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

 

 

 

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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

23rd and 24th February – Days 27 and 28

Song of the last two days: Bob Dylan – It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry

“Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby
Can’t buy a thrill
Well, I’ve been up all night, baby
Leanin’ on the windowsill
Well, if I die
On top of the hill
And if I don’t make it
You know my baby will

Don’t the moon look good, mama
Shinin’ through the trees?
Don’t the brakeman look good, mama
Flagging down the “Double E?”
Don’t the sun look good
Goin’ down over the sea?
Don’t my gal look fine
When she’s comin’ after me?”

 

Shortly before 5pm on Tuesday evening we boarded the Chiang Mai to Bangkok sleeper train. During the high travel season getting tickets for this train is no easy task, and we ended up staying three extra nights in Chiang Mai in order to get a ticket for this train. As it turned out, it was well worth the extra stay in Chiang Mai, although as I write this on Wednesday evening we are both absolutely knackered still. I’ve been on a few “sleeper” trains now and I have to say the “sleep” part has to be taken with a pinch of salt. When the train is ticking along at a constant speed with the gentle “clickety clack” of the rails beneath you, it’s possible to sleep quite well. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen that often. The constant speeding up and slowing down and clunking around is hard to get used to, and that’s before you pull into a station and more people get on and off. I reckon I got about four hour’s sleep which to be fair to Thailand’s railways, is more than I got when travelling on sleeper trains in Britain and Switzerland, though Hollie got even less kip than I managed.


Because of the demand for tickets we were unable to get bunks right next to each other, so in order to spend the evening together we rendezvoused in the buffet car. It sounds romantic, but wasn’t really. The food was good but kept travelling around the table as we ate it, and a drunken Turkish bloke opposite exclaimed loudly and jumped out of his seat after a hot cup of tea flew off the table and all over his loins.

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An hour out of Chiang Mai the train entered into a tunnel and upon emerging on the other side we found ourselves in the midst of misty mountains. All of the windows in the carriage were down and you could smell the smoke from farmer’s fields, carried up on the muggy evening air. The embers of the sun peeped out from above the silhouettes of hills before dissapearing. The landscape turned to a murky black until we emerged out of another tunnel to see vast swathes of the opposite hillside on fire, burning the same defiant hue of orange as the recently deceased sun. It made me think of that William Blake poem: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night”.

As we descended into Lamphun station the moon revealed itself to us, itself a kind of half-sun as it recycled the last rays of daylight from beyond the horizon and reflected them back onto the land.
We sat in the buffet car playing the well-known backpacking card game of “Shithead”, until we were kicked out at half past nine. I was ready to leave – after teaching the game to Hollie she appears to have developed a system, and now I reckon I only ever win about one in ten games. We returned to our seats to find that they had been unfolded into beds. Hollie and I were both in the top bunks and I had to contort myself like some kind of Russian gymnast to get into my bunk. Once in I managed to stretch out pretty well for a 6’2 lump. Sleep was snatched and broken, and my foot kept rustling the plastic 7/11 bag full of crisps and water that I placed at the foot of my bed.

The train was due in at 6:15am, so I’d set my alarm for 6am, at which time I planned to wake Hollie which is a fine art. We’d already left Chiang Mai fifteen minutes late and we’d been trundling along by the time I fell asleep, so I had every reason to believe we wouldn’t arrive until gone seven. I was rudely awakened by the stern “Good morning” of the carriage attendant at 04:45am. I asked “Are we nearly at Bangok?” to which he replied “Ten minutes.” This was a lie – he wanted everyone up so that he could start folding the beds back away and clock off early. I rushed to wake Hollie up before the attendant got their first – waking Hollie before she’s had her forty winks is a bit like taking a bottle of whiskey off Father Jack. I pulled the curtain back and she was staring at me like an owl, wide-eyed and wide awake. We stood for an hour and a half in the corridor until we arrived. We stepped off the air-conditioned train and into the Bangkok morning.

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You don’t breathe the air here – you wear it. It wraps around you like an itchy woolly cardigan of exhaust fumes, sewerage and spices.
Hollie managed to grab us a non-dodgy taxi driver straight away and for the second time in a month we found ourselves sleep-deprived in the back of a cab, weaving our way through the labyrinth of central Bangkok. Though our driver was fair, he had some filthy habits. During frequent stops at traffic jams he picked at his nose and his ears with a toothpick, burrowing deeper and deeper the longer we were stationary. Not satisfied with the harvest that the toothpick was providing, he reached into the glovebox and fished out a cotton bud. At one point he got so lost in the ecstasy of clearing out his earhole that he missed the lights going green, and left the cotton bud sticking out of his ear at a right angle as he flung his hands back onto the wheel. After a seemingly endless journey we arrived at the hostel, and here we have remained ever since, holed up in the flatulent bowels of Bangkok.

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Tomorrow morning we take the government bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap in Cambodia.
Hope you’re all well, whatever your endeavour.
Tom and Hollie x