Thursday, 29 March 2012

Two Weeks Off

Red Fort, Delhi

I like Delhi. Almost every other tourist I've met has hated or at least disliked the place, and I can see why. If you're on a tight schedule and you need to, say, organise a new sim card or onward travel in a morning, it can be immensely frustrating, as things tend to happen at their own pace in India, and trying to make things happen rarely works. The levels of attention you get as a tourist can be overwhelming at first, but they are as nothing compared to the attention I draw as a cyclist, so I enjoy the relative anonymity of being a tourist in Delhi. Not to mention that a lot of people seem amused at the tourists wandering in their midst. Unlike Agra, where it felt as though everyone is grasping for the tourist dollar, Delhi has a sense of purpose, of a country testing its muscles. India's the future, and you can see that growth and the push of modernity here.

I like the mix of modern, ancient and British Empire buildings which you get while wandering around, mixed in with typically Indian scenes such as the rows of cycle rickshaws and tiny shops selling only bearings, or fireworks, or chewing tobacco and cigarettes. The contrast between the riches and the poverty of some people is appalling, though. You can see beggars and street kids asking for food and handouts outside shops selling iPads for many more rupees than your average waiter gets in a year.

My sister Anita has flown out to meet me here in Delhi, which has given me some time off the bike, a chance to stay in some pleasant hotels (which she paid for) and do some properly touristy things (which she paid for) and show her around places I'd already been, especially Delhi. She thought I was testing her by taking her to Old Delhi on her first day, and maybe I was, a little, but it's the most typically Indian place you can get to, and despite the scrum of people and the crazy traffic, it's a very safe place. Chandni Chowk even has a Mcdonald's, with handcarts and rickshaws and cows pulling bales of cloth going past. It's hardly downtown Bogota.

I did experience some of the Delhi frustration when I tried to fix my bike, as the mechanic's I took it to actually tightened the bolt, which was the complete opposite of what I'd asked them to do. Having worsened the problem, they then refused to help and sent me up to the cycle market, which I hoped would be a nest of little workshops and spare parts, but instead it was an emporium of kids' bikes, and a couple of rickshaw workshops. One guy said he didn't have the tools, until I pointed out that he had a socket spanner right next to him. The only help I got was one affable chap who said it isn't a part you can get in India. Someone did this in India, said I. He said that they wouldn't have the tools there - he reckoned I'd be best off going to Chandni Chowk or Kashmere Gate in Old Delhi and getting my own tools. To be honest I prefer to do these jobs myself after my experiences of letting other people at my bike, so that's what I did once Anita had left, as I didn't want to waste our time in fixing my bike. I hated the feeling of being in limbo, and I had hoped that the gear Anita brought would fix it, but despite my speaking on the phone to the guy at Halford's, he still contrived to send different parts to the ones I'd asked for. It was a strangely Indian experience, in that I thought I was saying one thing, but he heard another. Still, it's now fixed, even if it's not to my compete satisfaction, and I'll be carrying an extra kilo of tools and spares with me into the mountains when I leave.

Anita enjoyed Delhi, I think. As well as Old Delhi and the Jami Masjid Mosque and Red Fort, we went for a walk around the wide boulevards of New Delhi, which was amazingly quiet on a Sunday, at least until we got to India Gate, the war memorial built by the British to commemorate the Indian dead of World War I. I had been there previously with Jonathan, when the whole area was fenced off for the Republic Day celebrations, and to be honest I thought it was better then, as there were armed soldiers to scare off the scamsters.

Connaught Place has a bad reputation for the amount of hassle you get as a tourist, but at least there you only get people telling you things you already know, such as This Is C! Block C! Saying that, we did get hounded by a few juvenile pen salesmen and there's one guy there who keeps offering to clean my ears.

But at least you don't get people grabbing your hands and painting you there, which happened to Anita at India Gate. I thought she'd agreed to it, so I didn't say anything, but I did snarl a bit when they tried to start on me. Anita had both hands henna'd and they also flogged her an awful bit of jewellery. The family of harridans then tried to charge her 1500 rupees. We argued and gave them 200 in the end. Then a small boy followed me around, trying to sell me some tat, then trying to drop it into my pocket when I was photographing the arch, then feigning injury to get money out of me. Needless to say, he got nowt except a lesson in picking his marks better. It was much better when it was fenced off and lined with soldiers.

It was worse than Old Delhi - I took Anita along Chandni Chowk and through the Spice Bazaar, where we got hardly any hassle, apart from when I stopped to check the map and some mad old bleeder came up and said "this is Lahori Gate", which I knew as it was in big letters above the gate. Later on, he was standing next to one of the spice stalls and said "this is spice market" when we walked past. He probably goes on holiday to Trafalgar Square and stands under Nelson's Column telling people "this is England".

Anita in Chandni Chowk, Old  Delhi

On our last day in India, I took Anita to the Sikh temple, Bangla Sahib, which I've now visited three times. It's quite unlike other temples I'd visited in India, such as Jama Masjid, where entrance is theoretically free, but they charge you 200 rupees for a camera, then another 100 to go up to the minaret, then another fee to wear a shame robe if you're showing too much skin, and where I had Jonathan and I thrown out when I refused to pay the camera fee, or the beautiful Lotus Temple, where it felt as though we were being fed into a factory assembly line. Entrance is free, there's a tourist office where friendly Sikhs explain that you need to cover your hair and not to speak inside the temple, but otherwise you can wander about at will, and the lack of rules and restrictions is not only welcoming, it encourages people to show respect. I really like the place, for the beauty of the temple and the pool, the warm welcome (entry is open to everybody, and food is given out freely to anybody), and the freedom to sit in peace without, for example, having somebody blow a whistle at you for sitting too long (which happened to Jonathan and I at the Taj Mahal). Anita really enjoyed it too. Amongst the bustle of Delhi, it has a remarkable tranquility, atmospheric music pours out of the temple twenty four hours a day, and the Sikhs are keen to give a good impression of their religion, or way of life.

It made a fine ending to Anita's holiday in India. In some ways it had been a hectic week, with some long days of travelling, but we'd planned an itinerary which had enough flexibility to allow for things to go wrong, which can happen in India. The two things she wanted to do were the elephant ride at Amber Fort in Jaipur, and the mountain railway up to Shimla. I think Jonathan and I comprehensively put her off the Taj Mahal and Agra, and I thought that she'd have been doing it because that's what people expect you to do in India, rather than because she really wanted to see it for herself.

The drive down to Jaipur was...challenging. I only agreed to brave my car sickness as I knew that road from having cycled it, so I knew that it was a clear run on a three lane highway for most of the route, but the driver wasn't the best. Anita complained to the hotel about him, as he consistently drove too close to cars in front, had no sense of anticipation, became competitive with other traffic and in one town he actually steered towards a young lad who was trying to cross the road. He collared me in the street afterwards, as Anita's complaint had cost him business, but I simply told him that it was his own fault. We had tried to tell him to back off on umpteen occasions, but at best he didn't listen, and at worst he ignored us and tried to convince us that he was a really good driver, as he sailed between two wagons with a yard's clearance to either side. He wasn't as bad as some of the clowns out here, but he didn't comprehend how uncomfortable his driving made us.

The hotel in Jaipur was lovely, and Anita and I went for a walk around the decaying Pink City, and for sunset we had a beer at Tiger Fort, high above the city with no one else around. It was straight out of the guide books and it was great.

sunset at Nargalah Fort, Jaipur

In the morning, the elephant ride up to Amber Fort was another tourist trap, but I felt that it made it more special, to troop through the huge gateways up to the fort with sixty other elephants. We had a very frisky ride - the mahout said that she was only young, and enthusiastic, and full of energy, and we were overtaking other elephants up to the fort.

elephant ride to Amber Fort, Jaipur

I liked that mahout - he was surly, and quiet. Unlike our tour guide, who I would have fired if I'd been on my own, but Anita was paying attention so I held my tongue. He didn't like that, though - while he was wittering on about the fine jewelwork or something, I was staring out over the battlements to the other fort on top of the hill and trying to imagine myself back amongst the Maharajahs, and what it would have been like, as I try to do, and he interrupted my reverie to ask "aren't you interested in the fort?" He was deeply offended that I wasn't paying him much attention. He went and spoke to other tour guides as well - I can imagine him complaining about me. "Did you tell him about the textiles? And the painting in plaster? And did you tell your Bollywood joke?" "I've tried everything, man. He's just not interested."

There were some interesting tidbits in there, but mostly it was tedious, and I was looking at the other tour guides, and they were giving the exact same spiel, made them take the exact same photos and so on. I like the sense that I'm discovering a place for myself, which is quite egotistical and probably delusional, but I prefer to wander around and look at stuff rather than be shepherded around, to watch other people and stare out into space, rather than listen to a dull lecture on the riches of the palaces and the beauty of the wives. I said to Anita, it was all built on the blood of the workers. He wouldn't let us stop and take our time, he was always chivvying us along and asking us what we planned to do afterwards - because he was very keen to get us to go to the local jewel factory and the textile works and reap himself a fat profit. I took great delight in going slowly, letting Anita buy tat from the many (many many) tat sellers around the fort and having a leisurely toilet stop. It wasn't even as if he was very enthusiastic about the place - it was so perfunctory.

But these are all the experiences that make up India. It's not like going to Bognor Regis. Can you imagine, if you grabbed a taxi at Heathrow or Newcastle airport and asked to be taken to such-and-such hotel, but they told you they knew a much nicer one, and anyway that hotel's dirty, or it's burnt down. We didn't go to the jewel workshop, or the textile factory with Surinder. Driving back to Delhi was quite enough of an experience.

The other trip we'd organised was by train, and the Indian railways are amazing. They're slow by western standards, but every train we caught was within five minutes of the timetable. The trip up to Shimla wasn't without its quirks, however. I was full of cold and getting up at 4.30 am to catch the train from Sara Rohilla station wouldn't have put me in a good mood at the best of times. Since we weren't able to book the mountain railway from Kalka to Shimla, we had to try and get a bus, but the buses were shonky local buses and I felt ill at the mere thought of spending four hours on one of those up a twisty mountain road. I negotiated a taxi driver, which was much more civilised, even if the driver was a bit weird. He stopped to get fags, and took his hands off the steering wheel each time we passed a temple to put them together and bow his head in prayer. He also stopped halfway up to have lunch, then vanished. But he was a pretty good driver, cautious and slow, and on that road (we passed one accident where a wagon had sideswiped a scooter), safe and slow was fine by me. It took about four hours to get the 90 km to Shimla.

Shimla has a central drag, the Mall, which was laid down by the British when it was the summer capital of the Raj. Indians were banned from it at the time - now, cars and autos and motorised transport are banned from it (ish - you still get official vehicles and those with special permits), so we had to walk. I was knackered and a bit ill. I was falling asleep in the car, but the mad old sod wouldn't let me sleep. I've no idea why - he spoke hardly any English. And I was carrying a huge rucksack with our stuff for three days in Shimla.

We did have a hotel booked, as Anita's partner Ian had found a youth hostel in Shimla on the internet, and as Anita is a member of the YHA, likes youth hostels and was curious to see what an Indian YHA would be like, she'd booked us a family room (with a view) there. It was up on The Ridge. The clue's in the name - off we went tramping uphill. We asked at the tourist information (more on which later), and they'd never heard of it. They told us to check this hotel further up. We got so far, and gave them a ring, and they sent a tall Kashmiri-looking bloke down to guide us back. I only thought he was Kashmiri cos he had blue eyes and the air of mountains about him.

He was alright, but this place wasn't no youth hostel. I'd be amazed if Hostelling International were aware of its existence. It was a seedy ratbag budget hotel masquerading as a youth hostel. The guy at reception looked like an extra from Taxi Driver. We did go to see the room, way up on the top floor, but this weren't no family room and there weren't no view. It was dark and musty with a narrow, filthy double bed, and there wasn't even a shower. I thought Anita was going to have a breakdown there. She said it was the sort of room you only see when the blindfold comes off and Abdul peels back a blanket to reveal his tray of torture implements.

So, we trooped back down the hill. I was knackered and ill and frankly a bit useless. I was complaining a bit. We went back to the tourist information and asked for their advice on a nice hotel, nearby, with a view, for around 2,000 rupees.

No problem. The Holiday Home has all of that. And it's only ten minutes' walk. They booked us in, and Anita paid.

They gave us directions. This place really wasn't ten minutes away. It took us fifteen minutes just to get to the lift down from the Mall, then we had to walk for another fifteen minutes along this narrow road, with traffic, without any clear idea where we were going.

We did eventually get to the Horrible Home, though. The room was musty and carpeted, and you didn't really want to touch anything. It was really small, there wasn't a kettle so I had to break out my stove for coffee, and there was a marvellous view of the car park. If you craned your neck you could see a few mountains, and the sunset. Anita found it quite loud as well - some Indian kids were running out and back, banging doors. Someone turned up to change the sheets...for a different room. In the morning, I went down to reception to try to get some mineral water, but they asked me my room number. I said no, give it to me, cos Anita was asleep and I didn't want to wake her. She'd found the day very trying, shit hotel after shit hotel, Shimla not being what she'd hoped, and being bullshitted all the time. No water, though. I gave up, and went for a walk to try and find some, but this place was in the middle of nowhere, so I came back and got some from the restaurant, where the All Indian Surliness Champion (four years out of five) charged me 40 rupees! I pointed at the side of the bottle, where a maximum retail price of 15 rupees was printed, but he wasn't having it. We had breakfast there later, and the same guy took our order. Or so we thought. I never did get my juice. Wait, I did, but since it arrived ten minutes before anything else, I consider that to be part of a different meal. We had to call him back to the table for everything - he brought hot milk instead of cold milk for the cornflakes, hash browns instead of an omelette, and the tea and coffee only came when we'd finished everything else. At the end, he even refused to take the 500-rupee note cos it had a tear in it. He's going to clear the boards at this year's championships. After the breakfast farrago, they actually clagged somebody else's breakfast bill onto our room. Tried to, anyway.

The place was unbelievably overpriced. I did work out why the tourist information sent us there. Turns out, it's also owned by Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation. Mild conflict of interest there.

We left as soon as we could, and our first port of call was the tourist information, where I registered my complaint, for all the good it'll do. The hotel had the cheek to claim they'd given us the best view in the hotel. I was amused to note that the previous complaint was from someone who went on one of their tours, which was mainly a tour of hotels owned by HPTDC.

We'd checked the guide book, which suggested a couple of places behind the Ridge. The day before, we'd batted off touts, telling them that we had a hotel. Hah. We ended up at Hotel Dreamland, which was basic but clean and pleasant, with generally clued-up staff, and we were much happier once we'd settled in there. There was one woman who was really enthusiastic about Shimla and the walks around there.

Christ Church and the state library, Shimla

I liked Shimla. It had loads of downbeat charm and I really enjoyed seeing British-style buildings in such an odd setting. Anita said it reminded her of Torquay, or Scarborough. It was cleaner and quieter than anywhere else I've been in India. One guy, Anil, said that it wasn't like anywhere else in India. We walked up to the monkey temple, which swarmed with monkeys. They nicked one girl's scarf and the lass had to feed the monkeys peanuts to get it back. We'd been forewarned and had hired sticks. It's the highest point in Shimla at the top of Jakhu Hill, but it was too hazy to see the distant snow-capped high Himalayas. We also had a walk up to Chadwick Falls, a lovely spot apart from the litter.

And the hill railway back from Shimla was incredible. At first, it felt a bit cramped as I was banging knees with the guy opposite and the train was full of kids making a right racket, and the family next to us made such a palaver of taking their seats. But everything changed once the train got going. We got talking to people and it was easy to move around, and it's such an astonishing journey that I forgot about minor discomforts. Mountains everywhere. I loved leaning out of the door and watching the mountains proceed past, and looking at the train taking the curves. Lots of curves, at some points the train was switchbacking on itself down the mountains, and loads of bridges and tunnels. 102 tunnels, I think, and something preposterous like 888 bridges. It's an amazing feat of engineering, and as a World Heritage Site it's about a million times better than the Taj Mahal.

bridge on the Shimla-Kalka railway
views from the Shimla-Kalka railway

It was like a holiday for me, to have my sister here and take trips which would have been difficult for me, with my bike. And it was interesting to see places through my sister's eyes. Reading this back, it sounds as though I may have become slightly irritated at times, and not having fixed my bike was preying on my mind more than I admitted, but India is like that - infuriating one moment and brilliant the next. Now my bike is fixed, so I've been wandering out and about to do some last minute jobs before I leave, and I've been able to look into all the little shops without wondering if my magic fix lay in there. The holiday's over now, and it's back to cycling. It's like an even better holiday!

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