Just shy of 48 hours from finishing work in Busan on Friday night I found myself in Kolkata...! Natalie and I flew down together (thankfully for her as I had to wake her up at the boarding gate, haha), met Thellie/Dave, and spent a night in Bangkok eating, drinking some beers, and myself taking a ridiculously short deep breath to get myself ready for the next 2 - 3 months. After some delay we landed in Kolkata on Sunday evening, with no plans, bookings or any confirmed ideas as to how, what, when and where...! Seeing this as our 'qualifying' week, we figured, if we could get to Delhi in 7 days with no planning the rest will be fine...and it is so far.
Kolkata was just mental. Heading to the backpacker area of Sudder Street we sat in the back of the taxi trying to take everything in. People everywhere, traffic crazier and more ruleless than any I've seen elsewhere (something akin to rally driving on a densely packed urban scale, with human-led rickshaws and cows thrown in for good measure), noise, dirt, smells from the street stands of food, less savoury smells that don't need describing...it was an overload to say the least, but an exciting one too. And seeing for real the reverence that cows have Hindu society – they are literally given free reign of entire areas and cities. If they want to sleep in the middle of a main road, fine. If they want to take a break and nap whilst blocking an alley or doorway or three, fine also. We only spent a day and night here, and mainly wandered the streets and got lost, trying and failing to find Mother Teresa's Mission, and starting to get used to a tasty and cheap Indian diet of paneer and vegetable curries, lassies and naans.
Moving onto Varanasi (cultural city on the Ganges) by train was suprisingly easy, and for the price of three quid, we got a bunk in an air-conditioned carriage. Stepping out at the station in the morning was a little bit of a jump in atmosphere from Kolkata. Quieter, dustier, more laidback, we were thankful that we'd chosen to spend a couple of days here. We spent our first day being driven round in an auto-rickshaw by a guy called Shiva, round to a famous university, a temple or three, and down to the Ganges and the ghats (quays) in the evening. We hired a boat to take us down the river to watch some celebrations from waterside. Rowing down was an eerie, calming experience: not a sound apart from the splash of the oar, stars twinkling above, and the odd candle floating past in a mini leaf dish.
We spent the next day ambling around the river and ghats again and through the back alleys. The ghats go on for miles and miles and have a real mix of people and life about them: people bathing, doing laundry, families walking up and down, women in saris buying bright garlands of orange flowers, holy men dressed in orange, a funeral or two, with the human cremation taking place at the side of the river in full view. Wandering ther back alleys, I passed umpteen traveller's shops selling all the hippified clothing you could possibly wish for, small, dusty chemists, fruit and vegetable basket sellers spilling out onto the street, dairy shops with urns and urns of fresh curd, with numerous tuktuks and cows to dodge as well. I also stumbled across a street parade, some kind of start to the forthcoming festival. It was a very bizarre mix of dressed up elephants and camels, children on tall poles dressed as devils and gods, a man covered in black soot, in a black dress, with a flower garland dancing around crazily to whatever beat surrounded him at the time.
Agra was our next stop, and another sleeper train beckoned, but this time was a little more fraught. We were given the wrong platform and subsequently found ourselves in the right carriage and at the right bunk, but on the wrong train...! And it's just as well this turned out to be wrong because this particular train was rammed with people and, what looked like, their entire belongings. People four or five to a bunk, top bunks sagging under the weight of boxes, and people and bags stacked up in the aisles. We fought our way down to 'our' bunks, got wedged in, then realised we were on the wrong train and had about five minutes to get out, oh dear. After much shouting, pondering going out the window as it looked closer and easier, and literally climbing over people, we burst out, ran over the platforms, and found ourselves sat in the right place, on the right train with about five minutes to spare.
We spent a day's sightseeing in Agra, going to the Taj Mahal first, of course. Walking round to the gates, and seeing the first glimpse of it through the shadowed arches was surreal. It looked like a mini-model someone had built from marble and stone and placed by the river. Walking around the main building itself in barefeet was fabulous (apart from the odd patch of hot stone warmed by the sun). We went around to the opposite side of the river to watch the sunset over it, and rise again the following morning. In the evening, there were only a few tourists around which made for a change, and we watched the sun turn the famous domes pink and orange as farmers and workers walked back along the track next to the river, children, goats and a couple of camels in tow too.
We also visited Agra Fort and the 'baby Taj', both … I think my favourite part of Agra was not the main tourist sights, but simply wandering the quiet back streets on our free day, through small communities usually skipped by the package tourists coming in and out of town, and the amazing street food. We started at one stand, sitting on a rickety wooden plank watching the street traffic go by, with a bag of samosas for 10p, and had to buy more that evening and the following day because they were just too good. One thing that really irked the both of us was a supposed student; on the face of it just wanting to chat and practice his English (for his future study in England…whether this is true or not we don't know), but ultimately trying to get us to buy a load of marble goods. He seemed honest enough, so we said we'd sit down with him and have a chat. Stepping into his shop, I told him that we had no money between us so would not be buying anything but were more than happy to sit and chat, as he had asked. He got incredibly defensive and ended up saying it was bullshit that he was trying to sell us something. As it sadly turned out, he was a salesman first and foremost, and Thellie ended up storming out when he accused him of being a girl and not making a decision to buy something. He did apologise to us in the street the following day, but it just really grated and made us feel like every interaction we had, and were going to have, with local people was going to be based on us not as people but as walking dollar signs.
Our final city was Delhi for another 24 hours. Arriving at the main station at 3am and wandering to the nearby Prahaganj area to find our hotel was something of an experience. Minimal street lighting, rickshaw drivers parked up, people sleeping in shadows and doorways, barking dogs…not entirely comfortable that's for sure. The following day we tuktuk-ed it out to the Red Fort, and walked down through the main market area of Chandi Chowk and the adjacent spice market. Here there are hundreds and hundreds of spice sellers, selling everything from chili and tumeric to saffron and coconut in huge great baskets and sacks. The air was thick with spices, with even the locals walking through were coughing and sneezing a bit, and groups and groups of porters hauling around sacks of spices on their backs and on wooden carts; times don't change much.
As for Delhi Airport, I can't even bring myself to say how supremely awful this airport is. Trust me. Pay extra and avoid it. Which now leaves me at the end of the rollercoaster that is four Indian cities in a week, and on to Nepal...