” “Oh. I think they’ll need more boats.” (A pause.) “You wanna boat ride?” “No”.
We were again defeated by the sun, but I think we’d seen all that we needed to see of the southern ghats. At almost the furthest part of our walk a pyre had been erected but not yet lit – a youngish looking man lay on his back on top of the pyre, his eyes now forever closed to the majesty and madness of the world that he left behind. Behind us twenty-odd blokes busied themselves at various points along a spindly bamboo scaffolding that was perhaps thirty feet high. Surely no other place in the world can be so full of death and life, intertwined to the point that the lines are almost blurred into one. Varanasi is a city that perfectly illustrates the cycle of life and death – the perpetual wheel of existence that we’re all a part of.
We ate at a restaurant just up from the main Dashashwamedh Ghat, before heading down there with a couple of thousand pilgrims to watch the nightly Ganga Aarti (river worship) ceremony. The ceremony was due to start at seven and we managed to book a good seat overlooking the whole ceremony a good half hour before it started. Unfortuantely a load of Hindu ladies came to sit behind us and shooed us to the side because they couldn’t see past us. I didn’t know the Hindi for “We were here first” so we moved without making a scene. The ceremony consisted of a lot of exotic Indian music, a singer/chanter of hypnotic mantras, and the lighting of various candles, incense burners and torches by five men dressed in robes, who sat on platforms and performed co-ordinated acts of worship towards the river. The ceremony lasted about an hour and although incredible, I must admit I didn’t have a clue what was going on and my arse was incredibly numb from being sat on the same concrete floor the whole time.
When the ceremony was over, we walked along the river and realised that there had been another copycat ceremony just round the corner from where we were. Of course, the touts were out in force and we were blessed by a small child who rubbed red dye into our foreheads, before placing a mix of orange flowers and petals in our hands. We sensed the oncoming attempt to extort money, but we went with the flow because the kid was quite harmless and cute. He lead us down to the river where he began uttering various cantations in his own language. To be fair, he could have just been swearing at us and we woudn’t have had a clue, but we’d gone past the point of no return. He got us to repeat a series of blessings for our family, before throwing a handful of petals into the river. It went something a bit like this:
BOY: Say Shiva…
US: Shiva…
BOY: Krishna…
US: Krishna…
BOY: Mother’s name…
US: Mother’s name…
BOY: No, Say your Mother’s names!
ME: Joy…
LUKE: Rosie…
BOY: Joyce and Posie… Ohm!
US: Ohm!
BOY: Now throw your petals into the river…
(We do so. Repeat the above process about fifty times, adding Father’s name as well.)
BOY: Now, for this blessing to work you must pay me either 5000 or 10000 rupees, whichever you prefer.
US: Are you having a laugh!? Is he having a laugh!?
We fled the scene, all the time being pursued by the young hustler. I felt like explaining to him that he had a lot to learn, and that if he was going to fleece people, he should do it for a sensible amount. In the end I gave him twenty rupees, which he snatched off me then wheeled away to find another victim. I turned round to see Luke stood there with a frown on his face, whilst a filthy man was holding his arm and pressing it in various locations. “Luke, what the hell is going on!?” “Arm massage sir! for tips only – free service!” That was the final straw. After Luke had liberated his arm from this no doubt unqualified street masseuse, we beat a hasty retreat to the hostel.
There is no way for me to convey the absolutely baffling nature of Varanasi to you without you going for yourself, but the words above are my best attempt. In well under 24 hours Luke and I felt that we had seen as much as we had in three days in Kolkata and Darjeeling.
Sorry it’s been such a long one – I’ll do my best not to ramble on next time!
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey

3rd May – Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri Junction, to Mughal Sarai

Ayup.
We got up dead early again to have one last crack at seeing the mountains. The mist was as dense as previous days, if not worse. Instead we walked up the hill to the Dorje Ling monastery site, where we sat for a while in the peace and quiet. Even at this time people were praying, spinning mani wheels and ringing various bells.

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We went back to the hostel and collected our stuff, before going to the taxi depot, where we got in a jeep. Our friend from the previous day tried to charge us again, before laughing and apologising several times. I got the impression that if I invited him, he would gladly have come back to England with us and lived in my house. He introduced us to our driver, a Gorkha chap with a passion for cricket and large, cauliflower-like ears. As we set off back down the hill we got stuck in multiple traffic jams on the narrow lanes running through the mountain towns. Darjeeling has been beautiful and fascinating, but not the relaxed place I thought that it might have been. The drivers of this area will always apply the horn before the footbreak, and if the traffic is at a standstill they seem convinced that continually papping on their hooter will cause the traffic to clear. I wouldn’t like to be here in the grip of winter – if anything is going to cause an avalanche, it is surely this incessant use of the horn.

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After clearing the towns we descended down the tight hairpins without further event. We drove through the tea estates that got flatter and flatter in terrain, until we arrived at the massive military area. All sorts of trucks, tanks and soldiers are on display around here and it seems that like Thailand, India likes to keep it’s military might on full display. After passing through the zone we began to enter a more built-up area. The usual array of random sights ensued, culminating in the swerving of all of the traffic on our side of the road to avoid a cow, which had sat itself down in the middle of the road, nonchalantly chewing and flicking it’s tail to keep the flies away with no idea of the mayhem it was causing. If you didn’t know already, the cow is sacred to Hindus and people go to great lengths to ensure that no harm will come to them. As a result they wander around precisely where they please, causing all kinds of obstruction and destruction in their wake. As we approached the station the traffic got ridiculous, even by Indian standards. Our ears rang from the din of car, rickshaw and moped horns, and all kinds of madness played out before us. Impossible gaps between vehicles were pursued, a fight nearly broke out at the side of the road, and sweat-saturated faces snarled at each other from behind steering wheels. As we trickled along at a snail’s pace a bus – crammed to the rafters as always, attempted to occupy the space that our jeep was in. With nowhere else to go our driver had little option other than to shout as the bus scratched all the way down the side of the jeep, before coming to a halt. After what seemed like several minutes of uninterpretable insults, the bus reversed off the jeep, making a sickening sound on our paintwork. Our driver pulled over to check the damage and miraculously, there was none. This is the one redeeming feature about Indian roads – they’re complete chaos, but usually you’re not going fast enough to end up in a serious accident.

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We thanked our driver and entered the station. Porters carrying stacks of passenger’s luggage on their heads, beggars reclining on the hot ground, and cows on the railway line were some of the sights to behold. We went to a cafe and Luke again displayed his culinary prowess by ordering us two dhosas. A dhosa is a giant pancake-like bread which contains a small amount of curry, along with a pot of thin, spicy curry sauce. You dip each end in the sauce and then when you get down to the filled middle bit you just devour it in any way you see fit. They are an impressive sight to behold and set us back about 70p each – Luke recalled seeing them in London for about eight quid a pop. As we sat eating a lady waited outside who had lost both her legs. She was sporting a pair of flip-flops on her hands to avoid touching the dirty ground as she hoisted herself around. A bloke from the cafe fixed her up a plate of curry and chapati and handed it to her free of charge.

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The train was only a couple of minutes late. A list of passenger’s names was pasted on the side of the carriage, and we found our coach with minimum hassle. The Indian trains have a confusing list of options when it comes to booking your seat/bed. We were in 3AC – which means three beds stacked on top of each other, and air-conditioned carriages. Luke and I had both been allocated top bunks and getting up and down from them employed all of our acrobatic skills. Once the train was on it’s way Luke went for a doze and I was collared by a middle-aged gent who was travelling back from a wedding with his wife and son. He was an eccentric but intelligent bloke who worked as an English Teacher by trade. He told me that he had “Three Western-style toilets” in his house, not because he liked western toilets better, but because he could comfortably sit and read on them, whereas it was too difficult to squat and read in the traditional Indian way. We talked about Gandhi and India since the partition, about his teaching and his hometown, which I couldn’t pronounce. I ended up asking him why many Indians seemed to enjoy taking our photograph so much. He confirmed that many Indians have rarely, if ever, seen a white person. It is considered a badge of honour, almost a prestigous thing to have your photo taken with a whitey. I’m really surprised that this is still the case – surely in this global village in which we live people aren’t still blown away at the sight of somebody with different skin colour? But apparently they are. My new mate said that even his son had pointed Luke and I out, and during our whole conversation a pair of young eyes stared down at me from the bunk above.
After about an hour of chatting to this bloke, I made my excuses. Nice as he was he had talked my head off for ages and I was a bit too tired to meet his level of intellectual questioning. I sat and played cards with Luke whilst looking out at the Indian countryside dashing past us. Indian train doors aren’t locked and are quite often wide open for the duration of the journey. Every time the train stops at a signal or a station hundreds of people get out and stand on the tracks, smoking and stretching their legs. As the train slowly jolts off again they all stroll back and hop on it while it’s moving – I wish I was chilled out enough to take such risks.

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Throughout the whole journey various sellers walk up and down the train corridor, flogging anything from bombay mix to iphone chargers. The only ones that we entertained were the chai wallers, who carry urns of hot chai which they dispense into little cups for ten rupees a shot. Before we boarded the train a bloke with a “meals on wheels” logo on his shirt chased us down the platform and asked us if we wanted to buy any food. Dismissing him as one of the many touts that you come across on a daily basis, we initially politely told him where to go. When it dawned on us that this bloke was part of the official catering department we both ordered a meal before we were even aboard. Almost as soon as we’d found our beds our meals were presented to us – superb service. Before going to sleep Luke and I walked the length of the train in either direction. As far as we could tell we were the only non-Indian people on the train, and as we walked along we drew quizzical glances from all directions.

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We went to sleep at nineish and but for a couple of interruptions, I slept solidly. Luke had more of a struggle due to being directly above a bloke who snored loudly. Our carriage was clean and comfortable, and I’ve never slept so well on a night train. On our walk through the other carriages we saw how the other half live – cramped, dirty and sweaty carriages with no air-conditioning, and I was thankful that we’d paid the extra few quid for a comfortable night’s sleep.
That’s all for today.
Have a nice day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey

2nd May – Darjeeling

Our final full day in Darjeeling. As Ringo had been booked out for tonight, we had to move our stuff to a neighbouring hostel, reccommended to us by the friendly and gentle Vikash, who runs Revolver. We lugged our stuff across a garden to a tall concrete building, where we paid 1000 rupees for a night. The place was scruffy but cosy, and we later realised that it was some kind of Christian Hostel. There was a bizarre poster of Mary and Joseph standing over Jesus in the manger, but somehow Jesus had grown hair and apparently had make-up applied, despite being only a few hours old. Although a bit grotty in comparison to Ringo’s comfortable interior, this place actually had a functioning shower, which was more than could be said for our previous quarters.

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The plan was to spend a fairly relaxed day around Darjeeling as we’d done the majority of our sightseeing in the previous two days. We went into town and breakfasted at Hasty Tasty before sampling some more varieties of tea and buying some trinkets from the various craft shops scattered around the town. Each of these shops sells a lot of the same stuff, but they’re intriguing all the same. All sorts of statues of Hindu Gods, Gorkha knives and prayer bowls are on offer for reasonable and haggle-able prices. It seems that most of these shops are lacking in electricity, so each shopkeeper stands outside with the pull chord to a generator in his hand. If you go in the shop he cranks up the generator to switch on the lights, and you can look upon his treasures, albeit with a slight sense of guilt that you’ve put him to so much trouble without buying anything.
We went down to a Government taxi garage to book the next day’s travel down the hill. Our plan was to get a taxi to New Jalpaiguri Station, before taking the night train from NJP to a station called Mughal Sarai. Here we would get off and catch a taxi the 20km or so to Varanasi – India’s holiest city. Booking trains in India is more or less impossible for foreigners on tourist visas, so we had to book this through a travel agent who stuck a few hundred rupees on top of the ticket price – still cheap by our standards though. The elderly gent who ran things at the garage spoke impeccable English and seemed fascinated by us. We booked a taxi to NJP for 2000 rupees, then he quizzed us about British life, how we were adapting to India, and how we would vote in the upcoming “Brexit election”. We couldn’t get rid of him, and as we tried to walk back up the hill he insisted on taking us to his favourite bakery, just to show us where it was. There was an awkward moment when we walked in to the shop and we both had to say “We’re not hungry, we’ve just had breakfast”, but the taxi man just laughed and said that he was trying to drum up business for them. We promised to go back in for a crossaint at some point – this was a lie.
We ate at a Tibetan place for lunch, and it was absolutely superb. Momos are dumplings containing chicken or vegetables. They can be steamed or fried, with both options offering a superb flavour. I’d say they’re a bit like gnocchi in texture but with more overall flavour. Luke had a biryani with chapatis and I had a noodle soup with tibetan bread. A little old lady in the corner saw me eating this dry and said “It’s better with butter”, so I smeared a dollop on, and she was right. Tibetan bread is really thick and stodgy, a bit like a cross between a breakfast muffin and a flatbread. Along with the soup and momos we were absolutely stuffed, but I can see how the sherpas would need every last bit of energy in their bellies in order to carry the loads that they do up the steep hills of Darjeeling.

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On the way back to the hostel we called in at the Museum of Tibetan Culture – a really interesting museum funded by the sizeable Tibetan community who live here, presumably having migrated when China took control of the area. Maybe it’s because it’s such a remote and inhospitable place, but there’s a real air of mystery about Tibet and its people. I’d have to put it at the top of my list of places I’d like to go to in the future, if I’m ever lucky enough.
We bought a couple of Kingfishers to drink back at the hostel. Idly flicking through the TV channels, more in hope than expectation, we discovered coverage of THE RAMS game on Indian telly! A 1-1 draw was the least we deserved, but it was amazing to think that we would probably never watch our local side play from a more remote place. After the game was done we went to bed, in preparation for the arduous 24 hours of travelling that would begin at 8am the next morning.

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1st May – Darjeeling

Song of the day: It Ain’t Easy by David Bowie: “When you climb to the top of the mountain…”
Luke’s alarm went off at 3am and we staggered into the town like two zombies from Dawn of the Dead. Darjeeling is a bustling town and rarely quiet, but at this time it seemed that the obligatory stray dogs were the only signs of life. When we get to the town centre however there was a long line of jeeps lined up with their proud Gorkha owners stood alongside them, waiting to ferry the tourists to Tiger Hill. For 200 rupees (a hundred rupees in a pound or thereabouts, remember), we were ferried up the hill with a couple from Chennai, who were holidaying up in the mountains. They were lovely people and explained that we had come to Darjeeling in the middle of the Indian summer holidays – how ironic that where us Brits seek warmer climes, many south Indians come up north to escape the heat for a few precious days.
The climb up to Tiger Hill was an interesting one. We passed the railway station at Ghum – the highest stop on the railway at some 7500 feet, before winding our way up a snaking, almost alpine road. We were in a convoy of perhaps 100 jeeps, all full of tourists. Once nearly at the top of the hill we got out and walked, to find a crowd already assembled. Women with huge pewter teapots called out “Chai chai chai!” and “Coffee coffee coffee!” and a couple of cups woke us up and warmed the cockles, as it was a bit chilly at this altitude without the heat of the sun. The crowds thickened and throbbed and we found ourselves immortalised in the background of a thousand odd selfies. I thought that the selfie craze was a western phenomenon, but I have to say that having been aroud South-East Asia and India this year, Asia’s addiction runs far deeper than our own. Rolling mists continually swept over the hill as the sun made it’s slow appearance over the horizon. Though the sunrise was beautiful and well worth watching, we couldn’t see the mountains for all the bloody fog! I must confess to feeling a bit disappointed about this and if there is an Indian Board for Himalayan Weather Control (not beyond the realms of possibility from what we’ve seen), they will be recieving a strongly-worded letter when we return home. During the duration of our stay in Darjeeling the mists continued to roll over, and for now my dream of looking upon the Himalayas is back on the shelf.

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When we paid our 200 rupees we thought that we were paying for a taxi to Tiger Hill and back, but it turned out we had booked ourselves onto a 3-sight tour. We got back in the jeep and dozed for half an hour as the convoy was at a complete standstill. Eventually we moved off and made a painstakingly slow descent down the mountain to Yiba Choling Gompa – a beautiful Tibetan Monastery in the town of Ghum. There is something about Tibet and it’s people that’s always provided a fascination for me, and this monastery didn’t dissapoint. The wals were covered with handpainted murals and a five-metre high golden Buddha sat cross-legged at the focal point of the altar. Unfortunately with being on a package tour, we were accompanied by about three hundred others who barged their way about the place. Brits in Benidorm moan about the German inability to queue. Though we have found almost every person we’ve met so far to be friendly and warm, I don’t think it’s a slight on the Indian national character to say that they lack basic queuing etiquette, and respect for what we in England refer to as “personal space”. In a classroom round the back of the temple we were drawn to the sound of children singing. We peeped through an open door to see about thirty or so children in maroon robes. Unsupervised by adults, they were reciting a long list of mantras and prayers whilst banging various bells and drums. They were having a right good time of it and it was quite hypnotising to watch, until a multitude of cameras attached to arms and selfie-sticks were thrust in front of our line of sight.
The last stop on our tour was the Gorkha War Memorial – a statue and ornamental garden dedicated to the fallen Gorkha soldiers of various wars, most of which were fought in the name of Britain. The Himalayan Mountain Railway runs in a loop around the gardens. Traders around here must know the train schedule off by heart – or enjoy living dangerously – because they spread their wares and pop-up stalls all over the tracks. On the way back down Luke bought some bhajis that were being freshly deep-fried on the street. They tasted, in my opinion, like a much fresher version of Bombay Mix. They were washed down as ever with a cup of Chai. After this very pleasant morning we were dropped off back in the centre of Darjeeling – it was seven o’clock. We went back to the hostel for a shower and some breakfast. I say shower, but in fact Ringo’s facilities didn’t stretch to that. Instead we each had to fill a bucket of hot water and wash the old-fashioned way – again, I reckon John, Paul or George would have stretched to a functioning shower.

Our next stop was the Happy Valley Tea Estate – a working tea plantation that welcomes guests on a free tour of the factory. Unfortunately because it was the holidays there was no tea production in progress – with this and the missing mountains we didn’t have much luck in Darjeeling! We walked down a steep, snaking road to come to a large building with a corrugated roof. A girl took us on a tour of the various stages of the tea production process, which was fascinating and made us appreciate the efforts that go in to providing us in England with a beautiful, steaming cuppa. There are three types of tea produced on these plantations – white, green and black, and all come from the same tea leaves. Black is what we are used to drinking in teabags back home. White tea is the freshest and purest form of tea, but contains subtler flavours because it hasn’t been picked off the plant for as long. There are several differences in the production process of each type of tea which make it different to the other, but a lot is down to the amount of time the tea leaves are left out in the open air to “oxygenate”. The longer the tea leaves are left, the fewer anti-oxidants and the more caffeine they contain. Thus, white tea is the healthiest for you, followed by green, followed by black. I could go on and on about the production process but I’d probably lose you without providing diagrams and asking you to take notes, so we’ll move on.

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By this point we were pretty knackered after our early wake-up, but we felt that we were on a roll. We took a taxi to Darjeeling Zoo, where we paid a pittance for access to the zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. We were both really interested in the Institute and made a beeline for it – some of the greatest mountaineers have passed through here, using it as a base for training and planning expeditions. A large group of kids in uniform did exercises in a school yard- the apprentice climbers of tomorrow. Though a lot of the Institute was out of bounds to us, there was a fascinating Everest Museum which told of famous expeditions to the world’s highest peak. All kinds of mountaneering memorabilia was here, from Tenzing Norgay’s snow goggles to a pair of specially designed mountaneering boots for a climber who had lost all of his toes through frostbite. The bit about Mallory and Irvine was particularly interesting – amazing to think that we’ll probably never know whether they reached the summit or not before perishing on the mountain. Outside was a stone to mark the spot where Tenzing Norgay – first man to reach the summit of Everest along with Edmund Hillary – was cremated. Norgay lived most of his life in Darjeeling and was instrumental in the setting up of the Mountaneering Institute.

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We worked our way back through the zoo, which was quite sad. An impressive collection of rare animals no doubt, but it’s a sorry sight to see such amazing creatures in a zoo, let alone in such small cages. The Bengal tiger continued to stalk the same path over and over, displaying signs of stereotypies – a kind of insanity brought on by a large beast being held captive in such an unstimulating environment. Tibetan wolves were missing large patches of fur, and a snow leopard lay resigned to it’s lonely fate in behind the bars of it’s cage. I watched a program before we came away on the debate between keeping animals alive but in captivity, or allowing them to go extinct when their wild populations are extinguished. On this showing, I’d say the second option makes a strong case for itself.
Inevitably we had a late lunch at Hasty Tasty. Luke had biryani whilst I had paneer pakoras and a bowl of curd – a strange but tasty combination. We went back to the hostel and watched Leicester City draw closer to winning the title on Indian sports TV, before going to sleep. Another long but successful day!
Have a great day, whatever you endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey

30th April – Darjeeling

Song of the day: Thomas the Tank Engine theme -Why? Well, we saw a steam train, and Thomas the Tank Engine is narrated by RINGO STARR, who’s room we are currently staying in, so it’s highly relevant.
Darjeeling in the light is quite a sight to behold. Hundreds, maybe thousands of coloured buildings yawn across the steep hillside for about a mile or so. Although Ringo did not provide the same panorama as John or George, we walked out early and looked out over the hill station. We walked up Ghandi Road and made our way up one of the main thoroughfares to Square – the focal point of Darjeeling at the top end of town. It was early in the day and all sorts of strange sights were on display. Women carried huge wicker baskets the size of paddling pools on their heads, full of live chickens bound for a sticky end. Stray dogs of a Tibetan origin recline lazily on the pavement – occasionally they will go for each other but not once during our stay did we witness them troubling people. They have handsome faces and fluffy coats and were it not for the scabs and constant scratching I’d take one home with me. By far the most intriguing sight of all is to witness the heavy loads that people of Gorkha origin carry on their backs, using a rope attached around their forehead to keep hold of it. Large gas bottles, crates of booze and wooden fold-away tables are but some of the loads we’ve seen these people carry up gradients which are exhausting even when unladen. Most of these people (men and women) are bent double in order to carry the weight, and their faces are furrowed with the exertion. Whether they can straighten up once their cargo has been jettisoned I don’t know, but I’d fancy that most of them would kill for a good chiropracter.
We walked around a very Victorian-looking path lined with cast-iron railings that clung to the hillside. To our right the mist was thick, but we were able to see the tiny dots of houses lining the bottom of the valley, perhaps 1000 feet below? Don’t quote me on that, but it looked liked a long way down. The odd monkey could be seen chilling out in the grand old trees that lined the path. We sat on a bench that on a clear day was supposed to offer a beautiful vista of Khangchengdzonga (spellings are multiple), but for Luke and I provided only a vista of cotton wool clouds. Khangchengdzonga is the third highest mountain in the world behind Everest and K2, and the highest mountain in India. As we sat relaxing in the morning sun I was approached by a tiny chappy who appeared to be without abode. It is difficult enough to interpret the utterings of a mountain man who does not speak a word of English, but it seemed that this chap was not even capable of speech. This mute became more and more animated as he told me his life story: “Unh, Unh, UUUUNH!” and I politely nodded along, whilst Luke couldn’t help but creasing up in laughter at my predicament. The mouthless mountain man made hand gestures which seemed to indicate that he lived down the hill, needed money, and would be dead soon. He indicated death by sticking his tongue out to the side and rolling his eyes, before miming digging a grave. Unsure of the best course of action I provided him with ten rupees, which he seemed highly delighted with. I took his photograph which he seemed equally as pleased about, and then we wished him good health before fleeing the scene.

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As I have adhered to previously, the hills of Darjeeling ensure a certain degree of fitness must be maintained in order to conquer them. Luke is a recent veteran of multiple marathons, whereas I am a recent veteran of multiple meals. I was left trailing in his wake as we ascended what appears to be the highest hill in Darjeeling to the site of the ancient Dorje Ling Monastery, from which the present Darjeeling name was derived. Though the orginal monastery no longer stands, there is a beautiful temple dedicated to Mahakala – a deity sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. I have to say, of all the many temples I have visited this year, this one has to be the one that has impressed me so far. Rather than beeing a feat of architecture covered in gold and trinkets, the temple on the site of Dorje Ling is more of an ethereal, atmospheric place. There are no roofs here – the temple is an open air complex stretching over quite a wide area. Multi-coloured prayer flags hung from every possible location flutter in the breeze. Various bells with a soft, soothing chime are rung by entrants to the temple, and mani wheels are in abundance. Mani wheels are bell-like objects mounted on a pole, with various incantations written upon them. The idea is that when people spin them, the prayers that are written upon the mani wheel will ascend into the heavens. We spent a good deal of time here, enjoying the purity and peace of the place. I don’t consider myself to belong to any religion, but in my opinion places like this are about as close as you can come to feeling that spiritual nourishment without having to commit to anything in particular! Far from the madding crowds of Kolkata, and further from the oppresive dinginess of most roofed places of worship, the Dorje Ling sight was a real find of a place.

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We came down from the heights and went downhill, checking the treasures at various antique shops along the way. In true British fashion we wandered into a tea shop – Nathmull’s, and ordered a plethora of mind-expanding brews. The varieties of tea on offer is a complicated business – like wine-making, the region, season and production process impacts heavily upon the flavour. I will explain the subtleties of this process in the fullness of time, but for now you should know that we drank an abudance of tea whilst reading the Indian Times and planning our itinerary for the next couple of days.
Feeling suitably refreshed we moved further downhill and came upon the Darjeeling Himalaya Mountain Railway. This line was built in 1881 under the British Empire to transport tea down to the lower ground – presumably eventually ending up in the homes of British toffs. It was interesting looking round the station as a steam train puffed in. According to the Lonely Planet guide the scenery along the route is breathtaking, so we decided to take a ride. When we got to the counter however, the ticket vendor informed us that the computer which sells tickets was broken. You would think that this issue was easily resolved by selling the tickets by hand, but this is India, and things are never as they seem. The decision was taken to cancel all trains that were running that day rather than continue without the assistance of the primitive computer system. You have to chuckle. As we came away we could hear the loud splash of liquid hitting a hard floor – was it raining? We looked aroud to see a man sat on a bench in a woollen hat, who was quite publicly pissing himself. A deluge of green liquid seeped from his trousers and onto the floor, whilst he sat with the faraway, contented smile of a man who had achieved alcoholic oblivion. Feeling like we had entered the twilight zone, we checked out a tiny Hindu temple which afforded spectacular views over the sprawling backyards of Darjeeling before returning again to the hostel to regroup.

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We decided that the following morning we would get up at 3am in order to take a trip up to Tiger Hill – a local viewpoint for where you can watch the sun rise and hopefully catch a glimpse of the Himalayas, including Khangchengdzonga and the mightiest of them all, Everest. Because of this we needed to eat early then turn in. We stumbled upon a place called “Hasty Tasty”, which was very much the latter but not so much the former. We later read that this place was reccommended in our Lonely Planet Guide. This place is quite typical of Indian cafes – extremely scruffy, even dirty by English standards, but with a good heart and always, always packed to the rafters. Upon our first of three visits I very politely asked a lady if we could sit at the end of her table as they didn’t need al the space. She said something along the lines of “We haven’t finished yet”. Spotting this the waiter came over and pulled out a vacant chair at the table. “This is India man, just sit down!” So we did. Luke has so far displayed an impressive knowledge and exquisite taste in Indian cuisine, so I trusted his recommendation that we buy two Thalis, one North Indian and one South. A Thali is the closest Indian dining comes to tapas. We were presented with two trays full of small samples of a variety of curries, complete with chapatis, pickles and curd (a soothing yoghurt-like mixture). We also ordered two Idlis – a kind of soft rice cake which you eat by dipping in a small stock-like curry. We were able to see subtle differences in the flavours and ingredients used in North and South Indian cooking, but there were that many different dishes on offer that I couldn’t tell you now what these differences were. By eightish we were in bed, ready for the earliest of early starts on the morrow.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey

29th April – Kolkata to Darjeeling via Bagdogra

Song of the day: Octopus’s Garden by The Beatles
We had a last supper (or breakfast) at the Blue Sky cafe – Aloo paratha and Aloo dum, and tasty it was too. Aloo paratha is a lightly fried bread stuffed with potato, and the aloo dum is a mild tomato and onion based curry which goes down a treat with the aloo paratha. When I used to have curry for breakfast at uni it was a shameful thing which only occurred after I’d got drunk and left part of my takeaway in the fridge. Here it’s perfectly acceptable to eat curry at any hour. Look out Hollie when I get back – I’ll be reaching for the madras whilst you’re still chomping on your lucky charms!
The hotel taxi was arranged for us and we took a cab out of the city to the airport. Though another day would probably have been too much, we both had a great time in Kolkata and leave with with a very high opinion of it’s people and culture. We checked in for a flight to Bagdogra – a city in the Himalayan lowlands and gateway to Darjeeling. Before we left Kolkata decided to test our mettle one last time. As we got off the shuttle bus and stepped out onto the airport tarmac, a double whammy of heat hit us from above and below. The concrete acted as a mirror for the sun and no part of our bodies were sheltered from the rays. The situation was compounded by the fact that we were flying with Spicejet (a kind of Indian Ryanair) and we were made to wait twenty minutes before getting on the plane. As we stood there cooking from above and below, Luke decided to point out that they were changing a wheel on the front landing gear of the plane. We watched as a bloke wheeled the old one off like a child with a hoopla, and another replaced it with an identical looking wheel. For the benefit of nervous passengers I believe it should be standard procedure for all wheels, wings and propellers to be replaced out of sight of the paying customer. The flight was twenty minutes late, and we were in the air for nearly half an hour longer than we should have been, flying round and round in a circle until the runway was clear. During this slow descent we made friends with Aditya Chirimar – the owner of a tea plantation near Darjeeling. He didn’t look old enough to own a pushbike let alone a tea plantation, and it made me question my own career – why don’t I own a tea plantation by now? Luke and I talked with him for quite some time about premier league football, of which he seemed to know every statistic off by heart. He’d heard of Derby County and even named some players, which pleased us. Then he reminded us of the fact that Derby still hold the record as the worst team in Premier League history – which didn’t. As we touched down he gave us his card and offered to show us round his tea plantation, which seemed like an offer too good to refuse at first, but we later learned that it was some way out of Darjeeling and would probably have meant us sacrificing other things that we wanted to do.

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We picked our bags up very swiftly and then queued for a pre-paid taxi for Darjeeling. All Indian cities have these pre-paid taxi stands – they seem to be organised by the government and they offer fixed fare prices for each destination, taking the hassle of bartering out of the equation after a long journey. When we got to the ticket window, we could see that there was another booth at the other side of the office, where what seemed like a hundred or so Indian faces were pressed against the glass jostling for position at the tiny opening. It became apparent that these were taxi drivers fighting to get a prepaid fare. We paid 1800 rupees and took our ticket outside, where the victor of the free-for-all greeted us. The population of this far northeast corner of India look facially very different to further south – a myriad of mountainous peoples occupy the foothills of the Himalayas, and most of the inhabitants have more of a Chinese or Nepalese look about them. Our driver was a young lad who spoke little at first but turned out to be quite a friendly individual, even offering us to buy a cup of tea halfway up to Darjeeling.

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The road started out fairly flat, with various military camps on either side – the Indian army have a strong military presence here, possibly because of the proximity to China, who have previously laid claim to the Sikkim region just north of Darjeeling. The camps gave way to fields full of little trees as far as the eye could see – our first glimpse of the tea plantations that dominate the landscape for miles around. For about an hour we drove through fields and fields of tea, always with hills looming in the misty middle distance. Tea plantations are a very beautiful thing – even at this low altitude where the heat still dries the earth, there’s a lush green hue to the plants that delights the eye. Our driver pulled over and smiled at us – “I need a cigarette and a piss”. Luke and I took the opportunity to walk out into the tea fields and examine the plants more closely. It was a feel-good moment to stand in a pleasant, rather than oppressive heat and take stock of our surroundings. The air was more breathable and didn’t carry the aroma of rubbish or sewers – this place feels wild and remote in the most positive sense. Luke turned around and looked at our driver leaning on the bonnet of his car. “If he drove off now, we’d be f*****d.” Sometimes there is no better way of putting something than the most abrupt, and his observation was entirely correct. Luckily, there was no question of that.  We got back in the car and began to climb higher and higher, round a succession of steep hairpins and blind bends. Our driver was progressive and for the most part safe, but every journey in India involves the need to overtake a variety of slow-moving handcarts, trucks and bicycles if progress is to be made. The process of overtaking an overloaded truck whilst going around a blind bend even at slow speed is squeeky bum time by anybody’s definition.

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Hundreds of schoolchildren were walking down the hill as we walked up, and we pondered upon how far they must have to walk every day to get to school it seems that some must arrive home and then immediately have to turn around and go back again. As we ascended the air grew cooler and more humid. Squinting through the mists we could see a tiny patchwork of fields and the dots of little towns far below – it took me back to the flight of earlier that day. Luke pulled a packet of crisps out of his bag – the packet had inflated as we gained in altitude, and over the next couple of days we would see that most packaged foods ended up looking like a child’s swimming armband. At one point we passed a huge pile of rocks and boulders that covered half of the road – evidence of a landslide we thought. We stopped again in a fog and tree covered valley as the light started to fade. A revitalising cup of chai and we continued. For the last twenty miles or so of the journey we followed the track of the Himalayan Mountain Railway – a miniature train that more or less caters for tourists these days, but in the days before cars it was an essential mode of transportation for getting tea down from the hills. We passed gompas and prayer flags before arriving in Darjeeling under the cover of darkness at about seven. We tipped our driver to the tune of 200 rupees and asked him if he knew where the Revolver hostel was – our home for the next three nights. In no time at all about four locals had joined in the conversation and between them they gave us a good set of directions. We walked up what was to be the first of many hills over the next few days and up a street called Ghandi Road. Tucked in behind the Union Chapel we found our hostel – the cosy little Revolver.

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We owe Hollie a complete debt of gratitude for finding this Beatles themed hotel, so thanks love! I had spent a long time before we left England negotiating with the management over which room we could have. There are five rooms in the hostel – John, Paul, George, Ringo and Brian, after Brian Epstein. I requested John and had to settle for two nights in Paul and two nights in Ringo. After a couple of days I was e-mailed again by management who offered a thousand apologies and explained that they had double-booked Paul, and the best they could do was offer us three nights in Ringo. Poor Ringo – always destined to be the least sought after Beatle it seems. Still, I think as two boys sharing a room it would have been more controversial for us to have been placed in Brian, if you know what I mean.

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We walked up a huge hill in search of a traveller’s bar reccomended in the Lonely Planet, where we had a couple of Kingfishers and a Morrocan falafel platter each for tea. On the way home we took a wrong turn , walked a fair way in the wrong direction, and had to do double the hill-walking in order to get back to the hostel. I live in Belper, England which I consider to be a pretty hilly place, but Darjeeling makes my sleepy town look as flat as a pancake. We returned to Ringo and fell asleep under his watchful eye as he stared down at us from various photographs on the wall.
That’s all for now.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey