1st May – Darjeeling

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

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

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

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

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

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30th April – Darjeeling

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

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

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

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

29th April – Kolkata to Darjeeling via Bagdogra

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

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

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

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

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

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

28th April – Kolkata

Song of the day: In The Ghetto by Elvis Presley

Ayup.
We woke again just before the crack of dawn. It’s been muggier today and as I write we’re sort of half hoping to witness a thunderstorm – the monsoons aren’t due until the end of May and a bit of a downpour might do everyone some good. We went out onto the street and decided we’d have a tea straight away to blow away the cobwebs. We sat at a Chai stand that was being supervised by a lithe, twenty-something lad with an intelligent face. He started chatting to us in excellent English about our trip. We told him that we were flying to Darjeeling tomorrow and he got quite excited, telling us that it was beautiful and much, much cooler, which was nice to hear with it being six in the morning and the temperature already in the mid-thirties. When we asked how he’d learned English he said “From the street”. I don’t know how the street had taught him such perfect grammar and elocution because most other “street” english speakers are difficult to decipher. After we left his stand though, we both agreed that it was bizarre and kind of sad that this guy was obviously highly intelligent and entrepeneurial, but because of the situation he was born into he would probably never make the waves that he’d be capable of making if he was born into a more priveleged background.

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We walked for about half an hour past whole families stirring from their slumbers on battered old mats. Past a muslim bloke who was praying to an altar that he’d hastily assembled in a shop doorway. Past all kinds of mongrel dogs who regardless of their pedigree resembled greyhounds because of their scrawniness. We came upon our first destination of the day – Old Chinatown. The first street we walked through was referred to in the Lonely Planet guidebook as “Rubbish Street” – on either side of the road the destitute had crafted family homes out of the garbage that other people had thrown out. Ramshackle collections of pallets, bin liners and wooden offcuts had been lashed together to form makeshift shelters. I say makeshift, but in all probability people have been living here for years and will still be doing so for years to come. When I was a kid my Dad helped me build a den in the back garden, and thinking back I think it would have provided better shelter than some of the desperate bivouacs that we saw here. I had expected for us to be approached by beggars here and to be made to feel very uncomfortable. In fact the only discomfort was self-inflicted – the guilt of knowing that we will never have to struggle like this to survive. The people here went about their daily ablutions, washing themselves and their clothes at public waterpumps without batting an eyelid at our presence. It felt invasive but somehow compulsive to take photos, and I filmed our walk through the ghetto with my gopro down at my waist.

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After walking through “Rubbish Street” itself, we turned the corner onto a street which contained a huge sea of rubbish, perhaps about four foot deep. Half a dozen ladies in saries were combing through the filth with rusty rod-like instruments – presumably looking for recyclable items that they could sell for a few rupees. Whilst beggars have approached us asking for money on a few occasions during our stay in Kolkata, a lot of poor people seem more interested in having our empty plastic water bottles. Whether they recycle them or fill them with water to try and sell to tourists is unclear.
Humbling is the word for places like this. It’s like anything which you know to exist but don’t see on a day-to-day basis. Out of sight, out of mind is the way that the world seems to function – perhaps this is why the Kolkatans who are fortunate enough to have wealth have moved away from these poverty-stricken areas. We passed a street corner where a kind of market was in progress, even at this early hour. A lady gutted fish on a rusty machete-like blade that was attached to a wooden board – the aroma was foul. On the other side of the street a man was dealing with the entrails of some nameless beast, and an eyeball liberated from it’s housing stared up at us from the towel that it was placed upon. I guess the poorer you are, the poorer cuts of meat you can afford. The streets narrowed and we found ourselves wandering the winding lanes of the old chinatown. But for a few old signs and bits of crumbling architecture, there was little sign of the Chinese community that must have thrived here at one time or another. A lot of Muslims seem to live in this area, alongside the Hindus that make up the largest portion of India’s religious demographic. A recently violent past exists between these two religions, but you wouldn’t know it walking through these narrow streets.

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Gradually the squalor and desperation receded and we entered further into what is known as the BBD Bagh area. The area was formally known as Dalhousie Square after William Dalhousie – governor of British India between 1847 and 1856. There’s an interesting story behind this renaming. The BBD stands for Benoy, Badal and Dinesh – the forenames of three Indian independence fighters who carried out an assassination on Colonel N.S. Simpson – the Inspector General of the Police and a man known for his cruelty against the prisoners of Kolkata. All three of them met a sticky end themselves and so after independence in 1947 the square was named after these three heroes of the struggle for freedom. The whole area stands tall with impressive buildings from the colonial era. Unlike the rest of Kolkata these buildings have been maintained and look just as impressive now as they must have done when independence was handed over. We headed back to the hostel via the bus station, which we wanted to walk through again just because of the general scenes of chaos.
We came back and ate some street food from a stand on the corner of Sudder street. Hygiene is not something that’s given an official rating in India, so the only way you can make a judgement is to see if a place is popular. The store we selected was thronging with people so we decided it’d be safe to take the plunge. We had a chickpea curry with paratha breads that were cooked in a clay pot, washed down with a spiced coffee. It was possibly the best meal we’ve eaten so far and certainly the cheapest – the whole thing cost less than a quid for the both of us. We were stared at constantly while we ate – western eating habits are a source of curiosity in India and although it makes you a bit self-concious, the same people who are staring intently at you seem to be happy to smile and chat with you if you engage them in conversation. After another period of recuperation (remember the temperatures!) we decided to make a final trip out to the Indian Museum in Kolkata, mainly because it was just around the corner from our hostel. As we approached a smartly-dressed chap with one of those immaculately-groomed moustaches that are all the rage here engaged me in conversation. “Where are you from sir? Thankyou for coming to our city?” etc. He was pleasant but a bit creepy, and as we bought tickets for the museum I was glad to see the back of him. But as we went through the door he said “I would like very much to see you again sir, perhaps later outside this museum entrance!” I nodded politely and buggered off as quickly as possible.
As interesting as Hindu and Buddhist sculpture, fossilised remains and ancient weapons are, it was too bloody hot. We managed an hour and a half of gruelling culture-soaking before we couldn’t take it any more. We spent more time in the ancient Egyptian room than anywhere else – partly because they had the body of a mummy which is always a curious sight, but mainly because it was the only air-conditioned room in the museum. An hour and a half later we walked back down the marble steps and who should be stood there in exactly the same spot? The same bloke from earlier. As he shouted “Hello sir! How nice to see you again!” I couldn’t help cracking up at his persistence and the fact that he’d clearly waited an hour and a half on the scorching pavement to see us come out. I temporarily lost the power of speech because I found the whole thing so funny, so he turned his attentions to Luke and finally got to the heart of the matter – he had a shop that he wanted us to come and look at. Luke attempted to extracate himself by looking interested in a wooden toy from a street shop, but our assailant became more and more insistent.
MAN: “How much would you pay at the maximum for this?”
LUKE: “I don’t want it.”
MAN: “But how much would you pay?”
LUKE: “But I don’t want it…”
MAN: “But how much you pay? I will do it cheaper…”
REPEAT SIXTEEN TIMES
LUKE: “I don’t want it mate. I’m going back to our hostel…”
He didn’t follow us, but you have to give credit to him for his never say die attitude.
We rounded off our last night in Kolkata with a meal at the Blue Sky cafe, which we ate in the other day but I neglected to mention the name. The owner was friendly, the food cheap and the air-con efficient. Luke had a sumptuous paneer tikka kebab, daal and rotis. I went with the Mushroom Paneer Taj, pakoras and garlic nan – superb.

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Tomorrow we leave for Darjeeling, catching a flight to Bagdogra then a taxi up to the hill station famed for it’s scenery and tea production. Kolkata has blown Luke and I away in so many ways. It’s not been nearly as stressful as I thought it would be, although the heat has been far more intense than anything I’ve known. Having spent a few months in India before Luke reckons that Kolkata might just be his favourite city, owing to the lack of hassle and the general good nature of everyone we have met. The poverty is unparalleled and although it’s harrowing, we’re both glad that we’ve had the experience of seeing it. You have to look for the silver lining in every cloud and I think the resourcefulness and general demeanour of the people of Kolkata is heartening, even if their predicament is not.
I’ll sign off there for tonight – hope ya’all have a good day.
Tommy and Lukey

27th April – KOLKATA

Song of the day – The Hindu Times by Oasis (as chosen by Luke)
Hello.

I’m getting behind already – I started writing this blog yesterday evening but found myself falling asleep on the keyboard, so apologies for the delay.
We got up at half five in the morning – it seems a bit extreme but with the heat being as intense as it is we thought that we could get as much sightseeing in as we could before the sun put paid to our plans. We began walking from Sudder Street and found ourselves in the midst of Kolkata’s main bus terminal. A heaving, disorientating mass of people flocked around chai and food stands, whilst battered buses devoid of any glass in the windows shunted about a large terminal, beeping aggressively at each other and pausing to pick up swarms of passengers. We proceeded past the Ranji Stadium – a huge structure dedicated to the mass worship of local cricketing heroes. Home to the Kolkata Knightriders – the city’s IPL team, the stadium is so large and imposing that it could easily pass for an English premier league football ground.
The river Hooghly runs through the centre of Kolkata. It’s banks are piled high with deposits of clay, and the locals use this to their advantage in the crafting of millions of tiny plant pot-like recepticles that are used to serve tea. On every street corner a Chai stand offers a steaming pot of Kolkata’s local interpretation of the national drink. It’s a very milky, slightly spiced affair which is served in a fairly tiny portion for the princely sum of five rupees ( or five pence). We stopped off at Babughat, where we elected to sample the local produce for the first time. Though the portion is little more in volume than that of a shot of alcohol in England, the nectar inside is extremely refreshing. And for 5p a pop we couldn’t resist a second cup. The idea with the clay pots that the tea is served in is that Kolkatans can just throw them on the floor after they’ve been used, and eventually the shards will wash back down to the river. There are mllions of these pots smashed up on every kerbside, but we decided to keep ours as a souvenir. It struck me as a peculiarity that in a place of such poverty the local people discard these pots without a second thought, whereas we rich tourists attached such a value to them that we decided to keep them as souvenirs.

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After the necessary refreshment of the tea we walked past abandoned and condemned old British colonial buildings – a huge old wharf covered in creepers was the highlight. As we approached Howrah Bridge the density of people on the pavement steadily increased. In the shadow of this huge bridge, Mullik Ghat Flower Market is situated. A huge, pulsating mass of people amble along in every direction, bartering for flowers that spill out of huge sacks. For all of the dirt and decay of Kolkata, there is an opposite end of the spectrum. Never before have I seen a place in which incredible beauty and appalling ugliness can be found in such close proximity.

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The flowers are every colour of the rainbow and then some. Some craftsmen create elaborate patterns and images, presumably to be used as wreaths. Other stalls sell chains of flowers to be worn around the neck, but for me the prettiest sight is to see a huge sack, the size of one of those builder’s sandbags that you get in Britain, just full to the brim of flowers. The temptation to take a running jump into them is almost overwhelming, and in the overall chaos of the market it’s hard to imagine anyone batting an eyelid. At one point the flora was so dense that we found ourselves treading on a carpet of mulched flowers – who knows how deep. After getting under everyone’s feet for an hour or so, we climbed up onto the Howrah Bridge for a better vantage point over the whole market. From here the diversity of colour is even more striking, and you can see moving blobs of colour as traders carry impossibly large bundles of flowers on their heads. Two very dodgy types began to hover arouns us and ask us question in Hindi which we obviously couldn’t interpret, so we reluctantly decided to move on from our vantage point.

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We walked across the Howrah Bridge – an impressive structure spanning the east and west banks of the Hooghly. As we got over to the other side we experienced the most intense case of “Worship the white guy” that we’d had so far. Two Indian men who looked as if they might be holidaying from elsewhere in the country asked politely if they could take our picture. The next thing we knew this chap was putting our arms over his shoulder, posing with his thumbs up and generally waving our arms around like two string puppets. Though they were both keen to have their picture with us, one of them was particularly excitable and as we walked away and dusted ourselves down, he chased after us to have one last shake of our pasty white hands. I have a renewed sympathy with the plight of the celebrity – no amount of fame and fortune could be worth this attention on a daily basis. I have to point out that although we’ve been stared at, sniffed and sometimes touched, the Kolkatans have been unerringly kind, friendly and polite. Having been to India before Luke says that Kolkata is very different to other cities, and I must admit I’d mentally prepared myself to recieve a lot more negative hassle than we have done thus far. Whilst we’re on the subject of the general “vibe” of Kolkata though, I must mention the poverty, which is far worse than anything that I’ve seen before. Hundreds of people sleep on the street – some in makeshift shelters, some on roll-out mats, and some on the hot, hard pavement. Many children make up this street-dwelling population and it’s a hard sight to process. What’s heartening is how jolly they all seem to be – running around in gaggles and playing with whatever street debris they can get their hands on. As you pass by they will stare, smile and maybe even venture a very chirpy hello. In some way their warmth and innocence towards strangers makes it all the more difficult to see them in this plight. The lack of equality is astounding in Kolkata and The Lonely Planet guide warns travellers of this. Whilst soldiers patrol the fenced off colonial villa belonging to the governor, scrawny, aging men pull handcarts around as taxis, carrying human cargo around the city. I have to say, I can’t imagine having the gall to pay another man a pittance to wheel me around in a cart when I have two perfectly good legs myself, but this is India and it seems that anything goes. For a country that still recieves foriegn aid but launched it’s first rocket into space last year, it’s hard to see how things are going to change for the better any time soon.

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We walked to Howrah Station, not far from the bridge before getting a taxi back to the hotel – it wasn’t even ten and we’d been out and about for nearly four hours. We rested up for a while and ate some late breakfast at a place reccomended by our hoteliers called Blue Sky cafe. Luke had daal and rotis and I had a delicious little number called paneer mushroom taj – a mild, saucy curry.

Before we came away I was doing a bit of research on Kolkata and stumbled upon an online article on the India Times website, describing a “Tea Festival” which was being held at Jadavpur University. The article waxed lyrical about the flavours available for sample and the expert “mixologists” on hand to keep you informed and entertained. The university campus is situated about four miles away from our accomodation and the sun was at it’s highest. We decided to take a taxi and let the cool breeze from the open windows regulate our rising body temperatures. We clambered into the back of the cab and instantly knew what it was to be a potato baking away in an oven. The exposed metal interior of the taxi was a conducter for the sun, and the battered leather seats were themselves heated up to the temperature of thr average household radiator. “No matter!” we thought “The breeze will cool us off once we hit the road”. For some reason, the traffic of Kolkata had come to a near standstill. We sat on the back seat passing our litre of water back and forth and wiping the sweat of our brows. Luke and I both agree that it’s the hottest that we’ve ever been, and the weather report we looked at later that it had been 42 degrees at around the same time that we’d made the taxi. Each dash of a hundred yards between traffic jams was a blessed relief, and by the time we arrived at our destination we were thouroughly knackered and ready for the kind of revitalisation that a British subject can only gain from the glory of a cup of tea.
The students of Kolkata seem to be a political bunch. The walls of every building in this huge campus are plastered with posters proclaiming all kinds of political slogans. We asked a couple of students about the location of the festival, but no-one seemed to have a clue what we were on about. Our energy and hydration levels were dwindling and the sun was unrelenting. After about twenty minutes of needless wandering about we heard the rumbling of a PA in the distance and followed the source of the noise. A shouty rock band were playing a gig to an audience of about ten people in a large concrete stadium. Where were the stalls? The mixologists and students mingling together, united in the common cause of the cuppa? After walking back out of the stadium we found the “festival”. It was one small but admittedly very smart looking tent, occupied by bored looking students who seemed to have been designated the task of manning the stand against their will. We approached the counter and asked to see the menu. “We have three teas to try sir, but we are not opening until 2pm.” It was half one, and an extra half hour in this heat would have done us. We resisted the tempation to throw a tantrum and took shelter in the cold interior of one of the lecture buildings. I read about this festival in the country’s NATIONAL NEWSPAPER. Needless to say, they will get a strongly-worded e-mail in which I will imply that we flew all the way from England just to attend the festival. We made our way back off campus and sat down at a roadside stall, where we drank two cups each of the delightful local brew – who needs their poncey exotic flavours anyway!? After downing a litre of water between us we caught a taxi back to Sudder street and mercifully the roads had cleared enough to allow for a swift journey.

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After shower number two of the day, we took turns to wash our clothes the hard way. Inspired by the matronly Indian ladies washing their children’s clothes by the river (or perhaps by the lack of a washing machine), we scrubbed at each garment with a bar of detergent and soaked them in a bucket of water. We then wrung them out, slapping them against the wall a few times and placing them on a travel washing line which we fixed between two chairs. We were quite pleased with our return to old school methods and rewarded ourselves with a spot of tea in a restaurant called Oasis a few streets away. The food was good and for the first time since we got here we felt that we were hydrated enough to have a couple of beers. Kingfisher Strong was the beer of choice – a good lager that for some reason is unavailable outside of India. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that they can’t decide on the strength – the label proclaims that the beer contains “Less than 8% alcohol”. 7.9% then? who knows. We returned to the hostel and I tried to write this blog, but I only managed a couple of paragraphs before the beer and the half five wake-up caught up with us.
Have a nice day, whatever your endeavour…
Tommy and Luke

25th – 26th April – London to Mumbai to Kolkata to Sudder Street

We got up at five and tubed it to Heathrow, then flew with Jet Air to Mumbai. The flight was good – we were well supplied with Indian meals and we had a little tablet in the back of the seat in front of us, so we could pick what we wanted to watch. Luke watched The Martian and listened to music whilst I worked my way through Andy Cole and Thierry Henry’s greatest goals. After we’d eaten our lunch Luke said “I think we’re over hungry”. To which I replied “Yeah, we’ve had two meals already and I’m still starving.” To which Luke then said “No, I think we are flying over the country Hungary.” Oh how we laughed, as I reached for the crisps. The flight was uneventful as they usually are, but it was interesting passing over the Middle East and seeing the rocky desert landscape, devoid of settlement for as far as the eye could see.

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I’ve never really been to an airport which reflects the level of poverty in the country in which it’s based. Mumbai is no different, competing with Heathrow on scale, decadence and all-round poshness. We went through immigration and got ourselves officially stamped into the country before hanging about for three hours for our plane. Ever the culinary adventurers, we both bought a paneer cheese burger from Burger King. I think there’s a reason that curry and burgers are kept seperate, and I don’t think this particular east/west fusion burger will be making our top ten memorable meals when this trip is over.
Our second flight took us in to Kolkata at half four on Tuesday morning. As we came down through the cloud cover the dawn light was only just beginning to break out on the horizon, but even at this early hour the temperature was 29 degrees. The baggage collection was swift, although we did note with amusement the heavily duct-taped cardboard boxes with “Fragile” written on them that clunked their way up from the bowels of the airport and roly-polied onto the conveyor belt. Indian soldiers are everywhere around the airport, swinging their AK-47s on their shoulders and discussing with each other how best to groom their immaculate moustaches.

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We pre-paid 240 rupees (about 100 rupees to the pound) and presented the driver of one of Kolkata’s legion yellow cabs with our ticket. The cabs around here are called Ambassadors – they have a vintage look about them, made all the more authentic by the multitude of dints, scratches and duct-tape applied to their bumpers. Luke sat in the back whilst I squeezed into the front seat. An image of Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu God of Fortune smiled up at me from the dashboard – an appropriate deity to have looking down on you as a driver in this city. Our driver revved off round the corner and spotted a bloke walking along with a carrier case, looking lost. He screeched to a halt in front of him and gestured at me to get in the back so he could accomodate this extra fare. Pretty soon we were bollocking along a ramshackle carriageway, weaving our way around huge trucks and buses crammed to well above capacity. Our driver was in cordial and enthusiatic conversation with our new passenger when he suddenly turned round and addressed us…
“British?”
“Yes mate.”

“London?”

“No mate, Derby.”
“See over there on the left?” (He points right) “Big watch. Big watch from London!”
Out the window to our right we are passing a scale model of Big Ben, about twenty foot high.
“Oh yeah, Big Ben! Clock, that’s a clock mate.”
“Yes yes! Big Watch. British. You see that building over there? Old British. That tram? British.” (He laughs hysterically and keeps his eyes fixed on us, whilst the car careers forward at 30mph.) He continues in this vein for some time, whilst Luke and I are praying to Ganesh that this mad bastard could just keep his eyes on the road.

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We passed all kinds of spectacles, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Crumbling colonial houses, half collapsed in and enveloped in vegetation. Mangey dogs picking at piles of rubbish left at the side of the road. Live chickens squawking for dear life as they hang suspended by their feet from a hand cart being pulled by a man who had the physique and texture of a twiglet. At one point the horn blared out and we almost had an old man on the bonnet. I peeked in the rear view mirror as he shrugged this near-death experience off and continued his journey across the road. We pulled up at some traffic lights to ask for directions to the other passenger’s hotel. Out the window to our left three generations of a family were flat out on the pavement, sleeping in the morning sun. Two children lay next to each other, one of them barely old enough to be a toddler. We revved off again and screeched to a halt opposite a narrow looking street where a bloke was having a wee against some shutters. Our fellow passenger hopped out, examined the accomodation that he had pre-booked to stay in and shook his head. “I am not staying in this area” he said, and I can’t say I blamed him. We continued on to two further hotels which he turned his nose up at before finally accepting a room in some side street guesthouse. Five minutes later we rocked up at our own accomodation – the Diplomat guesthouse. It was half six in the morning and the entire front of the building was encased in rusty shutters – it looked like it had been condemned for years. Beggars were lurking in the street and we began to get an uneasy feeling about the legitimacy of our reservation, but our taxi driver was unperturbed. He banged on the shutters until a lithe youth came out and granted us access. After demanding his tip our driver scuttled off and we found ourselves alone with this young lad at the front desk of the hotel – or so we thought, until a short, balding bloke in his fifties popped up from underneath the desk, put his shirt and trousers back on and wiped the sleep from his eyes before making himself scarce. I’m assuming he’d been struggling for a place to sleep and the night porter had let him bed down behind the desk. Our room is grubby and contains about ten electric switches that appear to have no function whatsoever. It’s a comedown from some of the places that I stayed in with Hollie in South-East Asia, but I’m reliably informed by Luke that this place is good for the money. Besides, it has air-con which we couldn’t do without, and it’s only setting us back £7:50 a night each. Having been up for 24 hours we decided to take a powernap before commencing our exploration. We slept for about four hours and I woke up freezing cold – no better reccomendation for an air-conditioning unit.

imageIn the afternoon we headed out to the Madan Park, where we walked past a couple of cricket matches. We were given directions to the park by a curious fellow who introduced himself by saying: “I don’t want any money, I help you.” He appeared to have honest intentions and gave us clear instructions on how to reach the park, but then went off on a bit of a tangent about “Self-help”. “People need to help themselves you see sir – self-reliance. Not all the time I mean, but some of the time. I mean I show you the park and you get there on your own. But if you fall in a pond and can’t get out, I help you not drown. Self-help, you see?” As we strolled past the cricket matches and young courting couples, our stride was broken by a herd of about fifty goats and sheep who were legging it towards a pool of muddy water, waved on by a goat-herder. Whether it’s normal for a goat-herder to live in a park in the centre of a large city in India, I don’t know. But already I feel like there’s nothing in this country that would surprise me.

We walked to the Victoria Memorial Hall – an impressive imperial monument built by the British to honour the passing of Queen Victoria. I say built by the British, but what I probably mean is designed by the British, and built by Indians who had little choice in the matter. Outside the hall in a pretty ornamental garden is a large jet statue of Queen Vic herself. As we wandered over to the statue we were detained by a group of five Indian lads, who wanted their picture taken with us. Why? Well our only guess is that they don’t see white people very often. We posed for several selfies before another lad shyly asked if he could have his photo taken with us, which we obliged. I have to say, I felt that I was coming in for particular attention from the Indian public, but this is not me blowing my own trumpet – I am at the best of times a pasty shade of beige, whereas Luke has a much more Mediterranean complexion. Throughout the day as we walked along, Indians (always in their twenties) would greet us and ask us how we are before staring at us as we went past. Although it’s a bit disconcerting at first, their fascination seems to be friendly and harmless, rather than piss-taking. The Memorial Hall itself resembled Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and housed collections of old weapons, trinkets and paintings from the days of the Mughals and the British Empire.
At this point the sun was at it’s hottest and we paid a comparatively extortionate amount (about a fiver each) to sit in a buffet curry restaurant. The street food in Kolkata looks delicious and you can feed yourself comfortably for under a quid, but we would happily had paid a fiver just to cool off in the heavily air-conditioned restaurant.

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After this we took a taxi to Kali Ghat temple – the holiest Hindu site in Kolkata. In the morning goats are ritually sacrificed here, and all day long swarms of pilgrims jostle to throw hibiscus flowers at an altar. We hung around soaking up the atmosphere and ignoring the attentions of a man who wanted ten rupees to look after our shoes whilst we go into the temple. The place was rammed and it didn’t really feel right us going into the temple itself to get involved in a ritual we had no knowledge of, so after a bit we walked off and wandered the ramshackle streets surrounding the temple.

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We visited Shanagar Burning Ghat – a ceremonial area overlooking a stream where traditional cremations and funeral procedures are performed. When we visited it wasn’t in use, but about a hundred-odd kids were playing in the putrid waters of the stream that it backs on to, whilst a rickety wooden boat ferried people from one bank to the other – all the time being splashed by the kids in the water.

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After this we were driven back to our hostel in Sudder Street. The relief of a cold shower (not that warm would be available anyway) is fantastic after a day in such heat. We headed out for tea and ended up perched on some stools in a little street cafe, where we had a paneer wrap each, vegetable biryani and Momos – a kind of Tibetan dumpling. It cost 250 rupees for the lot and it was sensational – ten times as good as the earlier buffet.
I’m going to leave it there for today – there are so many more things that we’ve seen and done, but it’s getting late and I’m jetlagged. As I write this we’ve been in India for less than 24 hours and have already experienced 101 sights, sounds, smells and tastes that we’ve never known before. Some good, some outrageously bad, but I think that you have to take the rough with the smooth out here.
Have a nice day,
Tommy and Luke

24th April – Derby to London

Song of the day: National Express by The Divine Comedy
Owing to the ridiculous expense of travelling by train these days, I opted to bus it down to London. It was about thirty quid cheaper, though the journey was a couple of hours longer in duration. I disembarked at Victoria and swam through a sea of people to get to the tube. A subterrenean busker did his best to croon Purple Rain by Prince to an unimpressed and unwilling audience, while sweaty, foil-clad entrants of the morning’s Marathon limped their way toward their respective destinations. In spite of the staggering expense, I quite like coming down to London – it’s a change of pace from sleepy Belper and you always feel like you’re at the centre of current affairs, rather than on the periphery.
Luke lives in Stratford, in an apartment that was once occupied by athletes from the New Zealand Olympic squad. Stratford is a strange, ultra-modern kind of place that’s in possession of a completely new skyline circa 2012. I met another mate, Lloyd, as I was getting off the tube before meeting Luke at his flat to drop my backpack off. Lloyd was somewhat worse for wear and told me about how he’d managed to misplace his coat and bag in seperate drunken incidents on Friday evening. The three of us tubed it to Whitechapel where we indulged in the first of MANY curries at a bring your own beer place called Needoes – a sumptuous feast of lamb chops, baby pumpkin and chicken karahi was enjoyed. To cap the evening off we met our mate Will at a boozer in Bethnal Green. Will is an extreme sports enthusiast, a climber and all-round man of action. He was once arrested for cycling drunk into a lampost dressed as Rambo. It was this thought that went through my head as he bade us adeiu, donned his crash helmet and biked off into the East London evening.

 

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Oh, what became of the likely lads?

Refreshed and pleased to have caught up with good mates, we went back to Luke’s and I crashed on his sofa, knowing full well that we’d have to get up shortly before five in the morning.

3rd, 4th and 5th March – Days 36, 37 and 38

We woke early and got picked up in a minibus. We were joined by a group of four French lads, one of whom did his best to ignore the attentions of a leggy Cambodian girl who he’d just walked out of the hotel with. She waved and fluttered her eyelashes at him in a Marilyn Monroeesque fashion before swaggering off to buy some breakfast from a street vendor, last night’s make-up shimmering in the morning sun. We were ferried to the main bus terminal in Phnom Penh where we boarded a bus bound for Ho Chi Minh City. We went with Giant Ibis again – Cambodian roads guarantee delays and if you’re going to be sat in traffic, you might as well do it in comfort.

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We drove for about four hours over flat farmland before arriving at the Moc Bai – Ba Vet border crossing. After the nightmare of Poipet we were prepared for another dash through a gauntlet of wide-eyed children, lepers, crooks and casinos. We arrived into a more or less deserted bus terminal, at the end of which was a guardbox. We were stamped out of Cambodia at this box before being lead by our bus conductor to a huge warehouse. We put our bags on a conveyor belt where they were scanned and inspected by half-arsed security guards. A soldier stamped us in and we were in Vietnam – the whole process took about ten minutes.
The approach into Ho Chi Minh City was long and arduous. It’s easy to tell when you’re getting closer to the centre because the bus slows down to a guttural chug, and the familiar sound of a million scooter hooters add to the ambience. We were dropped off centrally and made the mistake of walking to our hostel in the baking heat. I told you in a previous entry about the traffic quirks of each city in South-East Asia – how each city has a different vehicular eccentricity. In Ho Chi Minh it is acceptable to drive on the pavement. If you’re on a scooter and you come to a red light at a junction, why not go up the kerb and continue yor journey on the sidewalk? This penchant for the pavement leads to inevitable confrontations with pedestrians, and about a dozen times between our drop-off and the hostel we had to hop out the way whilst some speed demon tooted and came caning it up the pavement behind us.

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We walked through labyrinthine alleyways between high-rise buildings, where locals sat on their stoops and cooked all kind of delights, stirring at pots and fixing us with a bemused gaze as we passed by trying to make sense of the bizarre route that Google maps was leading us on.
When we got to the hostel, sweat dripping down our brows, we were told that there had been a mistake and all the rooms were booked. The Chinese owner apologised profusely and offered to pay for a taxi to take us to his brother’s hotel. Resisting the urge to cause a scene we hopped in a cab and relocated to a hostel a mile or so across town. Having booked a “luxury room with a window”, at the other hotel, we were keen to ensure we received the very best. The manager at our new hotel had teeth that resembled recently skittled bowling pins and a handshake about as reliable as a cowboy builder’s estimate. He told us that although he could not stretch to a window, we would recieve a room of the highest quality. Somewhat inevitably, we ended up banged up in some dingey cell at the back of the building. To add insult to injury, we would only be permitted this “luxury” for one night before we’d have to move to a smaller room, presumably so that he could rent out our room to some more important guests.
In spite of this inauspicious start we quickly came to like Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a bustling metropolis full of life, laughter and exhaust fumes. Old French colonial architecture ties in well with modern office buildings and communist tenaments. We were blown away at how open and friendly the people were. Official relations with the USA have only recently been reconciled, and we expected the Vietnamese to be accordingly frosty towards westerners. Without exception during the two days we were there, we were treated with courtesy and respect. Old Saigon was the last city to fall during the war, and I think it’s fair to say that there’s much less sympathy for the Communist cause down here than there is up north in Hanoi. We have no other Vietnamese cities to compare it with, but it isn’t controversial to say that Ho Chi Minh City is communist in name only. The shopping streets are lined with Gucci, Versace, Adidas and the Vietnamese equivalent of the Thai 7/11 supermarket chain. We’d expected a regulated, pro-Soviet kind of industrials city, but found the place to be more like a more unhinged, eastern version of Paris.

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Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

On our first night in Ho Chi Minh we went to bed at about eleven. I’d developed a pretty shocking case of traveller’s diarrhoea and couldn’t stray too far from a bog. Hollie was pretty knackered too – coming down with sinusitis after our time in dusty Cambodia. Imagine our delight when the neighbouring hotel decided to start a spot of DIY joinery at more or less the exact same time we turned the light off. Hammer and drill were in use until about four in the morning, despite my repeated shouts and banging on the wall. I mean, who starts their DIY at half eleven at night!? The next morning at about nine Hollie was in the shower when I recieved a call from a woman who worked on the front desk.
Abrupt Woman: “Excuse me sir, we are coming to move your things to your new room.”
Tommy: “We have the room until twelve?
Abrupt Woman: “No, we need to move you now…”
Tommy: “My girlfriend is in the shower…”
Abrupt Woman: “NOW NOW NOW!”
Tommy: “WELL THERE’S NO NEED FOR THAT! WE WILL BE OUT WHEN WE ARE READY!
(Slams phone down).
Still, at least our new room had the window that we’d previously been promised. Only opening it didn’t provide much relief, as it was a window onto the same pissing corridor which we had to walk down to get to our room.

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On our first night in Ho Chi Minh we took the decision to book a flight home to be with our family. As I’ve said before, there’s no point trying to carry on when your head’s 5000 miles away from where it needs to be. As a result of this, we had only one full day in Ho Chi Minh before we would be leaving for England. The two activities that we got up to on our final full day away actually happened the other way round to the way I’m about to describe them, but I’m the one writing this and I’m going to flip them round, for dramatic effect.
We visited the “War Remnants Museum” first of all. It was a short walk from the hotel, through a lovely open park full of yoga practitioners. Up until the nineties the museum was known as the very objectively titled “Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes”. As expected, the museum was an onslaught of accusations against the recent tormentors of Vietnam. There were eyewitness accounts of American war crimes, including the execution of civilians. There were all kinds of unimaginably cruel weapons on display, along with some pretty graphic photography. By far and away the most moving gallery featured pictures of the deformities that had occurred in children born during and after the war, as a result of the US policy of dropping napalm and agent orange on huge areas of the countryside. Biased as the museum was, it’s very difficult to make a case for the American involvement in Vietnam. The tactics and weaponry used (and sanctioned by the Whitehouse) were horrific. How key members of the government at the time – such as President Nixon – weren’t tried for war crimes, is anybody’s guess. In war there are always atrocities on both sides, but you have to say that the resources that the USA poured into devastating vast swathes of this stunning country is pretty unforgiveable. The USA was fighting an ideological war in Vietnam to stop the spread of communism. Though the Vietnamese won the battle, the advertising boards, western shops and skyscrapers of Ho Chi Minh City suggest that they didn’t win the war.
Before we came to Vietnam I read a book called The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It’s an absolute gem of a novel written during the fifties, at a time when the French were still trying desperately to cling on to Vietnam as a colony of their empire. I became a bit obsessed with the book, which was based mainly in Saigon. Maybe I neglected to mention before that Saigon is the original name for Ho Chi Minh City. When the communist north finally took control of the city in 1975, they named it Ho Chi Minh in honour of the revolutionary who had lead the Viet Cong in their struggle for independence. Aaaanyway, one of the key locations in The Quiet American is a luxurious art deco hotel called the Majestic. It overlooks the Saigon river and provides great views over the whole of the city. We walked to the hotel and asked an immaculately dressed bellboy if we’d be allowed in dressed in sweaty, skimpy clothes. He welcomed us up and we took the elevator up to the cocktail bar and viewing area, trying all the time to look dignified and not like a couple of bums. We had the place to ourselves and picked a balcony table which affored spectacular views over the city.

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Across a main road saturated with rush hour traffic the Saigon river whizzed along at a rate of knots. The water was blue – the way that water should be, as opposed to the muddy brown of the Mekong. All sorts of jungle foliage had dropped in the water and was being whisked along in the current, like tiny little islands. Huge container ships were moored against the bank and the spark from a lone welder could be seen even at a distance of two miles away. On the horizon, an eclectic mix of skyscrapers pushed their way out of the smog and into the air, like trees in the rainforest competing to break the canopy. a dozen or so cranes were at work, putting the flesh on the skeletons of new tower blocks. Like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh is a city on the move and it’s hard to see that slowing down anytime soon.
We sat sipping gin and tonics that had cost about the same as a night’s accomodation here, but they were really good. Though in some ways we were sorry to be going home, we were content in the knowledge that we’d made the very best of the time we’d had, which is what life is all about. We’ll be back of course, but for now our adventure was over. As we walked back to the hotel to pack, we followed an impeccably suited and booted old white man. He smelled of cologne and looked perfectly at ease with himself in this craziest of cities – he could have been the ghost of Graham Greene himself, nonchalantly wandering the streets in search of inspiration. It’s no surprise that he found it here.

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Finally a window as promised!

The next day we flew from Ho Chi Minh to Doha, arriving in the dead of night over the flickering naked flames of oil towers. We transferred to a flight back to Manchester, and those two flights were the longest of my life. The traveller’s diarrhoea of the previous day had gone from bad to worse, and I visited the bog no less than twelve times over two eight hour flights. As we began our approach I inevitably had the urge to go again, and the descent into Manchester was a nervous affair as a result of this. As we touched down on the tarmac I attempted to ease the tension in my bowels by letting off a subtle fart. This in itself was a risky operation but I was able to perform this task successfully and undetected. Or so I thought, until the aroma entered the nostrils of an air hostess who was sat facing us, still buckled into her seat and unable to escape. She grimaced as I buried my face in my hands, and Hollie smiled apologetically at her as if to say “You can’t take him anywhere”.
Going from Vietnam to Manchester in less than 24 hours is the equivalent of stepping out of a Salvador Dali painting and straight into a Lowry. There was snow on the hills of the Peak District and we could see our breath in the air. Of course, we had no warm clothes of which to speak, and our teeth were chattering as soon as we left the aircraft.

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We took the train from Manchester to Derby, costing us thirty quid each – our entire daily budget in South East Asia. My Mum picked us up and took us back home to Belper, and we’d gone full circle.
I’ll get round to polishing this website a bit over the coming weeks, and maybe writing a bit of a summary of our trip. In the meantime all that remains is to thank each and every one of you for reading my blog – it means a lot. I plan to keep writing as regularly as possible so stay tuned for more posts, and an announcement regarding my next trip away.
Peace and love always,
Tommy and Hollie x

2nd March – Day 35

Alright? good.

It’s going to be a heavy one today – just warning you. Today was an interesting but deeply depressing day.

We were picked up at eight in the morning by the disconcertingly-named “Killing Fields Shuttle Bus”. It ferried us through the madness of rush hour Phnom Penh (as if there’s ever an hour when people aren’t in a rush here) to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

 

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A list of prison rules

Before I get into what we saw there, I’ll give you a quick history of what happened to Cambodia in the seventies so you can make sense of what I’m on about.

In the late sixties the Americans realised that a lot of Viet Cong troops were sneaking out of Vietnam and into the Cambodian jungle. Here they could hide out, regroup and reload, ready to launch attacks on South Vietnam. The US solution was to carpet bomb huge areas of Cambodia and Laos, in order to neutralise the threat that these communist guerillas posed. From 1969-1973 they dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia. To put this into perspective, the combined total of bombs dropped by all of the allies in the Second World War was just over 2 million.

What happened next is complicated, but to cut a long story short, a communist organisation called the Communist Party of Kampuchea, or Khmer Rouge, began to grow and grow. With support from communist China and North Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge were able to become a major force to rival Cambodia’s government. Realising that they’d created a monster, the Americans started bombing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as well as the Viet Cong. Their tactics failed and in 1975 the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh and became the recognised government of Cambodia. As our mate Brian had explained a couple of days earlier at the Landmine Museum – the only people that the Cambodian feared more than the Khmer Rouge were the Americans. They were a nation caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, but no-one could have predicted what was to come.

Pol Pot was the leader of the Khmer Rouge. In a top trumps game of “evilest dictators of the 20th century”, he’d probably come in at number three behind Hitler and Stalin. He was obsessed with what he saw as the glory days of Cambodian history when the great Khmer empire had existed, conquering much of South-East Asia and building the temples of Angkor. Pol Pot believed that the only way to return Cambodia to being the superpower that it once was was to start the country all over again, returning it to a simple peasant farming state. He declared 1975 the “Year Zero” and forced the entire population to live in forced labour camps in the countryside. Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and everywhere inbetween was emptied of it’s people. As part of this demented brand of communism Pol Pot also believed that anybody who was educated needed to be eradicated, as there could be nobody better than anybody else. Doctors, dentists, teachers were all executed. A whole generation of university graduates were wiped out. As the regime got more paranoid the purge got less discriminate and more insane, to the point that a person wearing glasses would be put to death. In 1979 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and removed the Khmer Rouge from power. In the four years that they were in power, the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million people – a quarter of the country’s population.

Tuol Sleng is a good example of what happened to the country as a whole. The buildings was converted from a primary school into a prison when Pol Pot came to power. Together with our fellow passengers we were taken on a tour of the four high-rise blocks that made up the prison. The first block we visited had contained high profile prisoners – mainly former members of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy whom Pol Pot had grown paranoid of. Each room in the block contained a rusty iron bed with shackles on it. On the wall of each room was a picture of the corpse of the inmate who had occupied it, photographed by the liberating Vietnamese soldiers in 1979. These prisoners had endured years of torture and neglect before being murdered by their fleeing guards when they knew that the game was up. The other three blocks contained similarly harrowing sights. In the old school classrooms crude brick cells had been built to house the prisoners – there was barely room to stand in each one, yet alone sit or lie down. The walls are plastered with photographs of the prisoners, taken by the Khmer Rouge to document their crime. Each haunted face stares directly into the camera, their features gaunt and undernourished. The final room contains a glass cabinet containing scores of skulls belonging to nameless victims.

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Having visited Auschwitz in the past I had an idea in my head of what it would be like to come here. There were two things that surprised me about Tuol Sleng though – one was the amount of children who were recruited by the Khmer Rouge and actively took part in the torture and killing of the prisoners. From reading the information boards, it sounds like there was such a climate of fear and paranoia that the guards would carry out anything that was asked of them – however unspeakable – for fear that they would be accused of treason themselves. The second thing that hit me was that this genocide ended less than forty years ago. When I visited Auschwitz I hadn’t really heard about what happened in Cambodia – I was able to console myself with the belief that what happened in the Second World War would never happen again. When we visited Tuol Sleng it became clear that it could, and had.

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Photographs of victims – too many to count

As we walked towards the exit two stooped old men sat behind desks, signing copies of hardback books. Of the 17,000 prisoners who had passed through Tuol Sleng, just seven survived the liberation. Chum Mey and Bou Meng were two of the survivors, and have spent the thirty odd years since telling the world about what they went through. Both were kept alive because they had skills that were valuable to the Khmer Rouge guards, though all of their family perished in the purges. A German lad in our group asked Chum Mey “How can you keep coming back here every day?” He replied through a translator that he wanted people to know what had happened here. Both these men were in their mid-eighties and in my mind they’ve never escaped the prison. In the intervening years I imagine they’ve made a comfortable living out of selling their life story to tourists, but in order to do so they must return daily to the place that took their lives and their families away from them.

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Chum Mey

We got back onboard the bus and drove to The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Here we were given headphones and cassette players, walking around the fields and playing each track in correspondence with the numbered signs that were scattered about the place. The audio guide was composed and narrated by a man who had survived the Killing Fields. Just a few miles outside of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek was where the prisoners of Tuol Sleng were taken to be executed. At least 8,895 bodies have been discovered here, and every year during the wet season the rain exposes the skeletons of more victims.

The silence of the masses of tourists is oddly juxtaposed by the tweeting of birds and the cries of various other animals all around the site. Whilst what happened here is unthinkable, the flora and fauna of South-East Asia is so vivacious and abundant that even in a place like this it can give you a lift. Scattered around on the floor though, are little scraps of cloth of various colours – these are the remains of the blindfolds that the prisoners were made to wear before their execution. A huge tree is covered in ribbons, prayer flags and candles. This is the “Chankiri Tree,” which was used by the prison guards to beat children to death.  The theory went that if the children of the victims were allowed to live, they would grow up and try to avenge the deaths of their parents.

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A final haunting moment which I swear will stay with both of us forever, was provided by the audio guide. The narrator described the final moments before a prisoner’s execution. The executions were carried out under cover of darkness, with loud revolutionary music being played to drown out the sounds of the dying. In addition, a generator powering the lights and sound system would rumble in the background. A recording of this sound was played much louder than the rest of the tape had been, and in spite of the relentless sun, it sent a shiver down the spine and transported us both back to an era in recent history which should never have to be repeated.

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The Buddhist Stupa that stands as a memorial to what happened here

As we hurtled back into the heart of Phnom Penh, we tried to picture the streets standing completely empty as they had done under the Khmer Rouge.  It was impossible – the place is too full of life. In a country that’s undergone such recent trauma, the best recommendation that we could give Cambodia is that the countryside, the towns and the cities are full of people who carry on regardless, showing no signs of being detained by the past.  Sadly the same can’t be said for the government – a corrupt and occasionally brutal regime dominated by a bloke called Hun Sen, who was a prominent member of the Khmer Rouge until Pol Pot turned against him.  Until blokes like him are in the ground, it’s hard to see Cambodia making any real forward progress in the way that Thailand and Vietnam have.

That’s probably enough for today – I imagine I’ve thoroughly depressed you all. I think it’s important to remember though that although humanity is capable of the despicable, it’s also capable of the divine. In this trip Hollie and I have been fortunate enough to witness both ends of this spectrum.

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Peace and love,

Tommy and Hollie x

A New Trip

Dear all,
I am in India.
Sorry – I meant to give you all a bit more notice of my trip, but everyday life has a tendency to throw a spanner in the works and prevent me from writing as much as I’d like.
Anyway, after dropping that bombshell, I’ll get to the matter in hand. I’m not travelling with Hollie this time, and I will explain why below (Don’t worry, we haven’t fallen out)…
When I came back from South East Asia with Hollie, we were less than halfway through our itinerary. We missed out on much of Vietnam, Laos, Southern Thailand and India. It had been Hollie and I’s plan to fly to India from Bangkok in late April and meet up with my mate Luke after touring Nam, Laos and the islands of southern Thailand. As long-term followers of this blog will be aware, we cut this trip short at the beginning of March. Hollie was always less keen on the idea of going to India than the other destinations that we had on our list. At this moment in time Hollie and I can’t both get away together, so she suggested that I clear off with Luke for a few weeks to see India, so that when we get chance to go away together as a couple we can concentrate on the other countries that we’d both like to see together. So to summarise, I’m abandoning my wife to be to go galivanting around India for three weeks. Aren’t I a keeper!?
INTRODUCING LUKE “PARTY” PARTRIDGE…
So now, readers, I must introduce you to my latest travelling companion, Monsieur Luke, also of Derby.
Luke is a mental health nurse down in London town these days, but we’ve been mates since we went to sixth form college together. I lived with Luke for two years at uni and they were good times. Night after night we drank lager, watched footy, played playstation, went to the pub and unsuccessfully attempted to control an outbreak of vermin together. He’s been to India before and knows the score as much as you possibly can do in a country which is disorientating and chaotic at the best of times. He shares my lust for adventure and has coped (I think) with my company in the past for sustained periods of time, making him the ideal travel companion.
THE MASTERPLAN
We have just flown into Kolkata, a city which is in the grips of one of the worst heatwaves in living memory, with the mercury hitting 42 degrees on a regular basis. We intend to make the best of it here in spite of the heat, before flying up north to cool down by drinking tea and relaxing in the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling. After this we’d like to visit Varanasi, spiritual capital of India, which is also in the grips of an unprecedented heatwave. After this we’ll head to Hampi, which is an ancient city of grandiose ruins surrounded by a lunar landscape of bizarre, gargantuan boulders. Finally we intend to end up in the popular seaside destination of Goa, where I’ll fly home on my own and leave Luke chilling for a few extra days on the beach.

Anyway, here we go again and I hope you enjoy…

Tommy