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Trip 1 --
India, Nepal, and China
Part 1: India (5 Aug to 21 Aug 1997)
Exchange rate: US$1 = 35 Indian rupees (INR)
Subway: A line,
42 St-Times Square to Howard Beach-JFK Airport
5 Aug-6 Aug
Air: Air France #7, New York JFK to Paris De Gaulle
(19:45; 2h late; 6h 12m)
Air France #134, Paris De Gaulle to Mumbai Sahar
(10:15; 8h 16m)
The first person I met was Rajnee Mehta, an elderly lady who took the seat next to me about a half hour into the flight from Paris to Mumbai. She moved to Manhattan 20 years ago and was paying a surprise visit to her sister in India. She taught me my first Hindi word other than lines from The Secret Garden: "New York is a friendly city. It's
bhel: B-H-E-L. That means mixed. There are people from all backgrounds." Once at Sahar Airport, I changed some money and found the city connection bus, which, apparently, leaves whenever it gets full enough, with a schedule that bears little resemblance to the one posted at the
airport - had it followed the schedule, I'd have had a three-hour wait for the next one. On the hour-long drive to Mumbai I made a couple of observations about Indian driving habits: headlights are not considered necessary and the horn should be honked once every couple of seconds. I also discovered that hateful contraption called the auto-rickshaw, a three-wheeled, diesel-powered, foul-smelling (and foul-sounding) canvas-topped open taxi.
6 Aug-9 Aug
Colaba; Gateway of India; St John's Church; Prince of Wales Museum;
Jimmy; Elephanta Caves; Malabar Hill; Jain Temple; Walkeshwar Temple;
Hanging Gardens; Suklaji Street; a nicer street; Victoria Gardens; dhobi
If you get off the bus at Wellingdon Circle (the north end of the Colaba district) and open a guidebook, very soon someone will offer to take you to a hotel. That happened to me within all of a few seconds. He was about fifteen and recommended the Sea Shore Hotel; as we made our way down Colaba's main thoroughfare it seemed as if most of Mumbai lived outside: whole families were sleeping in doorways or on the sidewalk, and large numbers of people were still awake even though there was little to do at 0:30. Some had the luxury of a cloth mat or a raised stone railing. Finding your way around Colaba is not difficult, and I had already picked a hotel, but my tout insisted on showing me the Sea Shore and a few others along the way, meanwhile pointing out that I shouldn't stay at the one I wanted to (the Kishan) because it was a drug haven and the police would come and arrest people in the middle of the night. Still, I made him take me there (it did look rather drab) and to Bentley's Hotel, another place I had been considering. Bentley's looked better but there were only expensive doubles available, so eventually we ended up at the Sea Shore anyway - quite a misnomer unless "sea" signifies dirty, wet bathrooms. Here too, only doubles were available, and mine, for INR 400, had two simple beds with pillows and sheets but no blankets - the heat made none necessary. The room was cooled by a spinning ceiling fan that looked as if it might fall at any moment. I gave the tout INR 10 for his
I decided the Gateway of India might be a good place to start sightseeing, so early the next morning I made my way there along trash-cluttered streets amidst the incessant sound of car horns. Once I made it to the Gateway of India, it was a pleasant place to sit for a few minutes and enjoy the water, but first I had to convince a tout that I really didn't want to take his car tour of Mumbai: I had already figured out my itinerary.
"But you don't know the city. You must take tour."
"I have a guidebook. I don't need a tour."
"You can't learn about the city unless you take a tour. I give you very good tour. Three hours. The baths. Flora Fountain. Hanging
"I don't want to go there yet."
"Jain Temple. Today there is festival. You can see everyone
"I'm going there in a couple of days."
"But then there won't be festival. You have to go there this morning. In the afternoon they won't be
And so it went on for about ten minutes. Finally I extricated myself with the expectation that "maybe I come back tomorrow." I sat at the Gateway of India for a few minutes and then left, hustling to avoid another tout trying to insist that I take his
I walked down the Colaba Causeway. At one point I took a detour and passed through a street market where fish and fruit were sold - when the flies did not consume them first. This street led to a smaller lane that passed by a field in which children played, the youngest of them naked, and where dogs, goats, and chickens ran free - those that were not for sale. After I returned to the Colaba Causeway I walked until it ended near St John's Church. A man showed me into the church, built in 1857 as a memorial to those who fought in the Afghan War. Plaques crammed the walls and
Heading north I took a different street to end up on Marine Drive, a more upscale area. I stopped at Churchgate Station to buy my train ticket for Delhi, where I would go two days later. I had heard about interminable queues, but thanks to the foreigners' quota I was in and out in ten minutes, though I wouldn't have minded staying longer to take advantage of the air conditioning. I decided that for my first train ride I'd splurge for the two-tier air-conditioned Rajdhani Express, INR 1780 including meals. My ticket labeled me number five on the waiting list, but the reservation agent told me there would be no problem as long as I arrived an hour early for the train. For lunch I went to the nearby Rongoli restaurant, which had a great lunch buffet for INR 275: lots of vegetarian dishes, a few meat dishes, a couple of fish dishes, soup, and desserts. This was my first Indian meal, and with the exception of one red vegetable that I thought was a cherry but that gave me quite a surprise, none of the food was as spicy as I thought it would be (I'm quite fond of spicy food, but I didn't have time to visit southern India, where the food is spicier). After lunch I booked a room at the Bentley Hotel (INR 460) on Marine Drive (not the same as Bentley's in Colaba) and then visited the Prince of Wales Museum, which has an interesting collection of Buddhist sculpture, painting, and terracotta, and a natural history exhibit of local wildlife.
Passing by Horniman Circle, I walked through the fort area to the Flora Fountain, where I met Jimmy, an Indian accountant who has no official address but who has taken up residence at the YMCA. He is very fond of American horror films, and after we talked for a while he took me to dinner (vegetable samosas only, as I was not very hungry) and then we walked along Marine Drive and talked some more. Back at the Bentley I met two travelers from Mauritius, one of whom was lamenting that the hotel forbade visitors (many do) and that therefore he had to wait outside for his girlfriend and her family.
Early the next morning I visited St Thomas's Cathedral, which pays tribute to veterans of the British East India Company. Then I made my way back to the Gateway of India, trying to avoid the touts, to reserve a ticket for the Elephanta Caves tour. Curiously, the same boat, which left at 10:05, took passengers for both the 9:30 and the 10:00 tours. The 55-minute boat ride was well worth it; the Elephanta island has some fascinating caves containing Buddhas sculpted between 450 and 750. It was also on Elephanta that I had my first association with the wild monkeys that inhabit much of the subcontinent. They are quite cute, aggressive, and self-confident. On the return boat I met Steve from Sydney, Kamal from South Africa, and two travelers from Birmingham; all of us except Steve then tried to have lunch at the Ideal Corner (a Parsi restaurant that Jimmy had recommended to me), but as the restaurant proved to be nearly devoid of food, we went to the Fountain Restaurant, where I had a good chicken biryani and vanilla shake for INR 95.
I spent the afternoon walking along Marine Drive for a few kilometers to Chowpatty Beach, where I had a mango ice and tried to avoid touts offering me massages. Then I walked further north to the prestigious Malabar Hill area, where I visited the Jain Temple (quite colorful) and the Walkeshwar Temple (a Hindu temple where I witnessed music and dancing in celebration of a festival). Then I saw the Hanging Gardens, a park in which some of the shrubbery is pruned to the shapes of animals. The effect as I looked around was magnificent - a few bushes, then a horse, then a few more bushes, then a giraffe, and so on. Then I found a room at the Hotel Orient (INR 260) and had dinner (INR 69) at some Punjabi place whose name I never found out. This brought me near what should have been Falkland Street, notorious for prostitution, but I saw no sign of Falkland Street - not that I wanted any prostitution, but it's sort of interesting to walk around those areas. I did see evidence of "The Cages," the name given to the barred buildings where people work in jail-like conditions. After a splendid gulab jamun and lassi dessert (INR 32) I wandered around some more, stumbling unexpectedly onto brothel-lined Suklaji Street, where a brightly-lit sign over each entrance displayed the words 'Wel Come" (this is almost always two words on the subcontinent) and the number of the brothel. A tout offered me "nice Chinese girl," but I firmly denied any interest. In search of a better side of Indian culture, I walked down a narrow lane and came upon a street celebration with families singing and dancing to complex rhythms. They were very kind and let me sit down; I watched for an hour or so. Those taking part in the celebration lived in the apartment buildings lining the lane; across the street was a row of cages about a meter high. In one were three women who had no room to stand but watched the merriment from
The next morning, after a call home, I went to the Victoria Gardens, a museum and zoo in the northeastern part of Mumbai. I started with the zoo, and I barely had time to see some birds, some tigers, and a few cramped elephants before a group of kids found me. Suddenly I was their hero, dragged (willingly) into their circle. These were well-off kids, quite friendly, about ten to twelve years old, the boys dressed in uniform, the girls in white dresses. They started asking all sorts of questions: where do I live, what is my name, am I married, do I have a girlfriend, would I like to join them for a snack (I politely declined), and so on. I gave them a couple of business cards and a dollar bill. They followed me into the museum, which featured terracotta figures and other art depicting Hindu life of centuries ago (one boy asked, grinning, if I thought a certain terracotta female was sexy). Shortly after the kids left, I finished exploring the museum, and then walked to the bridge that overlooks the dhobi ghat, where most of the city's laundry is done. It was truly a magnificent sight - hundreds of vats of water, each rented by a dhobi-wallah whose job is to beat the dirt out of whatever clothes he is to wash. And they do beat the clothing, quite vigorously, holding each article high in the air and letting it come down hard against the sides of the vats. Above the roofs of the buildings were clotheslines: one for pinks, one for blues, one for whites, and so on. And somehow all the clothes get back to their owners by day's end. One beggar smiled and tried to gesture to the various sections of the ghats, as if to explain what was going on. She then took me down from the bridge and tried to admit me into the ghats to watch, but the dhobi-wallahs refused to let us in unless I paid INR 100. Instead I gave the beggar INR 20 for her troubles. I then walked through a Muslim area, passing a mosque and several restaurants, until I decided to lunch at a local "masses" restaurant, where I had mutton masala, roti, and a Limca (lemon soda) for INR 21. No utensils here - I just followed everyone else and used my bread to scoop up everything. Then I went back to the same dessert place as the previous night for vegetable samosas, a lassi, gulab jamun, and another Limca before heading to Mumbai Central to catch the train to Delhi.
9 Aug-10 Aug
Train: Rajdhani Express #2951, Mumbai Central to New Delhi
(16:55; 17h 5m; INR 1780)
I was more than an hour early for the train, so I spent some time talking to an Indian man who spoke very broken English but was very friendly and wanted no money from me. I also bought some water and a box of cookies in case the train food proved insufficient. Eventually the reservation list was posted at the train platform, and it was very reassuring to find that my name had worked its way through the reservation system and onto the list and that I had been assigned a bottom berth. Once I was on the train another passenger asked me to switch berths with him so that his family could stay together, so I moved to a bottom berth across the aisle, and as there was no one seated across from me I had quite a bit of room. The train left exactly on time, and at approximately 20-minute intervals everyone was brought a bottle of water, a towel, a samosa-like snack, a pillow, a blanket, sheets, and Indian sweet tea, all to the accompaniment of Indian music and inaudible announcements. Then came dinner: tomato soup, chicken masala (complete with rice, vegetables, and chapatis), and ice cream. Sleep came very easily.
We all awoke to the monotonous chant of good morning chai as the staff handed out our morning tea, bananas, and hand-held omelets (that was the non-veg meal, though there were no signs of meat). We arrived in Delhi only five minutes late.
10 Aug-13 Aug
Paharganj; Connaught Place; Indian Museum; Rajpath; Jama Masjid; Red Fort; Raj Ghat; Feroz Shah Kotla; Connaught Place (again); attempts to ward off vendors; Tibet House; Lodi Gardens; Gandhi Smriti; Indira Gandhi Memorial; Rail Transport Museum; Dum Phukt...
The New Delhi station is across the street from the Paharganj, a crowded bazaar lined with hotels, restaurants, shops, and travel agencies. It is a fast-paced, exciting area, and it would be much more pleasant without the annoyingly aggressive touts who simply don't believe you when you tell them you're not interested in staying in their hotels, riding in their rickshaws, or letting them book you onto tours to Kashmir. As I was in no particular hurry, I let one drag me into a travel agency.
"Now I know you've heard that Kashmir is a dangerous place, but let me show you some
"I'm really not interested."
"You can enjoy all the beautiful sights of Kashmir, staying on the lake, in a houseboat, swimming,
"I don't like water-skiing."
"Let me give you my card. Where you from?"
"Ah. America. (New York is always synonymous with America on the subcontinent.) Where you
"Ah. Very good rating in the Lonely Planet. (Yes. That's why I wanted to stay there, though I ended up elsewhere.) Good hotel, but the guy who runs it - don't take his tours. You see these pictures? Very happy
"Look at what they write. Very good reviews. Now let me arrange a tour for you. You can enjoy the beautiful scenery, water-skiing - "
"I told you. I don't water-ski."
"But it is beautiful."
"Yes. But I'm really not interested."
"You'll think about it and come back. Sure.
After a similar conversation at another agency (do they ever realize they're wasting their
time, or do people actually arrive in Delhi with no plans and think, Maybe someone will offer me a tour to
Kashmir"?) I walked south to Connaught Place, constantly dodging the auto-rickshaw drivers' shouts of Where you going? It was in Delhi and Agra that the rickshaw drivers were most exasperating. I tried to think up clever, noncommittal answers to give them, as it was none of their business where I was going. The ones I used most often were South (or whichever direction I was headed) or simply There (gesturing forward). On the way south from New Delhi station the atmosphere quickly changed from the crowded, noisy, narrow bazaars of north (Old) Delhi to the wide, tree-lined avenues and traffic circles of south (New) Delhi. The south is inhabited mainly by ambassadors and other important rich people, the north by the common folk.
Connaught Place is a vast, busy set of concentric circles that has much to offer once you get to know it. That took me three visits; on this first visit I was quickly led astray (is it that because I live in the grid comforts of Manhattan, I can't find my way around circles?) and found the circled avenues almost impossible to cross, though the park in the exact center of Connaught Place was quite pleasant.
I also discovered that the distances between interesting sights are far greater in Delhi than in Mumbai, but eventually I made it to the Indian Museum, which was open despite being under renovation in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Indian independence. Admission was free because it was Sunday, and I spent three and a half hours looking at sculptures (mostly of gods), textiles, musical instruments, artifacts, coins, and a special jewelry exhibit.
The Rajpath (the river-lined avenue leading to the government buildings) was closed in preparation for Independence Day, but I made my way around it to walk up the hill to the magnificent Secretariat buildings and the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the President's residence. Walking back up toward the Paharganj, I stopped by Jantar Mantar, a collection of bizarre-looking structures including a sundial and other scientific devices. Many children were playing on them; I stopped to let three Indian boys examine my guide book, and then proceeded north again - or what I thought was north. It turned out to be west, and I got horribly lost. This gave me my first experience with a city bus; all the signs were in Hindi but another man taking the bus to New Delhi station let me accompany him. Bus tactics in India would be quite illegal in the US: a bus stop in India is simply where the buses slow down almost enough to let people get a running jump to board them as they pull away. As the bus approaches a stop someone yells its destination out the window, and to signal that you want the bus to slow down (so you can jump off) you just stick your hand out the window and bang the side of the bus. A cheap ride, though - two rupees for the ten-minute ride to the train station.
A block north of Paharganj I booked a room at the Hotel Sidhu Palace for INR 150. The hotel was far from glamorous, but it was adequate and overlooked a square where people were selling fruit and pottery. Then I walked around Old Delhi for a while before having dinner, for reasons of namesake purely, at the Sethi Restaurant. I walked around some more and stopped in a hotel restaurant for a lassi before retiring for the night.
In the morning I concentrated on Muslim Old Delhi, walking along several lanes jammed with people selling fruit, and stopping to sample the excellent, cheap fruit juice sold in stalls. I arrived at the great mosque, the Jama Masjid, and climbed the 121 steps to the top of the southern minaret. From there was a great view of the Red Fort and the different colors of the tops of buildings; seldom are two adjacent buildings in Delhi the same color or the same height. A few Indians were snacking and talking on the minaret - did they live there? I descended and let a man lead me around the mosque and tell me some of its history. Then I visited the Red Fort's impressive buildings and archaeology museum.
Leaving the fort I walked west along the wide, crowded Chandni Chowk - a main bazaar of Old Delhi. At the Needo Restaurant I had alu nan, panir korma, and Limca for INR 66, and then walked, accompanied by shouts of Where you
going?" until I reached the Raj Ghat, where a flame marks the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. The Raj Ghat is also a public park, and I took a half-hour nap. I then visited the nearby Feroz Shah Kotla, the ruins of the old city of Ferozabad. Components of the city can still be discerned: a giant bath whose water supply was connected to the Yamuna River, a mosque, a prison, and the special places of prayer used by women.
I decided to give Connaught Place another chance, discovering the suburban train station Shivaji Bridge on the way. (Suburban trains follow similar rules as buses. They do stop at stations, but that doesn't stop people from exiting and entering while the trains are moving.) I arrived at Connaught Place and had barely sat for a few minutes when I was approached with offers of a massage, an ear cleaning, and a shoe cleaning.
"Do you want your shoes cleaned?"
"Very good shoe cleaning."
"I really don't want it."
"It's very cheap."
"It doesn't matter. I'm not interested."
"Let me show you. He took out a toothbrush and began to polish my
shoe. Admittedly, it did get cleaner, but I wasn't interested.
"Please. I don't want it."
"But your shoes are very dirty."
I discovered that humor was the best way to convince these people. I know. I like my shoes
"You like them dirty?"
"Yes. There's nothing I like more than a dirty shoe."
"I can make them dirtier if you like."
"No, thanks. I like them exactly as dirty as they are."
"Oh. Okay. We both laughed, and he was off.
I had dinner at the Embassy restaurant, where for INR 300 I had a vegetable samosa, mutton jalfrezi, nan, rice, a lassi, and a Kingfisher - very refreshing as it was about 35 degrees Celsius and quite humid outside. The choice of jalfrezi was inspired from the lamb jalfrezi I once had at the Red Fort restaurant in London - that was by far the spiciest food I've ever eaten. But mutton jalfrezi in Delhi was quite mild.
Sick of the walk between Paharganj and Connaught Place, I took one of the hateful auto-rickshaws to the Red Fort to see the nightly sound and light show. I was certain we had agreed on three rupees for the ride (though admittedly that seemed suspiciously low) and sure enough, when we arrived he demanded 30 rupees. I eventually bargained him down to 20. A cycle-rickshaw driver saw me pause in front of the Red Fort, and he told me there was no sound and light show because they had been suspended until after Independence Day. I asked a police officer to verify this, and sure enough the next one would not be until the 16th. Naturally the rickshaw driver assumed I would therefore want a ride somewhere. Humor prevailed here too.
"I don't need a ride."
"Where are you staying?"
"I'm staying here."
"Yes. I'm going to sleep right here on the street until the 16th. I'm not going to move. Then I can see the sound and light
The policeman and rickshaw driver grinned. I walked around Old Delhi for a while and spent the night at the Hotel New City Palace, directly across from the Jama Masjid.
The call to prayer resonating from the minaret woke me at 4:25, and a buzzer in the hotel woke me again shortly thereafter, and I gave up trying to sleep when a low-flying plane sounded as if it were actually in the hotel. That day I would explore Delhi further to the south, and I took a taxi (very unlike me) rather than try to figure out the bus system. I made my way to New Delhi station, determined to find a taxi driver who would use the meter. It took (only) three tries, but sure enough, the ride to the Tibet House ended up being cheaper on the meter (INR 75) than what the first two drivers had quoted me (INR 100). The Tibet House had some fascinating sculptures and paintings the Dalai Lama brought out of Tibet.
I then walked west and entered through the southern entrance of the Lodi Gardens, a huge park containing tombs of 15th- and 16th-century rulers. It was unbearably hot and I was grateful when a boy came around selling Limcas; even though he was charging the exorbitant price of INR 20 it was worth it. Confusion arose when I discovered he wanted the bottle back - I wasn't prepared to guzzle the drink down and he wasn't prepared to leave me alone until I gave him the bottle, but he eventually tired of following me and I exited the park to the north. Nearby I visited two museums devoted to different Gandhis - the Gandhi Smriti, which contains photographs and scenes from the life of Mahatma Gandhi, and the Indira Gandhi Memorial, which contains photographs, prizes, and possessions from the lives of the Gandhi family, and which marks the spot where she was assassinated.
As a train enthusiast, I couldn't skip the Rail Transport Museum, a manageable but significant hike from the Gandhi museums. The rail museum had a huge collection of trains of all types and gauges, as well as interesting exhibits related to train travel. The trains are kept outside and it was very refreshing when the rain came, though it stopped quickly, leaving an irritating collection of mosquitoes in the train yard. I walked back up through Nehru Park to where I wanted to have dinner, the posh Basil & Thyme restaurant in the posh Santushti shopping center in the posh Chanakyapuri district. Unfortunately the shopping center - and hence the restaurant - both had closed at 18:00. Checking my guide book I discovered I was also near the Sheraton hotel, and while I seldom sample hotel restaurants (they are usually expensive and not very authentic), one at the Sheraton seemed particularly interesting: the Dum Phukt, where food is steamed in a pastry cap in the 300-year-old tradition of the nawabs of what is now Lucknow.
By the time I got to the Sheraton, I was quite tired, and if I hadn't been booked on a train to Agra the following morning at 6:15 I might well have booked a room for the night despite the expense. I sat in the lobby, browsing my guide book for a while, until a woman asked if she could sit on the next sofa over. She asked in Russian, and I answered Of course in Russian, and it turned out she was from Boston. We spoke for a while and then she and her companion left, and I watched Indian children in the lobby sing and dance to, among other things, We Shall Overcome in Hindi. Then I went downstairs to Dum Phukt, where I had a magnificent meal beginning with a sweet summer almond drink and continuing with superb giant stuffed prawns steamed in pomegranate juice. For dessert I tried the special small gulab jamuns in sweet cheese sauce. At INR 1609 it was by far my most expensive meal of the trip - and more expensive than all my previous meals in India combined - , but well worth it.
My feet were not about to let me walk the hour or so back to New Delhi station, so I took an auto-rickshaw for INR 80. I upped my hotel standards for the night slightly, staying at the Raja, one of several mid-range hotels on a street a couple of blocks north of Paharganj. It was still pretty cheap - INR 435 - and conveniently only a few minutes from the station. I couldn't tell whether the bed was clean, but the rest of the room was quite clean, and besides, I was too tired to care.
Train: Shatabdi Express #2002, New Delhi to Agra Cantonment
(6:15; 2h 5m; INR 305)
On the Shatabdi Express to Agra we were served a similar breakfast as on the Rajdhani.
13 Aug-14 Aug
Caught cashless; Itimad-ud-daulah; Taj Mahal; Lucky Restaurant...
On arrival in Agra my first priority was to get through the parking lot and away from the rickshaw drivers. They are particularly fierce in Agra, and everyone naturally assumed I wanted a ride to the Taj Mahal - the Agra Cantonment station is quite a distance from anything useful. My weakness lay in the fact that I had little cash and therefore had to change money before I went anywhere. I walked through a peaceful but bustling residential area, but found no bank. I had to give in and take a cycle-rickshaw, but I made it quite clear to the driver that I needed to change money first. He took me to a small shop where I changed $100, and I was pleasantly surprised when I only had to tell the shopkeeper once that I wasn't interested in buying anything. Then the driver took me to the Agra Fort, and he insisted that he would wait for me until I came out. I told him it wasn't necessary as I would be walking to my next destination, but he waited anyway. The Agra Fort is at least as impressive as the Red Fort - the buildings and towers and their decorations are very well preserved, and the views of the Taj are splendid. When I exited, my rickshaw driver was there, and as I walked north to the Kinari Bazaar (a crowded market area with different markets specializing in different things) he accompanied me most of the way, begging me to ride his
That put me near the Itimad-ud-daulah, the beautiful tomb of Mirza Ghiyas Beg, built in the 1620s. It contains the same kind of fine marble patterns as the Taj, though its nickname as the "mini Taj" is a bit of an overstatement. In front of the Itimad-ud-daulah was a row of vendors selling sodas; before entering the tomb I stopped for a soda at one vendor's cart, to his delight and the others" dismay. I also gave a couple of rupees to a very sickly beggar child. After visiting the tomb I took a very painful cycle-rickshaw ride to the Taj area; my driver was elderly and seemed about to collapse at any moment, but he made it through the half-hour trip - I guess better he should be earning a living than not. Near where he left me off there was a cafe, where I enjoyed a vegetable thali, ice cream, and Limca for INR
The beauty of the Taj can scarcely be described in words. It is almost perfectly symmetrical - so much so that an extra building was constructed on one side for no other purpose than to mirror the mosque on the other side -, and it is composed entirely of different kinds of marble intricately and finely patterned together. Built between 1631 and 1653, the Taj is a memorial to Emperor Shah Jahan's wife and contains both of their tombs. People entering the Taj throw flowers on the tombs to ensure good luck. I spent quite a bit of time inside, trying to absorb its magnificence, and being completely awed the entire time. Back outside, I went into the museum at one end of the Taj gardens and tried to see the weapons and celadon plates contained inside, but the visit was pointless as a power outage had rendered the whole place dark. So I sat in the gardens near the entrance for a couple of hours, waiting for the inevitable splash of monsoon rain to cool off the 45-degree heat, and noticing how the Taj's reflection of the sunlight changed throughout the
Once I exited the Taj I fought my way through touts offering cheap hotels, small trinkets, and postcards - actually I really was looking for postcards, but none I saw were decent. Eventually I ended up at the Sidhartha Hotel, a place with very friendly management (when I checked in I was greeted with "Hey, man, how are ya" and the conversation segued instantly into a discussion of American slang) and, when the power was on, my first air-conditioned room of the trip, all for INR 175. It was a shame that later that night I broke the bathroom light taking a shower - I tried to use the overhead shower (seldom used in India) and as most of the water pores had been clogged, the water splattered all over the place, making enough contact with the bare light bulb to shatter it. The hotel also had a pleasant courtyard, where food is served - I wasn't ready for dinner yet but I stopped there for a bottle of water and a special (mixed fruit) lassi, the latter of which must have been forgotten unless it is so special that they are still preparing it. It was also possible to go up to the roof of the hotel for somewhat obstructed views of the Taj and very clear views of the friendly family who ran a laundry business below - I had my laundry done there that night. The restaurants in the area are also very friendly, though far from glamorous. I tried my luck at the Lucky Restaurant, where I had delicious - albeit very thick - banana lassis and a Kashmiri biryani, which consists mostly of cooked fruits and rice. One of the owners and I had a long chat, and eventually I conversed with another patron (one of the few Indian patrons) about 20 years old; we agreed to meet there the following day.
Train: #8, Agra Fort to Fatehpur Sikri
(8:10; 1h 53m late; 1h 16m; INR 7)
In the morning I collected my laundry, which had been superbly done for INR 100, and took an auto-rickshaw to the Agra Fort train station, much more conveniently located than Cantonment. I bought a ticket to Fatehpur Sikri (the ghost fort town) but, as the train was going to leave at least an hour later than scheduled, I talked for a while with a few Indians who took me to a shop on Kinari Bazaar, where I had a soda and endured the process of being shown the shopkeeper's jewelry for sale - admittedly beautiful, but nothing I was interested in. I headed back to the train station, where the local to Fatehpur Sikri left at 10:03 instead of the scheduled 8:10. I can't say I hadn't been warned: the guide book says that local trains are "often subject to interminable delays," and everyone in Agra agreed that I should take the bus instead of the train if I wanted to see Fatehpur Sikri. But I am a train enthusiast, and besides, Agra Fort station is a lot more convenient than the Igdah bus terminal. On the train sitting across from me was a boy of about 11 who spoke very little English, but he was quite friendly (we were able to communicate our destinations, at least) and very independent. (Indian children seem much more independent than their American counterparts. They seem very able to fend for themselves, whereas American children are relatively overprotected, as I later remarked to an Australian traveler in Darjeeling. He agreed.) On the train were quite a few sleeping Indians, and a few who were breakfasting, which resulted in an accumulation of trash on the floor by the time I left the train. I eventually fell asleep, until the boy woke me to gesture that I should present my ticket to the conductor. The trip took us through generally flat land, and the giant hill and fort of Fatehpur Sikri were quite impressive when they suddenly appeared.
Imam, a registered tour guide from the Goverdhan Tourist Complex between the train station and the fort, offered to show me around, and we proceeded up the hill. It was a good place to have a guide, since there is not much information available at the site. The town is really two parts that were built separately: Fatehpur, the mosque and fort built by Emperor Akbar, and Sikri, the civilian city. Imam showed me around the former. The mosque is beautiful, especially its 54-meter archway entrance, which bears inscriptions from the Koran. The courtyard of the mosque contains the gorgeous pure marble tomb of Shaikh Salim Chishti. A problem with the water supply is allegedly what caused Fatehpur Sikri to be abandoned in 1585, just 15 years after its creation. Imam left after the Fatehpur tour and invited me to his guest house for lunch after I took the Sikri tour. My Sikri guide was very knowledgeable; he had been giving Sikri tours for over 30 years. Sikri contained quite a few buildings showing Akbar's sense of humor: among the usual Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audiences) and Diwan-i-Khas (Hall of Public Audiences) found in forts, the city contains the Panch Mahal (a five-story palace supported by many columns), the Ankh Micholi (a building whose name means "hide and seek' - supposedly Akbar played this game with court ladies; the building also contains stone monsters), and the Pachisi Courtyard (where Akbar played games of pachisi, using slave girls for pieces). Another testament to Akbar's unique style was the justice system: an elephant, by crushing an accused person or by letting him free, would decide whether he was to be punished.
Bus: Fatehpur Sikri to Agra Igdah
At the Goverdhan I had a tasty, though bizarre, special masala stew containing solid edible objects that I can best describe as falafel. I opted for the more reliable bus back to Agra, a very bumpy 65-minute ride.
Warding off rickshaw-wallahs; my abysmal chess playing; a beautiful attempt at a scam...
It was a few kilometers from the Igdah terminal to the Lucky Restaurant (where I would meet my friend from the previous night), but I had plenty of time, so I decided to walk. Never did I see more aggressive rickshaw drivers than on this walk - I had barely left the terminal when they were all around me, and the only practical way to rid myself of them was to yell, Can you all just get away from me? It worked. I had another problem with a driver who followed me for about 10 minutes during my walk. Humor didn't work here: he offered me a trip anywhere I wanted to go, for 10 rupees, to which I answered, Calcutta. He agreed to take me there, but more likely he didn't understand - and besides, I already had my train ticket which was going to ensure a much more comfortable ride. Another driver offered me a ride for free. How hopeless the situation.
Eventually I made it to the Lucky Restaurant, where I had a banana lassi on the roof as I waited for my friend. He showed up 45 minutes late, having overslept, and had a place where he suggested we play chess. I agreed, not knowing that the mode of transport would be his motorcycle. I had never been on one before, and I didn't have any particular desire to ride one, but the ride was smooth and we arrived safely. The place where we played was a travel agency (closed that day), and somehow beers were obtained from nearby. I lost the chess game miserably, after which he left, leaving me alone with a man who had entered during the game.
This man directed the conversation into the most beautiful attempt at a scam I'd ever seen. We began by talking about how much we both liked traveling, and he told me of places he'd been - mainly in the Middle East. And he had made friends from all over the world - friends who'd come into his jewelry shop and bought things for him. And some of those friends had agreed to be air couriers (this does not mean the same thing as in the US) who volunteered to help him evade import taxes. These taxes, he said, were equal to the value of the merchandise to be sold. But these friends used their tourist quotas to import merchandise to themselves without tax - merchandise that would later be bought by dealers in their respective countries. For this the air couriers would receive 60 percent of the sale value of the merchandise and send the rest back to him. Would I like to be an air courier?
Entirely suspicious, but with nothing else to do before my train, I followed him into his shop. Here he explained the whole procedure to me. He would give me a bunch of jewelry, which I would take to a post office and send to myself in the US. Then, when I got home, I would fax him to let him know the jewelry had arrived, and he would give me the name of a dealer in New York. The dealer and I would arrange a meeting, where I would give him the goods and he would give me $1200. Of this I would keep $840 and send the rest back to the man in Agra. The man showed me faxes of other travelers who had agreed to this procedure. There was no way I could lose. And all I would have to do is give him a credit card number to guarantee that I wouldn't keep the goods for myself.
Suspicion justified. He showed me a document (riddled with typographical errors) that he wanted me to sign, indicating that he would charge my credit card for the goods but that the money wouldn't be transferred until I authorized it once the goods arrived in the US safely. This, of course, is utter nonsense - once a card is charged the card company is obliged to pay it; there are no such documents that are legal. And who is this dealer anyway? And had my friend from the day before been merely the beginning of the whole setup? Whatever the case, it was a sort of fun spiel to listen to for 45 minutes. I left the store and made my way to Cantonment station, ignoring offers of rides.
Train: Shatabdi Express #2001, Agra Cantonment to New Delhi
(20:18; 2h 5m; INR 305)
On the train we were served a dinner of peas panir, dhal, and ice cream.
14 Aug-15 Aug
Celebrating independence; the worst night of the trip; Gujral's speech; Connaught Place (yet again)...
It was the evening before Independence Day, and celebrations were already underway in Delhi. I walked around Old Delhi for a couple of hours and several kilometers, stopping in one place where a large crowd was sitting in the street and watching a performer sing celebratory songs. Sometimes someone would get up from the crowd and give the performer a donation. Throughout the city people were flying kites and setting off fireworks. My final stop was at the Red Fort, where people were watching the crews prepare for Prime Minister Gujral's speech the following morning. I had done quite a bit of walking that day, and my feet were adamantly against the prospect of going any further, but eventually I had to go find a hotel for the night - it was already midnight. I had liked the Hotel New City Palace, despite the noise, and so I headed off in what I thought was that direction. Somewhere I took a wrong turn and the trek took much longer than it should have - a fate with which my feet were distinctly not happy. Eventually I saw the imposing entrance of the Jama Masjid, so I knew I was near.
One cycle-rickshaw driver told me where I could find a cheap hotel, but I declined: I knew where I wanted to spend the night. I walked up the stairs to the New City Palace, and was horrified to find the entrance locked! I pounded on the door and a sleepy staff member opened it. I asked for a room. There were none available. Dejected, I descended the staircase. Again the rickshaw driver asked if I wanted a ride to a hotel. I declined and tried another hotel nearby. Also locked, and also full! I tried all the hotels on the block, and the rickshaw driver watched me go into each one and be turned away. What could I do? Eventually I let him take me somewhere, knowing it would cost a fortune. He pedaled me around for about twenty minutes. As we drove over the bridge near New Delhi station, I had an eerie view of the city that had turned me away, and for a moment I almost wished I were back in my small, comfortable apartment in Hell's Kitchen, watching a midnight rerun of Murphy Brown, eating spaghetti with sausage, and drinking raspberry lemonade. It was the worst night of the
We arrived at one hotel. The driver had shown me this hotel's card, which indicated rooms for INR 250. I was offered one for INR 750 and politely declined. The driver took me to another hotel a few doors down, the Hotel Step In International. A room was available here for INR 345, and I took it. I offered the driver INR 50, usually a hefty sum for a cycle-rickshaw ride. He grinned. "No, no, no. A hundred rupees." He
Admittedly, it was a nice hotel, with comfortable bedding and a television, which enabled me to watch the end of the Prime Minister's speech from the Red Fort in the morning. I had considered going in person, but I woke up too late to do that, and my feet were decidedly against the idea. It was probably better to see on television, anyway, as an English translation was given throughout. He talked about education for women, improving the economy, and ridding the government of corruption, among other subjects. When I felt I could move again, I walked to the Paharganj, stopping twice for delicious fresh fruit juice and sampling some of the wonderful sweets sold all over India. At one communications center on Paharganj e-mail is advertised, and for INR 150 for a half hour I was allowed to borrow the owner's Internet connection, or the owner's friend's, or the owner's brother's, or whoever owned the computer and the bedroom where I sat frustrated with a slow 9600-baud connection that failed and had to be restarted once during the session. Fortunately I had prepared my group message in my hotel room that morning, so I didn't need to spend expensive time thinking!
Before my train to Calcutta that afternoon, I gave Connaught Place one more chance, and finally was able to come to terms with it. I had lunch at The Host, an excellent Chinese-Indian restaurant that doesn't serve both cuisines at the same time. I had the special Chinese soup until they started serving Indian food, at which point I had a vegetable masala - all this, with the obligatory lassi and soft drinks, came to INR 261. Then I sat in the Connaught Place park for a little while and warded off offers of a massage, a shoe cleaning, and an ear cleaning. I walked back to New Delhi station and had a Limca (for the exclusive purpose of changing a INR 100 bill to prepare for the beggars in Calcutta) and waited for the train.
15 Aug-16 Aug
Train: Rajdhani Express #2306, New Delhi to Calcutta Howrah
(17:00; 19h 46m; INR 1145)
India has several trains called the Rajdhani Express, and there are even two trains called the Calcutta Rajdhani Express. Mine was the longer of the two; it took almost 20 hours via the northern route through Patna. I was seated next to a friendly man from Patna, and we were across from three Norwegian women. As we listened to the music played over the train's loudspeaker, the man explained the components of Indian music to me: tones are combined in series to form rags (not in the Joplin sense), and rags are based on different human moods and qualities of nature. The song we were listening to at that point was based on a two-note rag of a soothing quality, and the translation of the song's lyrics was approximately "If you are with me, we'll have all the benefits of the earth." He wrote the names of the tones down for me: saa, re, ga, ma, pa, da, and ni, similar to the standard Western solfege syllables featured in "Do-Re-Mi" - a song that was later played on the train! After we talked about music, he suggested playing tic-tac-toe, which I played much better than I had played chess the previous day - he hadn't figured how to always play to a tie or better. The game got boring quickly, so for a while we switched to hangman, including the Norwegian women and featuring phrases with Indian themes such as paan masala, punjabi, and Rajdhani Express. From time to time people came around on the train selling chips, drinks, and "soap paper" - very convenient stuff for people who didn't bring their own soap. They also brought around standard train dinners, which were included in the price of our tickets. The Norwegian women didn't partake of dinner, but they had some toffee, which they shared with the rest of us in the compartment - they were trying to get rid of it and the man from Patna took much of it to give to his little boy at home. Just before he left the train early the next morning, he wrote a note for the sleeping Norwegians: "T _ _ _ K _ _ U for the toffee" - a tribute to our hangman games. During the rest of the ride I browsed the Lonely Planet guide for an upscale hotel to stay at sometime during the next few days; I was getting tired of budget places and was ready for something more self-indulgent. The paragraph on Darjeeling's Windamere Hotel described it as a beautiful place consisting of detached cottages, where excellent meals were served, where a pianist played during dinner, and where the service was impeccable. Indeed it sounded like an event rather than simply a hotel.
16 Aug-18 Aug
A most demanding city; the subway system; Maidan; St Paul's Cathedral; Birla Planetarium; BBD Bagh; St John's Church; surrounded by beggars; Tagore House; Asutosh Museum...
When the Rajdhani Express pulls into Calcutta's Howrah station, the stench of trash and filth pervades the air, and the beggars storm the train as soon as the doors open. The relentlessness of the city begins here and never stops. It is a city that requires the utmost respect, a city with such a fast pace that if you stop in the wrong place you will be instantly surrounded by people demanding rupees. I left the station quickly and made my way to the horribly congested Howrah Bridge over the Hooghly River. It is the world's busiest bridge, and water of a purer brown I have never seen. Across the river, in Calcutta proper, I made my way through narrow lanes hopelessly crowded with people carrying goods on their heads and on rickshaws. The lanes were lined with small huts, built on top of each other, which double as dwelling places and stores. Nobody was buying anything except for food, but everyone was selling. Occasionally a motorcycle would pass through, and sometimes traffic came to a complete standstill as rickshaws got stuck passing each other. Finally I arrived at a main thoroughfare and entered the Mahatma Gandhi Road metro station - Calcutta is the home of India's only subway system. Indians have two important things to learn about subways: that it helps if trains run more than once every 20 minutes, and that it's impossible to exit a train before the doors open - I nearly slugged someone who tried to push me out of the train while the doors were still closed. But the trip was a cheap INR 2, and eventually a train came and took me, via Central station, to Park Street station - did somebody visit Boston before naming the
The Indian Museum contains a huge collection of artifacts recovered in archaeological expeditions - particularly stupas, stones, and fossils. There's also an interesting exhibit on animals native to the subcontinent and the rest of Asia. The museum might have been more enjoyable if more of the fans had been working; every hour or so I made my way to the courtyard to cool off with water splashed by the central fountain. The area just east of the museum is home to many hotels and many beggars; en route to the Deeba Guest House a beggar of about seven asked me for money, and then she asked me to buy milk for her sick baby sister. I gave her a few rupees but declined the latter invitation. One of the staff at the Deeba Guest House showed me a room for INR 150 but told me it wasn't ready yet, so while I waited I changed some money and browsed some of the poorly stocked bookshops in the area. I also came upon the same beggar girl again; she was with her mother, and once again she asked for a can of milk. I
I had been in the city for only a few hours, but for dinner I had to escape the squalor of it all. I decided to dine at the Amber Hotel Restaurant, reputedly one of the best in Calcutta. On the walk there I passed countless homeless who had anywhere from two to four limbs each. Some actively tried to sell objects; others simply sat behind bowls containing a few coins. I stopped to call my parents in Boston and to reserve a room at the Windamere; I was told I should fax my request to the hotel. I arrived at the restaurant and was told there were only tables available in the room without air conditioning; I decided to wait for an air-conditioned table. The meal was splendid - mutton Peshawari barra, masala kulchi, chocolate mousse, and beer for INR 275. The refuge ended as soon as I went outside: on the sidewalk was a man who had no legs. I walked by, then stopped and took out ten rupees for him. He grinned. I walked solemnly back to my hotel, and that night I dreamed about all the people in my life with whom I'd like to spend more time before it's all over. Calcutta does that to
But the next day I saw quite a different aspect of Calcutta. I walked to the Maidan, a vast park containing exclusive sports clubs, a stadium, and soccer fields. At the northern end of the park are the beautiful Eden Gardens, containing a small pond and pagoda. The Maidan also contains Fort William, a fort still in use and thus closed to the public. At the southern end of the Maidan is the Victoria Memorial, which contains a very informative exhibit describing the British influence in the development of Calcutta. It was the best museum I saw in India. The only restaurant nearby was the New Embassy Chinese restaurant, so I sampled the house special soup and Manchurian duck, and three Fantas - it was quite hot! - for INR 160. The meal was good, but so filling that I wasn't ready to eat again for a couple of days. Heading south, I faxed my reservation to the Windamere, and then visited the Kali Temple. I wasn't sure of the way exactly, and for INR 10 an elderly man offered to show me the way; for continued indulgences of INR 10 he gave me increasingly detailed directions to the temple. The name Calcutta is derived from the name Kali, the goddess of destruction, who is featured in the temple and to whom goats are slain every morning. The poor come here to throw flowers, make wishes, and eat the slaughtered goats. One guide showed me around the temple, and then another guide was asked to donate INR 1100, allegedly the cost of a bag of rice to feed the poor. He showed me a book signed by people who had donated various amounts up to that outrageous sum. He got INR
Heading back north, I visited St Paul's Cathedral, a memorial to soldiers lost in the Indian-British War, World War I, and World War II. Nearby was the Birla Planetarium, which looked interesting, but as the next English showing was a couple of hours away, I decided to visit the two extremes of the metro line: Dum Dum station and Tollygunj station. At Dum Dum, the north end, was a large market street where fruits, sweets, and other foods were sold. I didn't have time to explore Tollygunj, but during the 37-minute ride I became very familiar with the phrases "The next station is," "Platform is on the right-hand side," and "Doors are closing" in various languages, as announcements on the subway are made in Hindi, Bengali, and English. I also noticed that what is listed as Bhowanipor station on all subway maps is called Netaji Bhavan at the station itself. The planetarium was worth the price of admission solely for the air conditioning. The show was elementary, but informative (there was an interesting section on the Hindi zodiac), and could have been made more enjoyable if the staff had adhered to the sign outside saying that latecomers would not be admitted - flashlight beams bouncing across a dark planetarium are significantly distracting. On the way back to the hotel I bought a few
I had planned to stay in Calcutta for three days, but two proved to be enough for me, so the following morning I bought my overnight train ticket to New Jalpaiguri, the closest broad-gauge station to Darjeeling. In the morning I walked around BBD Bagh, a central square flanked by large imposing British buildings. Nearby was the small St John's Church, whose grounds contain, among others, the tomb of Job Charnock, the founder of Calcutta. Also nearby was a post office; I thought it might be a good place to buy stamps, but considering I had to wait in two queues just to find out how much postage I needed, I gave up. Outside a beggar approached me and I gave her ten rupees. I started to leave and there was another, and I gave her ten rupees also. And suddenly they were all around me, and I had to get away. I hurried north, barely escaping outstretched arms and cries of "Hello, sir!" What else could I
I continued north until I was near the Tagore House; I couldn't find the exact location, but a well-off man helped me without demanding compensation. The Tagore House contains an interesting collection of household items of the poet Tagore, who once lived there. The museum also contains exhibits related to Tagore's large family. Leaving the museum, I went south, stopping for sweets (I was still full from the Chinese food but figured I should eat something) on the way to the Asutosh Museum. The guide book lists it as being part of Calcutta University, which wasn't quite enough information for me to find it. And nobody else seemed to know where it was. It was described as being "that pink building over there" and "a ten-minute taxi ride away" - the man who gave me the latter suggestion was obviously confusing it with the Indian museum, as I knew I was quite close. It took a couple of hours to find the museum, but it was worth the effort: the place housed a superb collection of Bengali dolls, statues, terracotta, toys, and drawings, including one of an amusing cat that made me laugh aloud. One staff member and I started talking, and when he found out I was from New York he told me how much he wanted to go there, and he asked me to verify certain facts: "New York is very cosmopolitan. Is it true? JFK Airport is very busy. Is it true?" and so on. Heading to Sealdah station, the point of departure for the Darjeeling Mail, I stopped and made myself eat two vegetable samosas (I was still full from the Chinese meal!), and I bought some more sweets for later.
18 Aug-19 Aug
Train: Darjeeling Mail #3143, Calcutta Sealdah to New Jalpaiguri
(19:15; 13h 0m; INR 919)
On the train I again switched seats with someone, this time so his tour group could stay together, and because of the layout of the train, I ended up in a one-tier solo compartment. I was quite content with my 13 hours of solitude.
Train: Miniature railway, New Jalpaiguri to Kurseong
(8:38; 5h 28m; free)
I was hoping to arrive in New Jalpaiguri in time to catch the narrow-gauge railway to Darjeeling. According to my schedule there were trains at 7:15 and 9:00, but the Darjeeling Mail arrived in time for me to catch a train that left at 8:38. Was it the early train leaving very late or the late train leaving somewhat early? Whatever the case, it was a fascinating ride, and as far as I could tell it was free - no one ever asked me for a ticket, and I never found a place to buy one (someone at New Jalpaiguri simply pointed to the train and I got on; I never passed a booking office). The trip was slow but pleasant, and as we climbed up the mountain to Darjeeling the scent changed from the dirty odor of the city to the pleasant fragrance of growing mint. The train stopped frequently and for long breaks at passenger stations and to allow the crew to cool off the locomotive with water. The track roughly follows the road up the mountain, crossing it frequently (I think the figure is 177 unmanned crossings, according to the Delhi railway museum), and the locomotive lets out a loud whistle in order to warn passing traffic. The locomotive also lets out a continuous stream of black soot, enough to cover everyone sitting near the windows. From time to time the track is set up in a zigzag figure, so that the locomotive must push briefly from behind, allowing the train to make it up the steep grades. Most amusing are the signs along the road warning drivers not to speed: "Keep your nerve on a sharp curve," "If looking for survival don't believe in fast arrival," and the more morbid "It is better to be 15 minutes late in this world than to be 15 minutes earlier in the next." Due to landslides, the train only went as far as Kurseong, just over halfway up the mountain - the train took over five hours to go those 55 kilometers!
Bus: Kurseong to Darjeeling
(1h 30m; INR 20)
I joined a trio of students from various countries in finding the bus to take us the rest of the way, and I was seated at the rear of the bus, next to John from Australia, who had been on the bus since the bottom of the mountain. The first thing he said to me was, "You're from Boston?" He had heard me talking to my fellow train travelers and had first placed my accent as British, but when he heard me talk more he knew it was American with the slightly British hint peculiar to some Bostonians. I never thought of myself as having any distinctive accent, but he was right - until I moved to New York in 1996 I had lived in Boston. The next thing he said was, "This road would never pass in the states, would it?" Probably not - the bus zigzagged its way up the unsealed road, honking whenever it approached a curve and barely missing other vehicles (and animals) coming in the other direction. But still I felt quite safe, and I brought up my idea that Indian children seem much more independent than American children. John agreed. He was an art teacher from a farm in the Great Barrier Reef region, but had been living in Darjeeling for a couple of months and wanted to set up a school in the area to teach tourism. He was also planning to write a book, The Real India, to expose the true lifestyle of Indian natives, with an aim of reducing poverty and improving irrigation. He marveled at how self-supportive India is, considering its population. And he told me I wouldn't be disappointed by Darjeeling.
19 Aug-21 Aug
John; Observatory Hill; Happy Valley Tea Estate; Windamere Hotel; Chowrasta; chatting with the pianist; waking up in a cloud...
I wasn't. As we arrived at the bus stop near the top of the mountain I could tell Darjeeling was different, and further exploration confirmed that. It was clean and consistently friendly, without car and rickshaw problems--probably because few vehicles can make it up the steep hills of the city. John told all of us who had been on the train that he knew of a cheap place we could stay, and a few minutes (and many steep steps) later, we all ended up at the Pradhan Guest House, a friendly place run by Gurkhas where I was given a passable room for INR 60. John and I went for a snack at the New Dish restaurant, and then he walked me around Observatory Hill to introduce me to the city. It was absolutely gorgeous - by the time you reach the back of the hill you don't realize you're in a city, as the trees lining the mountain and the views of the Himalayas take over. We couldn't see the tops of the Himalayas because it was too late in the afternoon and the fog had already appeared (John said it does that every afternoon at 15:00, at least during the monsoon), but the clouds made the view equally spectacular: they were below us, in the valley. I had never experienced that phenomenon before. After our walk we shared banana fritters, a specialty of a restaurant John frequents. Back at the Pradhan we chatted for a while with the hotel management
Determined to set out early, I tried to leave the hotel at 7:30, but as the staff was not awake I couldn't get through the locked gate. Eventually, using some combination of buzzers and bells, I conveyed the idea that I wanted to leave. I walked through the steep hills of the botanical gardens, which contain beautiful flowers, orchids, and waterfalls. Then I walked to the Happy Valley Tea Estate, where a worker showed me how tea is made: after the leaves are picked, they are dried 50 percent, then rolled, cut, dried further, and sifted. The smallest flowers remain whole through the process, and they constitute the top quality tea in Darjeeling: First Flush Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe Number One. I continued north from the tea estate, figuring the road would lead back around to Observatory Hill, but instead I discovered it was taking me down the mountain, and I had to climb a steep stone staircase and a road to get back up. Eventually I arrived at Observatory Hill, where I paused to give attention to the view and to the wild monkeys that roam the hill. By this time it was time to check in at the Windamere.
I was given Room 17, not so much a room as one section of a very British cottage, consisting of a bedroom, a sitting room, and a bathroom that warranted a sign telling me that "The chain-action water-closet in this room has been giving dependable service since 1912." The telephone was described as being less reliable: "Our telephone intercom service was Windamere's pride and joy when it was installed in 1950. It gave reliable service for twenty years and then went wrong. Several telecom experts in succession succeeded in making only patch-work repairs. The last expert, twelve years ago, did some serious repair work and, as a consequence, when certain numbers are dialled, three 'phones ring simultaneously in separate rooms causing alarm to guests who value their repose. We have been keeping this deficiency in our intercom service under review and, meanwhile, crave your indulgence." But the food was described as safe: "About salads, all uncooked vegetables are washed thoroughly in 'pinki-panki', or potassium permanganate (the stuff you gargle with when you have a sore throat), before being served. We have been doing this also since 1939." Before lunch I took advantage of the excellent shower and checked out the room, interrupted only when two hotel staff in green uniforms came in to measure the widths of the windows - they were planning to install new curtains.I was the first hotel guest to arrive at lunch. The meal, a set menu, was described on individually typewritten souvenir cards standing on each table. Here is the text of the lunch menu:
20th, August, 1997
Spring pea soup
Eggplant parmagiana with tabbouleh salad and mixed baby greens
Beef rogan josh
Papad, achar & chutney
Coffee from Baba Budan Hills
Tea from Darjeeling.
I discovered that the first "or" should really have been an "and" - everyone was served everything on the menu! The only awkward feature of the meal was the way the dishes were served: waiters brought out platters for each table so that each person could serve himself or herself. How much of the platter was I to serve myself? Aside from that, however, the meal was splendid and the service
After lunch I walked the minute or two to Chowrasta, a plaza at the foot of Observatory Hill. It was well before 15:00, and the clouds had already obscured the view of the Himalayas, but I saw something even more marvelous: an enormous rainbow with each of the seven colors vivid and distinct. It stretched from eye level all the way down the mountain. I stared at it for a few minutes - and then, suddenly, it was gone. I browsed Chowrasta for a while and then walked down the hill to a busy market area, where I had a pleasant chat with a shopkeeper selling
Back in the library of the Windamere it was tea time at 16:00, in elegant Windamere style: tea, sandwiches, and live piano music. The library also contained a sign whose language failed to surprise me: "...Also, visitors are requested not to take off their footwear, or put up their feet on the furniture, or lie supine on the hearth, or sleep behind the settees, lest unintended offence be given to others." During one of the pianist's breaks we spoke; she was Indian but had been formally trained in England, and through her experiences she had learned folk songs from all over the world. Indeed she knew a vast repertoire, and I was most surprised to hear her play the Harvard anthem! (It is also an old English folk song.) We talked about piano music, and then about show music, and then about traveling. She wondered how I liked Darjeeling and I said I thought it was magnificent, particularly because I had just come from Calcutta - to which she replied, with extravagantly drawn-out vowels, "Oh,
She also played at our fabulous dinner. As with lunch, the menu should have said "and" rather than
20th, August, 1997
Tomato soup with garlic croutons
Blanquette of lamb with herbed rice
Mediterranean eggplant caviar
Lemon glazed carrots
A taste of Nepal
Khukra ko teon
Ghazer mattar ko tarkari
Apple fritters with fruit coulis
Coffee from Baba Budan Hills
Tea from Darjeeling.
A twelve-course meal? Indeed! And that didn't even include the bread and butter. I was one of the first to arrive at dinner, and I stayed longer than anyone, savoring each bite of food, each note of music, and the view of the mountains. There was no more perfect place to be.
After dinner I was investigating the various rooms of the hotel when I ran into Anthony and Martine, a British couple I had spoken to briefly after lunch. The hotel was about ready to shut down for the night, but we were able to chat in the drawing room for a while over glasses of Drambuie. Anthony was a sound engineer from London, but he also worked in Cologne; he and Martine had spontaneously decided to take a vacation in Darjeeling. We all agreed it was a splendid place for a retreat.
The next morning I awoke shortly after 5:00. I had hoped to see the sunrise, but I was already too late; it wouldn't have mattered anyway, as a dense fog covered the mountain. I walked outside onto the porch and found myself in the middle of a cloud. I sat outside and wrote postcards as the city came to life. (To my parents I wrote that if I made all my connections, I might have been in Tibet the following afternoon - how untrue that turned out to be!) Breakfast was also quite a few courses, including pineapple, banana, porridge or corn flakes (I opted for the porridge), and eggs with bacon and tomato. Sadly that had to be my last meal there; I checked out and descended the hill to catch the bus down the mountain. The trip to Lhasa, as I had planned it, would comprise eight parts: a bus to Siliguri, a something-or-other to Raniganj (the border), a rickshaw across the border to Kakarvitta in Nepal, a bus to Kathmandu, a bus to Barabise, a bus to Kodari (the other border), a walk up the hill to Zhangmu in Tibet, and a hired vehicle of some sort to Lhasa.
Bus: Darjeeling to Siliguri
(3h 10m; INR 40)
Catching the bus proved to be quite easy. I saw one coming toward me, and someone hanging on to it yelled out, "Siliguri?" and I responded, "Siliguri!" Two people on the bus said they had seen me in Darjeeling, and they gave me some chips for my long journey. The bus took just over three hours to get to Siliguri, where I carefully avoided the rickshaw drivers and made my way to what I thought was a taxi stand for rides to
Jeep: Siliguri to Raniganj
(50m; INR 30)
Instead I was squeezed into a jeep for the 50-minute ride. I was the only non-Indian on the jeep; when we arrived at the border, I disembarked, and the jeep sped away - Indians do not need visas for Nepal. The instant I was stamped out of the country it began to pour. Near the border post was a bridge; I had a hunch that the Nepali border post would be just over the bridge. I decided to walk and discovered after 10 minutes that my hunch was correct.
Go on to part 2