Sunday 31 May 2020

1988 India: Delhi, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Varanasi

11.11.88 Delhi

In India again, though exactly where, I'm not sure.  The Connaught Palace Hotel – the Imperial was, unsurprisingly, full – which is near Connaught Place.  I have yet to find out how near.  It is marginally more expensive than the Janpath Hotel – 600 Rp. vs 550 Rp. – but much superior.  It is new and cleaner.  The Rupee has fallen against the pound.  I am about to eat lunch, though my body expects breakfast.

Some thoughts on the way here.  Visiting new countries is like encountering truly interesting people, or reading exciting – intellectually exciting, that is – books: they confront us with their different world-views, they make us think again.  It is hard to say yet whether things have visibly changed in the two years since I was last here.  I certainly have, not least in financial terms.  Now, there is simply nothing here that I cannot afford to do.  Which is rather sad in a way: there are no constraints.

After lunch in the hotel, I sleep briefly.  My room gives out due west, looking over the dusty, scruffy city.  Then, by rickshaw to the Royal Nepal Airlines to confirm my flights.  I am afraid that the sight of terminals in India still gives me pause for thought.  A day of confirming: Indian Airlines at the airport, British Airways later.  In India, you can not only do something, but must keep on confirming you will do it.

I walk back from the Imperial, its renovations finished from my last stop – I hope things are not too different – across the murderous rings of Connaught Place – the drivers really go for you here.  The late afternoon is surprisingly mild.  The dust is rising into the air, masking the sun.  Back in my hotel room, I order my statutory coffee and biscuits and watch the great red sun go down – only to lose it behind the one tall building in my view.  Rich colours, then sudden darkness.

Now I am in the hotel's restaurant; it is deserted apart from me and the musicians doing a sound check in competition with a muzaked "Ständchen".  Everyone is coughing.  Earlier, I had started to plan out the next three weeks; my itinerary looks totally exhausting.  I must be getting old.  I am, however, impressed at my body.  Tuesday night I came down with a wicked 'flu, head pounding and body aching.  It has almost gone now.  I hope.

Curious stepping into Connaught Place again: the poor grass, the poor people lying on it, the litter everywhere.  The crumbling stucco of the incongruous colonnades.  It was instantly familiar, and not at all foreign.  Perhaps I am finding it too easy to adapt to new locales.  The taxi from the airport: so knackered it had the acceleration of a dead slug.  All the gauges – speedometer, fuel et al. - were kaput, the light in the ceiling had been ripped out years ago.  And yet these Ambassadors still keep going.

12.11.88 Delhi

Not so impressed with my body as it decides to regress and go through tiresome stages like coughing etc.  Up with difficulty: I hate going east.  The Times of India under my door, its comforting mix of 30s-style English, and pure Indianness.  Then off to the railway station – more preparations.  This time, tickets to Varanasi.  It takes some time getting a look at a timetable.  The Tourist Office at least is better organised than before.  No queuing up several times, and everything is online (DEC kit).  And yet they were unable to book the return leg.  Useful… I thought to get round this using a travel agency next door to the hotel.  They tried, but the old allocation was too small this end; ho-hum… Also rang hotels in Jodhpur today.  Amusing then that my voice has dropped an octave – it is the high frequencies you need for phones… Somebody up there has a sense of humour.  

To the Red Fort.  Delhi is much bigger than I remember.  It takes quite some time.  And the driving seems to get worse – and noisier and smellier.  The Red Fort is packed with people, mostly Indians.  It is warm and balmy, not hot and muggy.  The haze seems very thick.  The gardens and diwans are pleasant, but pale beside those of Agra.  Back and everything early: I need to rise at 3.45am = 10.15pm body time – for the early morning flight to Jodhpur.

13.11.88 Jodhpur

Up at 3.45am, then to the domestic airport.  Surprisingly busy for 5am.  All the security blather is quite comforting.  Lots of Euros here, far more than I saw in Delhi (almost).  

The land over which we fly is so flat and barren, it is disheartening.  Gradually the Delhi smoke haze lifts.  We land at Jaipur, then on to Jodhpur.  Amazing airport – though this is far too grand a word.  It looks like a temporary soup-kitchen-cum-school hall – a rudimentary café, plastic chairs, people milling around.  It is easy to miss it completely until you are on top of it.  A half-hour wait for the luggage – which has to come all of 200 yards.  Then an autorickshaw to my hotel, which is disconcertingly close to the airport – and so far from the city.  It is very modern, with pool, but possesses the characteristic peeling and cracking of all India, however young or old.  It takes an hour before my room is ready.  Before – and after – the sun is so strong yet benign I am forced to sit in it by the pool for a few hours.  Purely restorative, of course.

14.11.88 Jodhpur

For the first time this trip, I remember why I came to India.  Jodhpur fort is stunning.  I had been to the station to buy tickets to Jaisalmer, and stopped off at the tourist bungalow to check on my Indian Airlines tickets.  Too early.  I haggle with an autorickshaw driver: 10 Rp. to the fort.  This seems a lot to me, it is not.  The fort is a couple of miles away, up a long, steep road.

The rock it stands on is impressive, but the screen walls even more so.  If I were a besieger, I would have given up.  As I enter, two musicians – nakers and shawm – play totally apposite music.  Above the filigree stone walls a perfect blue sky.  Well, here I am, on the battlements of Jodhpur.  Huge birds of prey wheel slowly above me.  Below lies the jumbled, bustling city.  Many of the houses are blue rather than whitewashed.  Looks like Cezanne gone mad.  Jodhpur is big.

PM.  Incredible market here, centred on an improbable clock tower like something out of rural England.  The fort looms magnificently above.  It is hot – but pleasantly so – smelly, with a general lively hubbub.  Flies everywhere.  Few tourists – I am enormously visible, but that is life.

These great, stupid cows in the middle of the road, the camel-drawn carts, beggars, old women, bicycles, the motorbike-powered buses.  Everything is stretched beyond reasonable limits – the rickshaws, the animals, the people, the land.  No wonder everything is cracked. It is amazing how all markets look the same: Samarkand, Jodhpur, Guangzhou.  Neat piles of vegetables and fruit: an almost 20th-century obsession with presentation.

Indian cities are bad for tourists: they are too spread out, too empty of incident.  It is not really possible to walk everywhere.  It is almost the ultimate challenge of travel: to be yourself, remain yourself.  If you are away from your daily life, its routines, its contours – who are you?  On your own you lose every more of your sense of self.  It is therefore, paradoxically, the best time for introspection.

Jodhpur Palace.  Rooms full of cradles, howdahs, miniatures, weapons, palanquins.  I am forced to go with a guide, and therefore see nothing.  

A crazy phone call through to Jaisalmer, the Fort Hotel there.  Even though only 300km away, his voice could have come from the moon.  What with my fading but present laryngitis, the hotel operator had to join in on my behalf with his stentorian baritone.  They claim to be full there.  I hope they are lying.  Turning up in the middle of the desert with nowhere to stay should be interesting.  I am lapsing into my old Raj ways: coffee and biscuits brought of an evening to my room as dusk falls.  Very civilised, very me.  I am a quarter of the way round the world from home.

15.11.89 Jodhpur

The day started badly.  My best-laid plans – of taking an extra night at the hotel but leaving for the 11.45pm train – foundered.  I am therefore here on sufferance, a waif.  In the morning, to the Government Museum in the park.  Half an hour early, I stroll round the park in the already pounding heat.  The gardens are reasonably well-tended, with splashes of colour (bougainvillea?).  Old men and children sit around, people on bicycles go about their business.  There seems to be a zoo here too.

Inside the museum – entrance 1 Rp. - it is pretty much as I expected.  Everything old, decaying, tended by tiny, uncaring old men.  Rooms of preserved animals – a scorpion with two tails – sculptures, model aircraft, miniatures, rubbings of engravings.  Nothing held the attention.  Back to the hotel to pack.  Zillions of Japanese around now.  Also, French, Italians, Germans – but not many Brits.  After lunch, I haggle with the autorickshaw boys for an all-in – less successfully than usual.  First to the Umaid Bhawan Palace.  I had seen this pink monstrosity lurking on the brow of the hill facing the fort.  Built ridiculously late in the Raj – 1940s – and designed by a PRIBA, it is huge and ugly and sad.

We cross a courtyard, around whose edges men are repairing gilt upholstery.  Then past cabinets full of glass or silver services; to the ballroom, dark and echoing, with unlit chandeliers; finally to the private theatre.  Everything cold and unlovable.  From the gardens, a beautiful view of the fort. Thither.  Not to see anything in particular, just to finish in the right way.  I sat on the ramparts, looking down on this town, picking out my few landmarks.  The bubbling blue houses I now knew to be Brahmins'.  The clock tower in the market, the Bhawan Palace.  The street cries are clear though not distinct.  A religious functionary is singing.

Wonderful cabaret going on here.  A bunch of Germans arrive, their rooms are not ready.  Irate Englisch-sprechende Panzer commander-type gesticulates wildly.  I fear there may be knock-on effects for my Thursday night stay.  After, there are now three huge groups here.  Bah.

In to town, to obtain berth number at the station.  All the bikes without lights, my driver "car" drives on the right-hand-side if it suits him.  A Sikh grabs a lift.  I say "paying half?", and to my surprise he offers – and pays – 10 of the 30 Rps.  People at their stalls in the pools of light; the evening air dusky and dusty.  It reminds me of Bali, except that the temperature is dropping.  I must not get caught on the train tonight as I did on the way to Udaipur two years ago.

Outside, the groups are eating a hot buffet.  Swallows (swifts?) swoop and skim the pool: mozzies, methinks.  Glad I'm here.  On the way back from the station, I had one of my periodic yummy "isn't life interesting?" attacks: things are looking up. 

16.11.88 Jaisalmer

Jaisalmer is pretty extraordinary.  The long, slow, cold crawl to it was hours across barren desert.  The railway station was far from the town, and nugatory; was this a good idea?  But from the train I saw the city walls, rising up like some vision of Jericho.  Inevitably the hotels I wanted were full, so I have ended up in a Rs. 30 place – no facilities, mandi not WC etc., etc. - but I'll survive.  I hope to take the early morning train, getting back to Jodhpur – and relative civilisation – by early evening.

I am now sitting on the roof of the fort, itself perched high above its own walls within the city.  The unbroken horizon is almost flat in all directions.  Tiny dark scrubs dot the desert surface.  Disconcertingly, the railway line ends here, emphasising that this is nowhere.  There are high clouds providing some welcome shielding from the sun's hammer.

Walking through the old town in the fort reminds me of Srinagar – open sewers running in the street, snivelling kids, refuse thrown out of windows.  But even more than Srinagar, this felt about 2000 years ago.  It is all so Biblical.  Some of the buildings are decaying.  Jerusalem after the fall.

Wonderful Jain temples sprout like bushes everywhere.  And everything made from this glorious stone.  This is not the Golden City, it is the Honey City: honeycombs everywhere, dripping with it.  The havelis are extraordinary: and they are so widespread – not just the famous ones.  Everywhere the ornate stonework – like carved wooden screens.  And yet everything is in decay – it is a fossilised world, on the edge of dust.  What was this place like in its heyday?  Pretty impressive, I imagine.  Interesting how the balconies reach out over the space.  The intricate carvings lend themselves to the light which makes the surface bustle.  Reminds me of San Gimignano – the heat, the back streets, the stones.

From the top, having passed through all these empty desolate rooms that were once so rich, I look across to the fort, and over a lumpy sea of sandstone and bricks.  From up here it is easy to pick out the famous havelis; not so easy from below.  One noticeable thing, practically never found: almost no TV aerials. Much of medieval Italy is spoiled by this.

I sit now on the cool roof-top of my Hotel Renuka, an occasional evening breeze wafting my way.  To my left, the fort's walls, to my right the setting sun – not very red, disappointingly.  This place feels very Middle Eastern, not Indian at all.  Partly the camels, but more the whole Holy Land sort of feel.  I confidently expect to go down with some dreadful disease soon: it is a long time since I have been so plagued by flies at a meal.  Unfortunately earlier in the day, I had seen where they had been stamping… Yuk.

The sandstone here becomes quite oppressive, as if the city rose from the sands, and will soon  sink back.  The desert is disturbing.  As I watch the last rays of the sun catch the vertical walls, it reminds me of when I was in San Gimignano, sitting in the fort, watching the sun on the great towers.  But comparing the two, the Italian experience is just so much richer: the art, the culture, the density.  Even things like food: eating good Italian cooking, looking out into the valley, was in its own way a key part of the whole civilised experience.

Having sealed my fate by eating at the Trio Restaurant, it makes sense to limit the damage by eating here again.  Inside, rather than outside [the lights have just gone] is nicer – warm, fewer flies.  There are three musicians playing the usual tabla/harmonium/voice stuff.  Very pleasant too.

This restaurant was also recommended – for what it's worth – by a fellow guest at the hotel.  He and  his lady friend have just returned from four days in the desert – and are ill-ish.  No wonder, some of the garbage they tried.  They youth of today… [lights on].

17.11.88 Jodhpur

Most of today on the slow train from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur.  I slept surprisingly well for my £1.20 accommodation.  Breakfast was frugal but filling – the coffee especially good.  Great fun at the station, trying to find the right coaches – along with a party of assorted WASPs.  Alas, I was stuck with five of them for the trip, including a crazed, fat, Chinese Hawaiian called Edith who wore a turban and had an insane laugh.  Almost as bad was the heat, the dust, the hard seat, the boredom of the endless desert.  Apart from that, OK.  Perhaps it's just old age, but I don't seem to relish these ten-hour train journeys as much as I used to…

Safely at the Ratanada Hotel, an oasis in all this hardship.

18.11.88 Delhi

Travelling is like learning.  It is easy enough to walk through knowledge – facts, a theorem – with a guide or teacher; but is only when you work through it on your own that you understand it.  Similarly, travelling with a guide gives you that superficial acquaintance that is no substitute for journeying on your own and really knowing.

A day of travelling then, with one characteristic incident.  We stopped at Jaipur airport for an hour longer than scheduled: Delhi airport was closed, to allow Mr Gorbachev to fly in.  Strange this: he was here two years ago, again at the same time as me.  He should cast aside his furtive coyness: if he wants to arrange a meeting, he should just come right out and say so.

Delhi seems drab after Jodhpur.  For one thing, the air is so polluted, there is a constant haze.  By the end of the day, the sun has lost all its power.  To the Indian Airlines office, where I boldly pay for my Delhi to Varanasi ticket, even though I am still number 2 on the request list.  Worth a gamble.  I still have my train ticket, though I do not relish another overnighter.  One factor that helped me decide was the absence of accommodation at the Connaught Palace.  India is getting too full.  And no luck in booking in Varanasi.  Ho-hum.

19.11.88 Varanasi

A day of gambles.  I decide to buy a blanket in case I travel by night.  But I am hoping that my request position of number 2 on the flight to Varanasi will get me there.  I go to the airport – a curious feeling since I do not know whether instead I will have to hot-foot it back to Delhi Railway station.  First bad news: the flight is put back to 12.45pm, cutting the amount of time I will have to get to the station.  Second bad news: I am second on the waiting list, true; but only for those travelling Delhi to Varanasi, of which there are four in all.  Three have so far turned up.  I need (a) for the fourth person not to appear and (b) for the request number 1 not to appear. The man is not optimistic.  I cannot tell if I am or not.  But I do know that I am getting uncharacteristically restless.  Partly, I suspect, because I am forcing myself to read my first Anita Desai – totally contentless.  But mostly because I keep looking at the clock, looking to see if the person has turned up.  Every face seems to be my executioner.

Come 12.15pm, and I start to edge towards the counter.  My name is called, I am given a boarding card – I'm through.  And yet I keep expecting that fourth – or first reserve – to turn up, and for my ticket to be torn from my hands.

The flights – to Agra, then to Khajuraho – are like the other internal flights – big bus trips.  Safety precautions are pretty minimal, and the landings are the worst I've encountered: the plane comes in too fast and is effectively dropped on to the runaway.

I am amazed to see the plane half empty: after all the fun.  But things are clarified when we arrive at Agra.  Almost 100 passengers, mostly Italians, pile on.  I fear they may be going to Varanasi, taking valuable hotel rooms.  But they all pile off at Khajuraho.  Unfortunately another party almost as big piles on, definitely going to Varanasi.  These groups do spoil it for everyone else.

The terrain from Delhi to Varanasi is rather more interesting than down to Jodhpur.  A great river – the Ganges – heaves into view, and there are outcrops of hills and lusher vegetation.  Near Varanasi, the Gangetic plain shows itself: well-irrigated arable land.  [It is funny: I am drinking coffee in my room again – but probably the best coffee I've had in India was in Jaisalmer, seemed ready mixed with milk and was deeply satisfying.]

Into Varanasi.  Great fun at the airport, which is some 14 or 15 miles from the city centre.  I had been told by a tourist board chappy that the fee would be 100 Rp.; he suggested sharing.  As it happened, this pair whom I thought were part of a group also asked about taxis, and we agreed to share.  Then the saga began.  One tout offered us 20 Rp. each as a price, but said we had to pretend to be going to his hotel.  At the door of the airport building, it was utter pandemonium.  So many crazed-looking men offering their services, shaking keys and god knows what.  I really experienced information overload: too many competing structures of equal intensity meant that for a minute I was unable to make a decision.  Finally, I decided the only non-contingent solution was to stick with the first bloke, but then he palmed us off onto someone else.  We followed him, with me shouting at him to wait, and to agree the details, knowing that there would be plenty of latitude.

First, he said that the price originally quoted – to go to the Ashok and another hotel on the river – was in fact only for the former.  We re-negotiated, agreed, and moved off.  Then he said that because of the narrowness of the lanes, his car could not actually get to the second hotel.  My companions were outraged, but eventually decided to follow me to the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) office.  We then began the long and incredibly slow journey to Varanasi city centre.  The landscape was lusher than usual, but the hamlets along the way looked depressingly indistinguishable.  Nearer Varanasi itself, the hamlets began to merge into one urbanisation.  

The driving in India never ceases to amaze – and appal – me.  Their concept of left and right hand side of the road is shaky: often they will blithely cut across the incoming stream of traffic, or even drive the wrong way up the inside lane for a way.  They turn whenever, stop whenever, and pull out without signalling.  I'm no chicken when it comes to motoring, but this is pretty hairy stuff.  

Finally we reach the ITCD – after a fairly significant detour to look at two favourite hotels of the driver.  The office closed, but just as we are about to leave, a man appears, and starts offering to phone hotels for us.  We go into his office, dark and full of strange objects, together with the paraphernalia of his job.  He starts phoning: all full.  It is at moments like this that I wonder why I do this; why don't I go on a tour like everyone else, no worries, no hassles?  But I know it is for  precisely these challenges that I do it: my "holidays" are more travelling/travailing: extra juicy problems, more so than in daily life.  I must be nuts.

Finally, the Taj Ganges, the best hotel, ironically, has a room – but only for two nights, not three as I wanted.  So, still a little challenge there, not to mention the problem of getting back to Delhi in time for my flight to Kathmandu…

20.11.88 Varanasi

Problems, problems – just as I want.  No train available Monday, ergo Tuesday.  Which means I'm cutting it fine for the flight to Kathmandu.  However, a plus is an extra day in Varanasi – which I rather like.  

I am sitting now on the banks of the Ganges, a huge rolling river stretching away as far as the eye can see, left and right, and wide.  The steps down are surprisingly steep – perhaps a 50 to 70 feet fall.  The view along the banks is one of the most interesting I have seen, with temples and bathing ghats interspersed with high, veranda'd buildings.  Everything is a-bustle, with boats plying the river, people bathing, stallholders everywhere – apparently today is a festival.  Flowers on sale everywhere, everyone carrying bamboo (?) stalks.  On the opposite bank, crowds of boats and people.

This is the real India.  Moving further south along the ghats, I am now surrounded by the sound of bells: a deep bell above me, presumably religious, and the high tinkling tintinnabulations of the hawkers.  Flowers – bright yellow, orange, red, purple, white – everywhere [a goat has just eaten part of a stallholder's wares; goats, cows, but not camels, here.]

To my left, a high orange-stoned temple, in the characteristic style, topped with small pinnacles – and a tree.  Small temples with statues and garlands along the way.  Everyone wearing the red head spot on their brows today.  Big parasols – like something out of Canaletto.  A mass of roiling people, bright saris everywhere.

These is a lot of mud, high up on the steps – presumably from when the Ganges floods.  Where I came down to the river, they were hosing some of it away.  Nearby, a doorway has HFL and various dates – the flood levels, I assume; they are about 40 feet above the river level… The women washing fully-clothed, the men in their minimal dhotis or undergarments, the kids naked.  Holy men sitting reading, or just wander, chanting.

Now in a small rowing boat, going upstream.  We pass a burning ghat.  There is a small fire, some logs, a man standing by unconcerned.  Then I notice the two human feet stick out at one end.  It is a very strange sight.  No other burnings.

I am sitting now by the pool at the Taj Ganges.  The sun is very pleasant, filtered as it is by the omnipresent haze.  The journey back here was interesting.  The boatman dropped me off by the Golden Temple.  The voyage had been beatifically peaceful.  After passing upstream to nearly the last ghat, we moved across the river to the great sandbank.  Opposite Dashashwamedh Ghat, pilgrims were bathing in the river's waters. The view reminded me of Venice, of Hong Kong.

On land, I go downstream, past another burning ghat – great piles of logs everywhere, a few roaring blazes, but no bodies visible.  As I continue, a man stops me, saying there is a "family burning" up ahead, and that it was forbidden.  Could be.  So I strike off into the maze of alleyways, hoping to make it back to the main street.  But maze it was, and I soon had no idea where I was going. After about ten minutes of non-panicking I finally made it.  But an interesting experience.

Safely ensconced now in my hotel, I am struck again by the chasm which separates having a hotel and not having one: tiny in time, in gesture – yes/no – but a gulf in effect.  Before, you are homeless, doomed to wander an unknown city.  After, you are king of the castle, master of all you survey, a quite at home amidst all the foreigners.  

Another thought: whatever happened to the fourth person on the Delhi-Varanasi flight?  I feel strangely linked to this total stranger.  It makes me think of all the lines and stories which lead to me: the cotton balls which were plucked for my shirt – there were a finite number of them – the rain clouds which produced the Himalayan water which I drink, and so on.  Too many even to think about, let alone know.  Life is about simplifying all these threads.

Back down to the river for a walk downstream.  Past the main burning ghat – lots of bodies.  Then on to quieter ghats.  Late now – 4-5pm.  I take a boat again for half and hour in the dusk. Nearly full moon rising bright opposite the last nacreous touches of the sun.  The Ganges again very peaceful.  People are floating lit offerings on the water.

I take a rickshaw back.  It is now dark.  Without lights, amid the hurly-burly, this could be quite frightening.  The smell of wood smoke all but obliterated by all the noxious fumes – worse than any other big city.  But with all the shops lit by their single bulbs, their neat wares, it looks strangely like Christmas.  The road goes on and on, endless shops, endless stalls selling similar goods.  600 million people – ten times that of the UK.  Will this country ever lift itself out of poverty?  Such a task.  

Civilised: this restaurant has a sitar and tabla playing live.  And Beethoven, Tchaikovsky in the lifts… makes me a teeny bit homesick, culture-sick.

21.11.88 Varanasi

Down on the Ganges.  A great red sun rising over the sandy shore.  Cold.  Many people braving the waters.  Varanasi surprisingly quiet at 6.30 am.  A big red sun turning yellow, but it gives out little heat.  After about 45 minutes on the river, I take a rickshaw back to the hotel – and warmth.

Where I am then thrown out, and take refuge in the Varanasi Ashok, which is nominally 4 star, but a tip after the Taj.  No flights available, so it is 17 hours on the train…

It is interesting speaking English where the language is used as a lingua franca.  It is like being a wizard, eavesdropping on everyone…

22.11.88 Delhi

A long, long day.  In my reasonably crummy hotel until 12 noon, then to the station for 17 hour (nominal) trip.  Shared compartment with jolly young Sharon, a doctor near Varanasi.  Then read for hours, ate, slept reasonably well – after hiring blankets et al.  Aircon is definitely better.

Train 2.5 hours late – so I get to my hotel at 10 am, to leave at 12 noon – for which I pay £25.  But it's worth it for the shave, shower etc.  Now I sit waiting to take off for Kathmandu; is this possible…?

1988 Nepal: Kathmandu, Pokhara

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