May 12th – Hampi

Ayup.
I confess (not for the first time) to having made a slight financial misjudgement on our first day in Hampi. In our eagerness to get to Hampi Bazaar and source some accomodation, we’d neglected to get some more cash out. As the designated carrier of money I’d looked at the wad of notes in our possession as we left Hoispet the previous morning and decided that it was adequate. After paying for three night’s accomodation and three meals on our first day, we were down to the bare bones by the next morning. Hampi Bazaar is such a remote backwater that it does not possess the luxury of an ATM. We convened for crisis talks over breakfast (using 300 of our last 600 rupees to pay). The conversation went something along the lines of “We need to get some money or we’re buggered”. After much deliberation we hatched a plan to rent a couple of pushbikes and cycle to the nearby town of Kamalapura – a measly 3 kilometre ride away. We rented two bikes for fifty rupees each and set off along the road, which climbs the biggest bloody hill in the area. Determined to show no weakness to our usual audience of lithe, athletic Indians, we puffed and panted our way up the hill, freewheeling down the slope on the other side. Flanked by banana trees and with the breeze on our faces we were in high spirits, in spite even of the farm trucks and buses that blared their horns as they came past us. Then we hit the flat. The sun beat down from above and the tarmac reflected it back at us to give us a double whammy of heat. On top of this – and I know you shouldn’t grumble for fifty rupees – but this bike’s gears were inadequate for the task at hand. We took a ten minute pit stop during which we each drank about a litre of water, before soldiering on into the town.
It didn’t take us long to find what we were looking for – two ATM machines side by side, completely incongruous to the ancient stone buildings that surrounded. We had two cards each with which we could withdraw money – none of them worked. We repeated the process three or four times, and an error message appeared each time. This was more than a little concerning – we had 200 rupees remaining. It was agreed that one of us would have to use the last of our cash to take a rickshaw back to the bigger town of Hoispet, whilst the other waited with the bikes. We propped the bikes up against the wall and I sat down next to them whilst Luke went off to find a rickshaw.

No sooner had I sat down than I was accosted by about twenty kids, who seemed to be fascinated by my presence on their turf (metaphorical turf that is – it was actually just a dusty roadside). They asked me questions in broken English, stared at my pallid legs gleaming in the sun, and giggled as they gaggled away to each other in Hindi. I shook each of their hands individually, saying “My name is Tom, how do you do?” to each one in a very ostentatious British accent, whilst they told me their own names. They were all very keen that I should take their photo, which I obliged. The boys posed like Usain Bolt and the girls ran away shyly, and we all had a thoroughly good time. A couple of Dads emerged from their houses to see what the commotion was. They spoke sternly to their kids, I imagine to tell them off for bothering me, but I was quite enjoying the banter so I smiled and nodded at the adults who then seemed satisfied that I wasn’t being unduly harassed. The bravest lad out of the group grabbed one of the bikes that had slid down the wall and propped it up in a better position for me. I thanked him for this and he immediately said “Ten rupees please, sir.” I admired his entrepenuerial spirit but for the first time on the trip I was completely honest when I told him I was completely skint. Luke returned quickly, and the kid’s attention turned to a pen he was holding in his hand. They repeated “Schoolpen sir, schoolpen!” Until he caved to their demands and handed them the pen. I don’t want to sound patronising, but it was a real pleasure just to meet these kids and see how friendly and honest in their curiosity they were. These are the kind of random encounters that can sound hopelessly cheesy when you try to describe them to people afterwards, but I’ve learned quickly that chance meetings with strangers can be the highlight of you travels.

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Whilst I’d been chatting and chilling in the shade, Luke had gotten into a dispute with his rickshaw driver, who had driven him all of 200 yards down the road to the next cashpoint and demanded 200 rupees off him for the priveledge. Two quid for a 200 yard journey is extortionate even by British standards, but at least he’d managed to extract a wad of notes. We mounted our bicycles and rode off in the direction of the closest ruins, followed by the kid of the previous paragraph who continued to shout “Ten rupees please sir!” until we left the village.
We left the road and cycled onto an enormous arid plain. Ruins of various stature were situated for as far as the eye can see. We bought ice lollies and re-stocked on water from a vendor who was sat with what must have been his entire extended family under a tree. Feeling suitably replenished, we commenced an onslaught of temple exploration under the taxing heat of the mid-day sun. There were temples, towers and aqueducts, bathing pools and fortifications. Of particular interest to us was a gigantic building within the Zenana Enclosure that stretched about the length of two football pitches. It contained eleven domed chambers with huge arched entrances – these were the elephant stables. This building remained remarkably intact and it didn’t require much imagination to picture these beautiful behemoths being herded under the arches after a hard day’s work, mournfully trumpeting their protests and dropping steaming piles of dung all over the place. In front of the stables was a large field which had apparently been a parade ground for troops of the Vijayanagara empire, but was now being cultivated for crops by a local farmer. The architecture in this area of the ancient city seems to have more of an Islamic influence, which is ironic considering the Vijayanagara spent most of the time fighting off one Muslim empire or another.

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The Elephant Stables

After two or three hours of exploration in which we’d sweated enough to fill the ancient baths back up, we biked it back to Hampi Bazaar. I’d been dreading the ascent of the hill back into Hampi but it turned out okay – neither of us suffered the ultimate amateur cyclist’s shame of having to dismount and push our bikes up the hill. We chilled in the hostel for a while before setting out again for the Vittala Temple – in my opinion not the most photogenic, but certainly the most photographed of all Hampi’s landmarks. The main feature of this temple is a stone sculpture of a chariot called a ratha. The preservation of this monument is remarkable and until the recent past the wheels of the chariot could be spun by hand.

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Towards the back of the open temple complex is a roofed building held up by hollow pillars that when tapped emit sounds of various pitches, each one representing a different musical instrument. Luke and I walked around tapping them all but we couldn’t get a tune out of them, and we were distracted in our efforts by yet more curious tourists who insisted on shaking our hands, taking selfies with us and pointing us out to their various family members. The attention and the heat got a little too much and we returned to Hampi Bazaar for tea.

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Tomorrow is our last full day in Hampi. We feel that we’ve achieved a lot in our two days here so, so tomorrow we can afford to take it a bit slower and just enjoy the vibe of being in this other-wordly location.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

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May 11th Night train to Hoispet then Hoispet to Hampi by Rickshaw

We woke at five. The train was about two hours behind schedule but we didn’t want to tempt fate by falling back to sleep. There are no announcements when you pull into a station – no tannoy and no conductor. Luke had the foresight to print out a station schedule for our journey, so we could tick off the stations one by one and ensure we didn’t miss our stop. As we stepped off the train we were descended upon by the usual gaggle of rickshaw drivers. I imagine these drivers live by the station timetable, muttering the details of incoming trains in their sleep, for there can surely be no better source of income to the tuk tuk driver than an unwitting tourist arriving from a foreign land. We stuck to our policy of not selecting a driver until we’d left the station and checked that there was no pre-paid taxi rank – usually this offers a more competitive fair than that of the freelance drivers. With no sign of a better alternative we decided to go with one of the drivers who’d met us off the train, who turned out to be a really nice bloke – it’s sometimes nigh on impossible to tell a friend from a fiend without taking the plunge.
The drive to Hampi got steadily more spectacular as we left the sporadic concrete mish mash of Hoispet. It was light, but the sun was still low in the sky and cast everything we looked upon in indigo. At each junction in the road we seemed to be taking the road less travelled, and for the first time on our trip I felt that we were heading into remote, rural India.  The terrain changed from lush fields full of banana trees to dusty, rocky outcrops that towered ever higher over the rickshaw. The area around Hampi is a geologist’s dream – all kinds of bizarrely balanced boulders perch improbably on top of each other. I don’t think I exagerate when I say the landscape is similar to the kind that Wiley Coyote chases Roadrunner through in the cartoons.
We came over the brow of the hill and caught our first view of Hampi Bazaar, the tiny village in which we would stay. A whole host of ruins stretched out along the sides and bottom of a dusty valley, with a lush river snaking through the bottom. The focal point of Hampi Bazaar itself is the huge ancient tower of the Virupaksha Temple. It’s a steep, vaguely triangular structure which put me in mind of some of the Aztec temples you see in Mexico. As we got closer we could see that it was covered in Gargoyle-like figures carved out of stone. At a glance you could be forgiven for thinking that some of these statues had come alive, but on closer inspection you’ll find that there are scores of monkeys larking around among the architecture.

Me in front of the Virupaksha Temple. Am I the first tourist to ever visit wearing a Derby County away shirt from the 99-00 season? Ever the trendsetter...

Me in front of the Virupaksha Temple. Am I the first tourist to ever visit Hampi wearing a Derby County away shirt from the 99-00 season? Ever the trendsetter…

Our driver took us through the bazaar itself, claiming that he knew a good place for us to stay. We halted at a collection of little huts just outside the village, where chickens chattered in the yard. A very friendly old chap welcomed us into his home and offered us chai, which we rejected incase we felt inclined to stay at his place even if it was substandard. He showed us our potential accomodation. It was basically a giant upturned whicker basket, about the size of a transit van, with a concrete shower cubicle in the corner. It was quaint and rustic, but you could see daylight through the gaps in the woven walls and we decided it’d be too hot and too exposed to mosquitoes to bother with. We made our excuses and the man accepted our decision with a broad grin, inviting us to return to his restaurant at some point during our stay. Our rickshaw driver dropped us back in the village and we gave him 200 rupees for his trouble.
We struck lucky with our accomodation, rocking up at the Shambhu guesthouse – the first we saw in the village. It had all of the basics (roof, walls, running water) as well as the twin jewells of aircon and wifi. In his pitch to try and seal the deal with us, our host explained that whilst most places in Hampi suffer from regular powercuts lasting several hours, his guesthouse had it’s own supply of electricity which prevented us from having to suffer this inconvenience. To prove his claim he gave an affectionate pat to a large lorry battery with wires coming out of it that occupied the corridor just outside our room – we were sold.
Hampi and the surrounding areas are stuffed full of ruins of the ancient city of Vijayanagar. Vijayanagar was the capital of the Vijayanagara empire which had it’s heyday between the 14th and 16th centuries. Apparently at it’s peak the city was home to 500,000 people, making it the second largest city in the world at the time behind Beijing. Mighty as it was, it all went to pot for them in 1565 when a rival empire called the Deccan Sultanate wiped the floor with the Vijayanagara in battle and completely ransacked the city. Since then the place has been largely deserted except for farmers, hoteliers and monkeys.
After a first shower in 24 hours we headed out to explore some of the ruins. We walked out along a wide thoroughfare of about half a mile. On each side of this open space there were continuous stone columns, some supporting roofs, that must have at one time supported buzzing market stores. We climbed a set of ancient steps, followed by a mangey stray dog who seemed to want to make friends with us. We wandered through a desert of cactus and boulders before coming upon the temples of Achutaraya, Varaha and Hastagiri Ranganatha. These temples are dwarfed on all sides by red hills that look like a Martian landscape. At random intervals all around Hampi there are oases of lush vegetation that spring up invitingly out of the dry rock that surrounds them. After about an hour of exploring we were parched in the mid-day sun. We sat down in the shade under a huge tree which looked out over the river, sipping from fresh coconuts. Taking on liquid made us realise that we were suddenly famished, and we made haste back to Hampi Bazaar to eat a thali at the Mango Tree restaurant. Many places in India offer a free refill service on thalis, and the Mango Tree was no exception. Restaurants in Britain could learn something from this level of service and hospitality – in Britain you probably couldn’t buy a sandwich for the same price as a freshly cooked, all you can eat buffet service in India!
We ventured down to the river, where children were swimming and women were scrubbing and soaking clothes, before slapping them with all their might against sun-scorched rocks. We paid the five rupee toll to take the ferry across the river, where we scrambled over rocks and boulders up the hillside until we’d gained a good vantage point over the valley below. I’ve honestly never been anywehre like Hampi – where lunar landscapes meet lush fields of crops and man-made ruins compete with the randomness of nature to provide unparalelled levels of beauty.

Our fellow passengers on the ferry crossing

Our fellow passengers on the ferry crossing


The monarch of all I survey

The monarch of all I survey

We made our way back down, avoiding death-defying drops and any piles of leaves that looked like they’d make the ideal home for a snake.  It turned out that we’d missed the last ferry across the river, and we had to make the choice between swimming across or taking a more traditional craft across the river.  We opted for the latter, and crossed back in style in a handmade coracle for fifty rupees.

Ahooooy!

Ahooooy young Partridge!

It had been a long day, and we finished it off with our first of several visits to Gopi rooftop restaurant. I had a jaipuri with momos on the side – a random combination but one which worked beautifully for me! If my memory serves me correctly Luke had another thali, which he reported to be of excellent quality. No two thalis are the same, and if you want to check out a diverse range of dishes in a restaurant, it’s a great way to sample a bit of everything.  Owing to it’s religious significance to Hindus, Hampi Bazaar is a dry town. We were gasping for a beer and we looked longingly at four cans of Carlsberg that were stored in the fridge. (The fact that we were willing to drink Carlsberg indicates our level of desperation). We enquired with the waiter in hushed tones as to whether the cans were for sale, but alas, they belonged to one of the lodgers in the guesthouse downstairs. Just as we’d finished up our meals a great commotion could be heard in the street below. We poked our heads over the balcony to witness a group of musicians in elaborate dress who were playing a very ancient sounding melody, followed by an elephant whose face had been painted with bright dye. This was Lakshmi, the temple mascot, and a beautiful one at that.

We paid the bill and gave chase to the procession, which sauntered through the streets before heading under the ancient archway into the Virupaksha Temple. Following the spectacle into a large stone courtyard, we watched in amusement as Lakshmi accepted coins from members of the public in her trunk, handed them to her keeper and then blessed the coin-giver by placing her trunk on the crown of their head.

The Virupaksha temple is apparently unchanged in centuries, and but for the cameras and phones being brandished by tourists we could well believe that we were in the heyday of the Vijayanagara empire. When the ceremony began to wind down, we walked back in the moonlight to the guesthouse for a well-earned night’s kip.

Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

May 9th and 10th – Mumbai to Bengaluru, then boarding the night train to Hoispet

Song of the day: Dedicated Follower of Fashion by The Kinks
We breakfasted on dhosas and idli at Sai Samrat for the final time, before taxiing it to the airport. This time the flight was relaxed, comfortable, and at no point during the journey did we feel like we were going to die, which was nice. We arrived in Bengaluru at about half past two. The temperature here was up from Mumbai – about 38 degrees – but somehow felt less oppressive.

You might know Bengaluru as Bangalore – like many cities in India it’s name was altered in the early noughties to a more phonetically correct spelling. It’s one of many cities in India which has changed it’s name back from the one that was bestowed on it by the British, who were unable to wrap their tongues around the native pronunciation.  Apparently the name of the city means “Town of Boiled Beans”.
We were driven down a smooth highway by a metered taxi – the lack of room for negotiation made us feel uncomfortable after a fortnight of haggling for every journey. Owing to a bizarre one way system the taxi dropped us a few hundred meters from our hotel and we walked the rest of the way. The Sheetal Residency cost six quid a night and provided a level of luxury that could not hitherto have dreamed of. It contained aircon, clean sheets, a functioning shower and a widescreen TV. After the scurrying of rats, soiled sheets and non-flushing bog of Central Residency in Mumbai, the sight of this luxury gaf was almost tear-inducing. By the time we’d both made use of the plush facilities it had dropped dark and there was no sightseeing to be done. There was nothing else for it but to head for a Kingfisher, followed by a curry in a vegetarian restaurant. After our experience in Balti Towers in Mumbai, we thought that the level of staring, pointing and excessive servitude had reached it’s peak. Again, the waiters at this particular joint managed to crank it up a notch. The food was superb, but whilst we feasted upon Jaipuri, pakoras and parathas, no less than five waiters feasted upon us with their eyes whilst leaning against a wall no more than four feet away from our table. Each time we went to spoon more curry onto our plates, a swarm of waiters would flutter around the table like moths to a flame, elaborately lavishing curry and rice onto our plates. So intense was the level of attention we recieved that I decided to snap a couple of selfies with these gentlemen in the background.

We paid the bill and returned to the privacy of our posh hotel room to watch the evening’s helping of 20/20 action.
The next day we woke late and got going even later. Noon was fast approaching and the sun was high in the sky by the time we began our journey through the dusty streets of Bengaluru to a market called Krishnarajendra. On the way we passed an ox with multi-coloured rainbow horns, and a row of shops, each containing sack upon sack of dried chillis. We smelt the market before we saw it. An aroma – no – an assault of coriander perforated our nostrils. Had somebody come and shoved a sprig up each nostril I don’t think it could have been more pungent. Amongst general scenes of vehicular and bovine pandemomium, Huge carpets of the green herb were being watched over by market traders sat on their haunches. We gravitated through an infinity of vegetables toward a large multi-storey building which looked as if it had been abandoned long ago in a zombie apocalypse. Here we climbed the dingy stairs and walked through an area of hardware shops before coming to a balcony which rewarded us with a view over the flower market a few stories below. As with Mulikghat in Kolkata, the rainbow of colour that greeted us was sensational – I know of nothing like this in the UK, both for scale and variety of flowers. After a few minutes of looking down from our vantage point, we descended into the market itself and allowed ourselves to be dragged around as fascinated flotsam, bobbing along in the river of people that rushed around the various stores. Eventually we made our way out of the building and picked our way through the outskirts of the market.

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After finding our bearings, we walked to Bengaluru fort. What remains of the fort is impressive, but apparently it represents the tip of the iceberg compared to the defences that stood here in the past. Once inside the walls the din of the traffic on the street was barely audible owing to the thickness of the towers surrounding us, and it was nice to spend a few minutes relaxing and looking around the Middle-Eastern architecture which contrasted with most of the buildings we’d seen so far.
Following this we got a bit lost and ended up starving hungry in the grounds of a hospital. It seems that this place was oversubscribed with patients and long queues of bored looking people snaked out from the doorways of the grand looking old buildings. We took the decision to go to the hospital canteen for lunch and took and consumed daal, chapatis and chai with an elderly couple who seemed puzzled as to why we were sitting in the public dining room with them, rather than in the room marked “Doctors Only” beyond the canteen.

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Bengaluru Fort

We walked past the Tipu Sultan’s Palace, which was architecturally impressive but closed to visitors on the day that we visited, before taking a long trek in the heat to the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. Although there was evidence of British influence, it was a geezer called Hyder Ali and his son, the aforementioned Tipu Sultan, who commissioned and built them in the 18th century. Ali and Tipu were leaders of the Kingdom of Mysore which ruled the roost around these parts before the Brits got involved. We spent an hour or so wandering around the vast expanses of the park, checking out all kinds of gigantic trees, ornamental greenhouses and cute, striped squirrels that looked a bit like chipmunks and seem to be as common in India as grey squirrels are in Britain. I was greeted by a young Indian gentleman of exquisite taste who pointed at me and said “Nice t-shirt bro!” before we we became embroiled in a multiple selfie-taking session with another group of lads. For the record I was wearing a tatty green shirt which I’ve owned since I was sixteen which says “Northern Soul – Keep The Faith” on it. Perhaps it’s not the t-shirt, but the effortless chic of the wearer, which makes an outfit…
At this stage we were pretty hot and sweaty and wanted to make use of the shower in the room. We were due to catch a night train to Hoispet at 10:00 that night and couldn’t be sure of our next opportunity to get clean. We hailed a rickshaw and went back to the hotel before heading down to the station early to get some food. The process of ordering at the station canteen was extremely confusing and involved paying for your food and collecting a ticket with the names of your desired dishes on them, which you would then wave under the nose of one of the chefs behind the food counter. This meant elbowing people out of the way and enduring with British politeness the several queue-jumpers who got their orders in first. The train was an hour late, and in the meantime we lay in the station concourse with a few hundred other people. There always seem to be scores of people lounging around on the floor around Indian railways stations – some homeless, some with time to kill between trains. I kind of like that everybody sits on the floor – there’s a kind of democracy to it, with the destitute and the merely delayed sharing the same space as equals.

image.jpegEventually our train appeared on the arrivals board and we stood on the platform as it began it’s slow-motion approach into the station. The length of Indian trains mean that they take an aeon to stop, and by the time the train comes to a complete halt half of the passengers have already jumped on or off. We found our beds and ignored the attentions of the chaiwallers, preferring to go straight to sleep. It seems to be an inevitability here that your train is going to be delayed by a good hour or two. But then when you look at the distance these services cover, the volume of passengers they carry and the amount of stations they stop at, it’s a wonder that they’re not even more delayed. However, the two best night’s sleep I’ve ever had on sleeper trains were had in India, and I was out like a light from eleven until about five in the morning.

It’s a pity that we’ve had such limited time in some places, but Bengaluru was really a stepping stone on our road to Hampi rather than a destination we’d identified that we wanted to go to.  Like everywhere in India, there’s plenty to fascinate the curious traveller, and we leave knowing that we may only have scratched the surface of what there is to discover here.  Bengaluru is known as a very modern, up and coming city.  We didn’t see that much evidence of this but I think this was more down to our limited time here.  I must say, I regret that we weren’t able to visit the Kingfisher Brewery and sample this nectar straight from it’s source!

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Tomorrow we arrive in Hoispet, where we will take a rickshaw to Hampi.

Have a loverly day, whatever your endeavour.

Tommy and Lukey

 

 

 

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

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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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