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whistlestop tour down the Yamuna and the Ganges

INDIA | Thursday, 7 October 2010 | Views [508] | Comments [1]

Hello everyoney! Well, isn't this nice? I've got a computer with a full set of functioning keys, I've got a swivel chair (okay, my arse is still aching, but that's from the boating yesterday), and I've got a variety of working USB ports to choose from (although the damage wrought by Indian computers on all the stuff I can plug IN to the USB ports has been, I believe, well-documented). What that all means is, we're not in India any more. We're in Nepal, which is the same, but also, at the same, or indeed the different, time, different.

Hmm. Perhaps that wasn't clear.

You'll have to excuse me, I'm a little out of practice. It's been a long time since it's been possible to update much at all, owing to the tortuous nature of internet cafes over the last few weeks, or months. I haven't yet had a chance to thrill you with tales of mudslides and floods and natural disasters in Leh (although my family has received the necessary assurances that I remain at large, largely un-mudslidden); and nor have I talked about Manali, even, which was notable mainly for the nostril-based sensation that one is living in Howard Marks' attic. But I think Jess has been quite assiduous in relaying what I haven't, so for the sake of efficiency (I know how precious your computer time is, peeps!), I'm trying to do what she might not've, in language clearly betraying the fact that I haven't had much recent experience of such. So I'll keep it brief. Basically, we finally covered some bloody distance, after being slightly marooned in the more remote and less roaded corners of the country. In fact, we got all the way to Varanasi, and went to several places on the way...

Chandigarh was ODD. Grid-like. Like a European city but with lots of Indians roaming around in it, insisting on driving and beeping their rickshaws like loons even though the streets are actually wide boulevards, with road markings, premeditated junctions, and no excuse for anyone to be at all non-European about anything. But apart from that it could almost have been a European city. A sticky one, with a business focus that pushes up the price of the accommodation... The room we paid 400rs for was pretty nasty, except apparently if you're any kind of slightly scary creepy-crawly, and the road noise was hellish, despite the impressive expanse of pavement (yes! Pavement! With a kerb!) between us and it. But after so long in the mountains, with the thin air, and the relatively reserved people, and the country ways of life - and so long struggling to not feel a little over-parented by the state turning off the electricity at 10.30 every night - it was curiously refreshing to be back in the sticky bustle of an Indian city, especially one with shops which had real signs and lights on them. There is money in Chandigarh. You can feel it as you're on the way there - it's the capital of Punjab, which is dripping with fertility and lush agricultural land. (It was really exciting to see fields to the horizon from that bus. No mountains at all. And by the evening-time our gazes were plastered to the sky. We hadn't seen the sun go down for a long time. Took us a while to work out what was enrapturing us so, but then we realised it was just the sheer amount of sky we could see. After months in the mountains, you forget it's there, it seems.)

And Chandigarh was so different from probably all the other places we'll see here, I'm glad we saw it. Good to see Indian youths behaving 'normally' (ie with none of what we cannot help but see as 'repression') - y'know, holding hands (with the opposite gender), wearing jeans (yes, girls and boys), and drinking. In bars. Jess and I went to one of these bars with our British friends, who were nice and quite good fun, but one of whom had an allergic reaction to the nuttiness of a Kit-Kat (which wouldn't have been worth the trouble at all - the chocolate is different and wrong here, packed with additives, and way too much sugar, to stop it melting in the tropical heat) - this slowed her down a little, and severely dented her ambitions for the day. Poor sod. But it was different to go to a bar of any kind, let alone one quite this flashy, in a country which so far has shown little sign of being more than fleetingly interested in alcohol. Punjabs are big drinkers, it is said, and there were certainly a lot of booze shops. Chandigarh also provided an interesting day at Nek Chand's Rock Garden, the bizarrely-sculpted denizens of which can be seen squatting or standing sinisterly among my facebook photos, and it provided a stop-off to break the otherwise-24hr journey down to Haridwar.

Haridwar, where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas, is reckoned to be the holiest place in India. (Look, it's a big country, okay? They're allowed several hundred holiest places.) It's also chaotic, chocka-pilgrimised, and almost entirely Western-tourist-free. Some materialised out of nowhere for the evening flower-floating rituals, but they disappear again soon after. We don't know where they go. In luxury taxis, to out-of-town country hotels with cool jacuzzis, or something, we imagine, with slightly feverish imaginations.

Haridwar was fun, rather confounding our expectations. Not being religiously inclined, we generally find religious ceremony rather fascinating (in fact, we stumbled across real Roman Catholic ceremonies in the Notre Dame last year.. It was INCREDIBLE! There were old men bent double in front of Gothic candles the size of houses, waving portable bonfires and muttering UTTER GIBBERISH! And there were about five hundred people staring like zombies at the source of these incantations, and often, at some pre-arranged signal - or perhaps it was triggered telepathically as part of the whole brain-washing process - the hordes would murmur some kind of mystic response, like zombies... It was one of the most sinister and morbidly fascinating things either of us have ever seen), but because the religious observances here don't seem to be taken that 'seriously' even by adherents to the religion, we didn't expect much about the Ganges to grab our attention.

But in fact, the river itself has enough atmosphere to make Haridwar worthwhile, and the sunset ceremony was intriguing, and quite poignant... Not the photogenic display of lights-on-the-river that we were hoping for - No, despite the neat rows of pilgrims, it was, ultimately, a bit of shambles, and so a lot of the pilgrims sitting down by the edge of the river don't have the patience to wait for the most propitious time, and dispatch their floral offering early, almost, apparently, against their own wills, like a child spoiling his own Christmas surprises. . But very moving... You can see my photo of the woman sitting with a vast grin of anticipation on her wide face, her husband fiddling a bit nervously with his sock-clad feet.. it's really sweet. And Haridwar was back to Real India, for sure, which has an appeal it's difficult to explain. We were enjoying it, which is one reason why it was a bit of a mistake to move on to somewhere we wish had not been so recommended to us...

Nainital was a mistake. It wasn't exactly on the way - it was suposed to be a glorious destination in its own right, a lake ringed by Himalayas, and one of the holiest places in India, incidentally. But even at the bottom of the hill Nainital was at the top of, we were thinking 'er, the weather looks a bit grotty up there, maybe we should get off here, in this place we have no information about whatsoever, are there any affordable hotels here, well, we've kind of missed the chance to get off the bus now anyway, let's hope the clouds clear' - and when we finally got there four hours later, after navigating a couple of mudslides and impromptu rivers, we were thinking 'Hmm. Well maybe it'll clear up by tomorrow'.

But the next day was, in terms of weather, the foulest day I've ever experienced. We couldn't see the lake at all - even from the edge you couldn't see it. There was no electricity, and plenty of generator noise from other hotels. It was dark all day, and it rained more than either of us could understand was possible. Deciding to cut our losses and GET OUT! GET OUT! was easy. Opting to, er, "take a raincheck" on our proposed visit to the delectable Vale of Flowers and the stunning Hem Kund lake, both further up the hills, was also uncomplicated. It didn't even take long to complete our discussions regarding our plan of entering Nepal over the Western border, and travelling the length of the country through rural, undeveloped mountain jungle, on roads which were subject to mudslides and general impassibility at the best of times. We decided not to. We felt our hands were forced rather, but the better-trodden path through territory not subject to natural disasters seemed like the only real option. Time is ticking on now. We need to get out of India because we need to stay out of the country for two months because that's what the stupid new visa laws say so the sooner we leave the sooner we can come back and we only have enough money to last us until February and there's lots of stuff we want to see in India yet if we decide to come back here and not fly somewhere else totally random and different like New Zealand so we need to get out of India As Soon As Possible now. Plus it keeps raining here, which we were warned to expect but which is still not really much of a novelty. 

So these were all easy decisions. Executing the first, however, was tough, as we expected. We got up Really Early (I think about six) and after a bit of faffing, playing the ever-diverting Indian Information Game and a lot of waiting, we managed to score a taxi to take us down to the town at the bottom of the hill. Two hours for 550rs, it ended up being. Eight quid. A lot considering our daily budget, but not much considering the fact that it's probably still raining in Nainital now, and we were in a real hurry to get on to the border...

Bareilly was not really a place we wanted to go to. But it's good to go to some places you don't want to go to. That's what travelling is. Otherwise it's just a holiday in a variety of places. We got a bus straight from Haldwani, along with an Indian couple we'd met, who were carried along by our enthusiasm and our appearance of knowing what we're doing (helped, in this case, by the fact that they'd set out from Nainital hours before us, and their journey down the mountain had involved them paying for a taxi to where the road first collapsed, then two guides to carry their massive bags and escort them, hacking and cursing at the undergrowth, down jungly mountainside for a few kilometres, then two more taxis down the road... They felt knackered and rather foolish, while we felt for once that we were as capable as the locals). They were trying to get to Delhi, and Bareilly has the dubious honour of being a transport hub. (Always lovely places, transport hubs. Think about it. Birmingham. Milton Keynes. Didcot Parkway. All gorgeous.) But I digress.

A night in Bareilly was fun, involving keeping the Indians up far later than they wanted while we drank rum and ranted at them. It also included two visits to the railway station. The first was protracted, and we were carrying all our bags and playing the Information Game again, for real this time (the stakes seem much higher at the railway station, the options so multifarious, the system so arcane even the employees can't find anything out). The second, just Jess and I now, was substantially more protracted, partly as a result of us having comprehensively lost The Information Game the previous night. To cut long stories short, we were on Platform One for five hours, not getting on trains to Varanasi, and waiting for a train to Varanasi we believed we had a ticket for. We're finding that, here, you can actually spend five hours trying to find out what train your ticket is for - when it leaves, how to identify it - and still not feel that you have any idea. For the first three hours we couldn't get a single piece of information verified in any way - literally not one datum was repeated by two different sources. Train numbers and times changed all the time. Most of the time, we had to laugh. But time was getting short, and we weren't seeing much of the country from Platform Fucking One anyway. The train we finally got on was a superfast one, which meant that it would only take seven hours! Superb. Except someone on the train told us thirteen. So we knew we'd be getting in at either midnight (which was fine, that's what I'd told the Varanasi hotel on the phone. Organised, huh? Mm. LONGG time on the platform, you see) or at six in the morning, or some time between or after those times. But we managed to get some sleep anyway. Really, this Diazepan stuff is terrific. Mum, you should definitely get some when you have a poorly chest. Seriously, I don't know what it is, but I can't see it ever doing anyone any harm. And at six in the morning on the dot, we arrived in...

Varanasi was India with no traffic, within the crazy confined spaces of the old-town alleyways, and as such was suddenly bearable; plus the place kinda reeks of genuine spirituality, or what counts as spirituality in Hinduism, and has the atmosphere of one of the oldest inhabited settlements on Earth, because that's what it is - a lot of India's excesses can be excused there. Anything else but typical India would just seem inappropriate. We didn't expect to like Varanasi, or even to go there, but Haridwar, a pale imitation of Varanasi, was so interesting we thought we'd give the real thing a crack. And it was on our new route to Nepal, which would go through Sunauli. Go on, check the map, you know you want to. It'll take a minute to bring it up but maps are such good fun once they're loaded, you never regret it, do you?

I don't know what to say about Varanasi. The photos are the only way to convey what the place was like, but some guy in Varanasi sold me a memory card reader which has already malfunctioned, so I can't put the photos up right now, and it seems rude to try to describe it. Narrow spaces, full of people, motorbikes, vast waterbuffalo, cattle butting each other, shitting everywhere, eating the offerings of some shopkeepers as others are whipping and "Hoy!"ing them away - once, shortly after I'd thought 'it really wouldn't be funny if one of these massive animals moved down these alleys at speed for any reason', a massive bull trotting down one of these 3-yd-wide alleyways. Dogs ruling the streets, some dark tunnels down which you fear to tread, full of dark growling shapes and stinking menace; a deep brown river a mile wide, coming straight from Wonka's factory at the speed of Himalayan rapids; temples and holy men everywhere, genuine spirituality hand-in-hand with mercenary money-grabbing and profiteering, holy men trying to sell you hard drugs, Hindu temples where you have to take your shoes off and not cross the line of Ganges water just sprinkled on the floor by that bloke who's now sprawling back on his filthy mattress in the corner and scratching his gonads as he stares at the near-naked Western women on MTV, at top volume as always, and the other guy, is that his son, taking opium in the corner and ignoring his little brother peeing out of the doorway? - shopkeepers occupying tiny spaces with esoteric merchandise and a poster up saying My piCHer CHarg ten RuPPes, and a forty-year-old Korean schoolteacher pointing an SLR at his face from eight inches away; six-year-olds following you around hustling you in rapid English, not a diphthong in sight, rattling rates and tourist-chatter at you incessantly, Where you going? Where you like to go? This burning ghat, this very spess'l p'liss, no money no honey, no worry no curry, this Golden Temple, this very holy, where country you come from? I tink you Israeli, shalom. Shalom. I say 'shalom' because you Israeli, because I tink you Israeli. England nice country! And you very nice muscles, friend, very strong, hey look dis, look dis muscles.. Achaa.. Full power! I tell you you want hash? I take you my shop, you see you like you buy, you no like you no buy, no problem, you like opium? Acid, MA? ("what, you've got a shop?" - our front is finally broken through - "but you're like, six!" Yes, I have shop, you want sari?')

 - and then there were the rooftops.

Seeing it from the roof (we had a nice tall hotel - a good tip for Varanasi) was amazing in a different way. Down there, you are instantly lost. Geographically and less tangibly, you're lost in a welter of unnamed streets and images, a mess of Hindi and broken English, up to your ankles and your nostrils in Varanasi. You're accosted every seven seconds (that is a fact; I counted over a period of fifteen minutes and took an average - it's quite normal to have two or three different people trying to guide you at the same time) - it's a whirlwind. But on the roof you get away from it, and you watch the people on their own roofs, and it's a different perspective on the same world, except with monkeys instead of dogs. There's the Ganges, massive, swift, yet opaque and unreadable; there's a smoggy sunset every day, with a gorgeous fat orange orb sinking into the hazy layers of the Varansai skyline; and at 4.30, you hear a wailing. Low, and more tuneful than we've grown to expect. Your ears no sooner identify that 'there's two of them' before four-thirty has finished striking, and you become gradually aware of them all starting, the prayer calls from the hundreds of mosques dotted across the entirety of Varanasi that stretches between you and the horizon on three sides. And - are those birds? Kind of fluttering... But not always going anywhere - that kid's got a kite! So has that one!' And then your eyes tune in and refocus, and the rooftops are full of them, the kite-fliers - men, boys, girls occasionally (women presumably cooking at this time, which is another story - but they probably think the kites are for kids and men anyway) - literally every roof has one or two or three people standing, connected to the sky by a gossamer thread and a sheet of bright plastic, fluttering like an excited butterfly.. And your eyes tune in to the kites at the same rate that your ears tune to the prayer calls - hundreds, thousands, all the way to the horizon, focusing, then re-focusing, until finally you have to disconnect your brain as it persistently tried to focus on these specks or strains, and let your ears and eyes just simply absorb the experience, unable to rationalise the sheer scale and subtlety of these human animal phenomena, taking place against the backdrop of a plump sun sinking into the silty, Gangetic mists.

But, yes, anyway. See the photos. I said I wasn't going to try to put it in words, and then I did anyway, and now I've made a fool of myself. And we have to leave this wretched Internet cafe - it's late here and it's bedtime. We left Varanasi after a week, and now we're in Nepal, and we're On Holiday. So I should have time to come and explain whether Nepal is different or not quite soon..

* * * * *

As an interesting postscript for those of you aware of the many deaths in the heatwave while we were in Rajasthan, and of the appalling weather that followed us up into the mountains for months, and of the cloudburst and mudslides and subsequent loss of life in Leh, and of the fact that by going to Leh and causing the Indus to be flooded we were indirectly responsible for the displacement of eight million in Pakistan, it's worth pointing out that two days after we left Punjab the Yamuna burst its banks about a hundred km downriver from where we stayed; that Nainital's roads were all totally closed by the time we got there, and six people had drowned by the time we left; and that Bareilly suffered from floods across half the county and sixty people are still missing, presumed dead. In short, our mere presence is enough to cause bizarre weather extremes and massive loss of life, almost everywhere we go.

So those of you who are actively missing us, you might want to re-think that. We'll soon be setting up what I think will be a very profitable website, telling people where we're planning to go next, called avoidthefilth.com. More on that soon. Until then, I leave you comforted with the thought that Pokhara is extremely nice indeed; I had my first ever steak the other day, and had my third yesterday, and some buffalo for lunch; and I'm starting to look more like my normal beefy self. I'm sure everyone is heartily relieved    ;-)

I have no idea what's going on in the UK at the moment. Some of your athletes seem to have bravely decided to come over to these parts, risking Delhi (that sentence was a lot longer, but then I took out a lot and just put 'Delhi'). My girlfriend's father has replaced his 'normal' facebook face with that of Margaret Thatcher. Anna is living in Brighton with The Mountain Firework Company. Nick has just casually announced that he and Eli are not only having another baby, but that they're having another baby in a couple of months, and he was just waiting for the right moment to tell me in person. (Congratulations Nick'n'Eli! Let us know the name when you've got one! Any child-rearing advice required, ask willatschool, I understand he's having plenty of experience of it all at the moment)   James, who Jess used to go out with, has reportedly been working for Quantum, an obscure and frankly horrific sales agency in Reading where, unbelievably, I also worked, eleven years ago. "They like people who can chat shit", was James' accurate-enough interpretation of the co-incidence. ("Honey", I said, "if you have a type, you really do not want it to be the Quantum type...") Rachel is said to be considering leaving normal office life and regaining the 'life' side of the work-life balance with a bit of tefling, which I don't want to encourage too much because I already get a bit dull with all my evangelising.  None of my younger siblings are, as far as I can establish, really doing anything at all, but they seem to be getting away with it.  I think Jonathan has left the Hamilton's sofa now, so they must have literally no available surfaces left to make him paint - I'm not sure where he's living now (Chris? Dan? Any ideas?)  Emily is going to the Deep South with Mr Tim, fulfilling a life-long dream of going to the place on Earth she will hate more than anywhere else. Lou and Jur seem to be getting a bit fed up of Oxford (so many crucial departures recently...) - even the typically-mild-mannered Eagle has been heard getting a bit short of temper... but I'm sure it's a passing phase, and will last only as long as British summers are short and a bit pointless. Minno is in Sweden again, ours not to reason why. (Can I say 'his university's to reason why?' Hmm...) How are Flora and Maxine getting along? How is Chrismann's crazy high-flying (or low-swimming) job progressing? Does Alice still want us to buy her lots of Indianesque produce for her market stall, or was that a mere caprice? Has Kate had a visit from the MirMobile yet? What about Dan? He's a bit quiet... And have Jay and Woody and Chrismann all found each other on facebook and swapped their lunatic musics yet? Because they really ought to. And Ady should play too, if he promises not to be too sniffy (you alright old chap?) Sam, I've been looking for that Scrabble thing on facebook but I don't understand it. Am I utterly thick? And Erika is probably getting excited about coming over here to see us! You'll love it here, Erik. There's boats and a big lake!   :-)  Actually, now I feel bad for Phil. He'd have some 'improvements' to make to these simple offerings, that's for sure.

Hope you're all sound and well, anyway. It's been six months away from the UK for me now, which is, you'll all be trivially fascinated to hear, a personal record.

Man, am I going to drink a lot of Adnams when I get back. (I did start that idea by intending to talk about how much I miss everyone, but then the more concrete thought of real ale distracted me. But I miss people, as well)

lots and lots of love from Nepal

(which is my new, space-comic-villain name. "Jakex". Cool, huh?)





I hope you don't mind me reading .... I'm not an 'invited one', but I was drawn in today by the photos of views of biblical proportions and my own wonderful memories of such views. And also by the luxury of 'time to browse' that seems to accompany the function of 'looking after a small child in country where the primary (secondary OR tertiary) language is not English' (I did sciences at school - OK?)
I have very much enjoyed your offerings, as much for their honesty & humour as their poetry ... although Varanasi was my favourite (so far) ... Everyone's experience is sooo different, & that difference is based on sooo many variables. The more I think about stuff these days it seems to me the less conclusions we can ever come to & the less judgements we can meaningfully make! It's just fabulous to travel, and fabulous to share & be shared with, so many thanks for making it possible for me to read! Take very, very good care of yourselves and each other. XX

  Angela Oct 30, 2010 11:15 PM

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