Travel Photo #5

The ‘Diana’ bench – Taj Mahal, India

Su Leslie (aka Zimmerbitch) invited me to join her and other bloggers posting a travel photo a day for ten days. The deal is I also invite someone else each day to join in, and ping-back to my post. But as several bloggers I know are already busy with the challenge I am going to resort to inviting “anyone who feels like joining in”

Impressions of India

Amritsar is fairly typical of all the Indian cities I passed through. They were noisy, littered, smelly and crowded with so many people, stray dogs and skinny cows. Children and touts harass you wherever you go, “baksheesh lady” was a common cry, along with men begging me to allow them to show me their uncle’s / father’s / brother’s shop, who was the best jeweller, carpet maker, silk factory, souvenir shop etc. I declined as gracefully as possible, although after a few hours of this it does become very wearing and when the cries become grabs, and the grabs turned into tugs and pulls and being forced to go in a different direction to that I was heading in, my temper started to fray.

The air is thick with sweet scented smoke from roadside fires; spices; fragrant oils and cow dung. Ladies in the streets wear glorious saris in rich jewel-like colours of purple, red and saffron yellow, woven with gold or silver thread despite the filthy conditions of the streets. The noise of horns blasting, people shouting and music playing loudly from street stalls and from within street side shops deafens the senses. India has its own special blend of magic, which is not only seen, but also heard and smelled – all your senses are assaulted when you arrive here.

This is the east – this is what I had imagined and yet it is nothing like my imagination.

A train to Delhi cost around 40p (eight rupees at the time with a student concession), and we were fortunate to get a seat. Wooden slatted and hard as hell, but still a seat. The train was fairly fast and in nine hours we arrived in New Delhi, opting to stay in the old part in Hotel Vishalli for 25 rupees, which included our own bathroom and a European loo and no cockroaches to share it with. What was the catch? Well, probably the price. But with Jon having already fallen foul to the dreaded Delhi belly it was worth it.

Delhi is an exhausting place. The streets are crowded and noisy with whole families living in the streets under tarpaulins. Men defecate and piss openly in the streets and wash outdoors using filthy water in troughs by the roadside; litter is strewn all over the place; mangy dogs; emaciated cows with not a blade of grass in sight and half naked children ran around close to being run over by the incessant traffic. You need to watch your step for goodness knows what you are about to step into. Rickshaws, bicycles, scooters and lorries weave manic routes through the mobs, hands constantly on horns. It is bedlam. And I am shocked and bewildered by it all. The dirt and stench and the poverty are overwhelming.

This is as far removed from my English suburban life as it could be possible.

Whilst in Delhi we visited the Red Fort, one of the city’s main attractions. On the way there we saw street entertainers: dancers, musicians, some saintly looking men reading palms, snake charmers others showing their mongooses and even one person walking on fire and another lying on a bed of nails. The sorts of things you read about or hear about, but are never entirely convinced are true. It was all happening here.

From our hotel room we looked out over market stalls piled with mounds of spices in colours so vibrant they looked like powder paints from an infant’s school – yellows, oranges, reds and green. Cool white yogurt – not at all like the solid creamy Greek style, this was thin and watery and sharp. Curries were in general vegetarian, watery and very hot. Chai-wallas can be found on every corner, calling out “chai! chai! chai!” and pouring steaming tea from a height (called “pulling” the chai), allowing it to cool a bit as it streams into little metal cups. The tea is mixed with condensed milk and often spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and nutmeg. I never found anyone selling coffee, so for once in my life became a tea drinker. It was very refreshing despite being so sweet.

More stalls were laden with exotic looking fruits and vegetables, others with clothing, cushions decorated with tiny mirrors and many different types of material, crockery and china, kitchen utensils and even vinyl records as found in any market around the world. Alongside the tiny alleys are ramshackle wooden shops selling jewellery, silver bangles and chains, rings with star sapphires or star rubies (but be careful, the scam is to stick a paper star to the bottom of a stone before it is mounted, best to buy the stone and have it mounted yourself).

Other shops sold only incense: joss sticks, brass oil burners, soaps and tiny bottles of concentrated oils including lemon, orange, and queen of the night, jasmine and patchouli. These shops smelled wonderful. Craft shops sold brass-ware: candlesticks, large patterned trays, vases, Buddha figures, star-cut lanterns, hanging musical chimes and other ornaments. Carpenters had sweet smelling sandalwood and camphor shelf units, tables, chairs and exquisitely carved elephants. I was very tempted to buy many wonderful things, but knowing I had to carry everything on my back prevented me from going overboard. And not knowing where I was going next prevented me from shipping goods “home”. A necklace of pretty glass beads that glowed in rich colours in the light, a couple of light cheesecloth tops and a small bottle of lemon oil found their way into my rucksack. The lemon oil especially was useful for dabbing on my wrists and giving the illusion of coolness. (It also helped disguise the disgusting smells too).

One evening we were lucky enough to witness an Indian wedding party passing beneath our hotel window. The bride was dressed in a scarlet red sari with gold thread, and sat on top of an elephant, which was covered in coloured cloths decorated in sequins and gold braid and thousands of tiny sewn in mirrors. The elephant and the bride were led through the streets by relatives, dressed in equally vibrant colours, banging drums and singing loudly and happily as they marched by. I felt privileged to have witnessed this event. And disappointed that I didn’t take any photos.

Being so close to Agra we had to take the opportunity to visit the Taj Mahal taking a train to get there which took around 4 hours, unfortunately it was so full we stood the entire way. Once there we managed to book into a tourist bungalow with huge rooms and wonderful ceiling fans. The following day we walked the 7 kilometres to the mausoleum passing several shanty shacks and malnourished children along the route. The contrast between what lies outside the grounds of the Taj and the beauty within was shocking.

Without doubt, the Taj Mahal ranks as amongst the most perfect buildings in the world, flawlessly proportionate, built entirely out of marble. Intended to be a commemoration of the memory of Shah Jahan’s beloved wife in reality it is his gift to the entire human race.

Returning to Delhi for one more night we then decided to head on south to Bombay (now known as Mumbai). The train left at 10:47 a.m. and was horribly crowded. For more than eight hours we either stood or crouched on the aisle before managing to get a wooden bench seat for the remainder of the thirty hour journey. Until then we were being hassled at every stop. Guards would board the train and insist on going through our rucksacks. Clothing and personal items were strewn around the floor – and we desperately grabbed things before other hands removed them! It was very tiring, tense and annoying. Stories of European travellers being dragged off Indian trains were beginning to seem more than likely. I am not sure which of us was more grateful to the other for being a travelling companion. More solo men disappear than women, so Jon was more than happy to be accompanied by a female.

We are totally exhausted from the journey by the time we reach Bombay the following evening. Stepping out onto the platform was like hitting a wall – the air was so thick I could taste it on my tongue. Delhi had been dry and comfortably warm during the day though bitterly cold at night. Here the climate is typical tropical with monsoon rains and extreme heat and humidity. We find a cheap hotel (Carlton) near to the Gateway to India (below) and close to the Hotel Ritz, but certainly not of the same calibre. In the high-ceiling box room the blades of the ceiling fans spin lackadaisically, supposedly cooling us, the occupants, but not the air itself. I can’t say they kept me cool and the clack-clacking noise would have disturbed my sleep had I not been so bone-tired.

Every time I step outdoors my skin is coated in a film of moisture and my hair plastered to my neck and forehead. I am so badly bitten by mosquitoes that my arms are swollen and red. My sleep is disturbed by the relentless itching and I have to pour cool water over myself in the middle of the night using the bucket style shower to get any relief. My nerves are shattered from the constant bombardment of beggars and men constantly wanting my attention.

I am beginning to hate India.

We are spending several days here in Bombay before going our separate ways  – visiting shipping offices and getting yellow fever vaccinations, necessary for onward journeys. We took a trip out to Santa Cruz and visited Juhu beach where you can have elephant rides on the beach instead of donkey rides. We had intended to stay there for a few days and relax, but the dirty beach was strewn with litter and possibly sewage and  so full of screaming children, courting couples and rowdy adolescents that it was not at all the peaceful refuge we had expected so we decided to return to Bombay where we stayed for one night in the Rex Hotel before returning to the Carlton.

I did not find Bombay as pleasant as Delhi.  It appeared to be more hostile to Europeans, more aggressive and intolerant. Where in Delhi the people spoke to you politely (even when hassling you) here they shouted and spat. I was becoming increasingly nervous of having to travel on to Goa and Madras (Chennai) on my own in order to catch a ship to Singapore. Talking to other travellers we met in the hotel and at the railway station did nothing to dispel my worries. One young and very pregnant Australian girl was virtually camped out at the station, meeting every train from Delhi to see if her boyfriend was on it. It transpired that during one of the frequent searches by the guards on route he had disappeared from the train. She didn’t know where this happened as it was in the middle of the night and she was unable to see a station sign on the platform. She was now becoming frantic, as she had to shortly fly back to Australia to have her baby, and had no idea where he was.

Her story made me reconsider my plan to go across India and on to Australia on my own. If I disappeared I wouldn’t even be missed by anyone until my family at home realised that I hadn’t been in touch for a while. They would have no idea of where or when I went missing. Postcards and letters from home were very infrequent and only possible if I knew a Poste Restante where I could pick them up from, and who knows how long my letters were taking to get there. If only I could bump into Graham and Diane again and join them. But sadly we had drifted apart once more.

Reluctantly, I abandoned my plans to continue to Australia and went into a shipping office to purchase a ticket to Durban, South Africa with Jon.  I had a cousin who lived and worked in Johannesburg so it would be fun to visit him and hopefully, one day in the future, I would reach my original destination. Australia.

We departed from Bombay at 11 p.m. on a Lloyd Triestino cruiseliner (an Italian liner). Destination: Karachi, Mombasa and Durban. 

And that led to a whole different adventure…

~wander.essence~ prose

On Journey Part Six

Kabul – Jalalabad – Lahore – Amritsar

We have managed to arrange a lift with a tour company – Swagman Tours from London, England. We are asked to pay 4 ½ US dollars from here to Lahore in Pakistan; this includes overnight camp and food!  The tour bus has several empty places, so we are lucky to get this deal. Also it is good to have English spoken all around us again. You forget how much an effort it is to concentrate on foreign languages and especially trying to communicate in Pidgin English. We left Kabul at 2 p.m. and made our way towards the border with Pakistan. Half way there we stopped and spent the night in a campsite. It was great fun setting up large tents (such luxury) and getting the food prepared for dinner. We sat around the campfire and talked to our new companions, some of who admired our independence in going it alone through this territory, whilst we just reflect on how mad we are.

The Khyber Pass is one of the world’s most notorious passages. It winds 35-miles/56 km through the Himalayas to link Afghanistan and Pakistan. As has been the case throughout history, very serious and brutal bandits frequent the pass, and certain periods are worse than others. The pass itself makes for an interesting drive through the mountains—not as spectacular as the Swiss Alps, perhaps, but its history, the fortresses of Jalalabad and the people combine for an unforgettable experience. You can see colonial-era observation towers on every peak and the badges of former British and Pakistani regiments painted on the walls of the pass.  This area has a lot of history.

We set off early this morning for the Khyber Pass (border at Landi Kotal), which we reached at 11 a.m. We were amused to pass a taxi on the way with so many passengers they were seated on the bonnet and the roof! We counted 13 men on board, but there may well have been more inside!

We drove on through Peshawar and Islamabad before stopping near Lahore in the early evening and camping for the second night. I could get used to this life. No having to make decisions about where to go next or how to get there, hot food that you can recognise as food and hot coffee – it is all sorted for you. Toilet stops included! I am feeling thoroughly spoiled.

Campsite packed up and we are off again!

On route to the border between Pakistan and India we stopped off in Lahore and visited the bazaar, where I had my first taste of peppermint tea. Absolutely delicious and on a scorching hot day there can be nothing better. We were also offered some hashish to purchase. The market trader who offered us the tea suddenly disappeared into the back of his stall only to re-appear with an enormous block of hashish! There must have been at least 1 kilogram of the stuff. My companions and I looked at it with widening eyes, but knowing the penalty for possession if caught at the Indian border we shook our heads and returned to the bus empty handed.

We only just made it to the Pakistan-India border at Ganda Singh Wala before it closed at half past three and bumped into Diane and Graham again. It was very good to see them. The border crossing was in itself a bit hairy. We were searched very thoroughly, or at least our belongings were, and one stupid Australian guy was found to have hashish hidden in the headband of his hat. Last we saw of him he was being marched away to a police car. I was slightly worried about the amount of Indian Rupees I had on me, obtained illegally on the black market, because you are not allowed to exchange Indian Rupees in Pakistan, but of course it is a better exchange rate.

Safely through the border at last the four of us grabbed a taxi to Amritsar that turned out to be the most hair-raising journey of all, though thankfully the shortest! The driver just pressed his finger on the horn and drove as fast as he could, bikes, cars, taxis, people, carts, everything had to move out of his way; only when he met a scrawny cow did he swerve to avoid a collision.

A much more recent photo – but the chaos was the same back in 1973

Nerves jangling, shaking and sweaty, we paid the smiling driver once we arrived in Amritsar and made our way to the Golden Temple, where we had heard we could sleep for free.

Siri Guru Arjan Dev Ji envisioned a temple that would be made the repository of the Sikh religion, a reflection of its resoluteness and its strength. It would become the hallowed symbol of the indestructibility of the faith. It would be known as the Harmandir. The plan he conceived for the Harmandir was designed to reflect the clarity, simplicity and logic of the new movement. Its location in the centre of the pool would symbolize the synthesis of nirgun and sargun: the spiritual and temporal realms of human existence. Siri Guru Arjan Dev reversed the prevalent practice of designing high temple plinths. By building the Harmandir at a level lower than the surrounding land, he wanted to emphasize the inner strength that was provided by the faith, rather than draw attention to its external manifestations. Descending the marble stairs (teaching humility to mankind) to the parkarma, you have your first sight of it, the golden facades and domes surrounded by still waters.

The temple is really beautiful – glowing deep gold in the setting sun. We respectfully removed our footwear and lay our sleeping bags on the marble corridor, and sat at the edge of a pool to watch the sun go down.

Golden Temple 1194
This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Vrlobo888 at English Wikipedia.
In the peaceful early morning silence of the following day the pools are still and glassy and capture an almost perfect reflection of the extraordinary buildings within.

India – I have arrived!

On Journey Part Five

The next part of my overland journey took me across three borders. Iran – Afghanistan – Pakistan – India. Deeper into cultures that were far different from western ideologies. And one where as a western woman I needed to keep my wits about me. To state that at this point I was beginning to regret not buying an airline ticket direct to Australia would be an understatement.


Whilst Afghanistan was on the Hippie Trail there was not much information available about the country. The only thing I knew was that there was only one actual road through from the west to the east via Kandahar in the south.

After spending hours at the border we all arrived safely in Herat. Alexander the Great once occupied the country’s third-largest city. Enormous defensive walls and earthworks remained from ancient times. Destroyed in the early 13th century by Genghis Khan, it was later rebuilt.

Herat is famous for its hand-blown blue glass. Artisans can be seen creating delicate works of art in the shop across from the Friday Mosque with its fabulous mosaic tiling, though for some reason we never got to see it.

I found it a disquieting place. There were very few women outdoors in the dusty, streets and I felt exposed and constantly stared at despite covering myself up. It wasn’t a place I wanted to remain in any longer than necessary. Jon and I found a room with twin rope based beds (instead of mattresses) that were shorter than European beds, but surprisingly comfortable (and no bed bugs!) and then we went out to find out about transport through to Kabul, the country’s capital. We discovered that there was really only one bus company on the 1,400-kilometre Kabul-Herat route, the Wardak Bus Company.

Something that really caught my eye were the brightly decorated trucks. Reminiscent of Romany caravans these are highly decorative, brightly painted and very attractive and unusual. I don’t think we will get a lift in them though.

At 8 a.m the following morning we set off via Kandahar, the nation’s second largest city. We were supposed to go all the way to Kabul with only a brief stop and change of driver in Kandahar, but to our non-amazement the driver called a halt. We were then forced, naturally, to stay for a night in the Khyber hotel, which no doubt paid Wardak a commission. Not surprisingly we (as in the foreigners) were very angry with this, but there was little we could do. There was no other place open that we could stay in and anyway, if we did not stay here, our onward tickets would become invalidated. Needless to say the price of a room was not included in the ticket. I was getting quite used to all the scams being practised by now to relieve us of our money.

We left for Kabul at 7 a.m after a breakfast of stale bread and water. The road surface improved, but the traffic was crazy! The drivers zoomed along in the middle of the road, probably because the middle of the road had fewer potholes. This gave them an excuse to play chicken with those travelling in the opposite direction. Seeing your vehicle hurtling itself along the road towards another large vehicle is quite disconcerting. I hadn’t planned on dying here.

Unfortunately our driver lost one such encounter. We suffered minor damage (I and several other passengers were covered in shattered glass from a window which was caved in by the opposition’s wing mirror) and plenty of verbal abuse was exchanged as the two drivers climbed out of their vehicles and faced each other. I thought at one point the two drivers were going to start throwing punches, and vaguely wondered which of the passengers would drive the buses if there were serious injuries inflicted. A lesson to be learned: travel in the aisle seat.

A little further along the road we were forced to a halt by armed bandits blocking the road. They were dressed completely in black with turban style headgear that covered much of their faces. As the bus groaned to a stop, several more bandits came slithering down the barren hillside beside the road and came on board carrying Kalashnikovs (or some kind of automatic rifle) and those evil looking sabres. I avoided eye contact with them, I didn’t want to be bartered over again, and I had a feeling that what these men wanted, they simply took. I am only glad to report that whoever or whatever it was they were looking for was not on our bus. Finally, after much poking and prodding and searching under seats, we were waved on our way. I didn’t realise how tense the atmosphere was until I heard the collective sigh of relief as the bus continued on its creaking journey.

Three thousand year-old Kabul is set atop a plateau nearly 6,000-ft/1,825m high in the Hindu Kush Mountains. We arrived at 4 p.m after another long day of travel and found comfortable rooms in the Atlantis Hotel. Later we went out to explore the immediate area along with Diane and Graham. We had a couple of beers that night with our friends and finally were able to relax.

Kabul is a city that is much larger than Herat and Kandahar and grander too, as across a very narrow river we discovered a more luxurious suburb where we happened to come across a hotel with a large chess set in the gardens. Sitting in the sunshine and watching the gentle game unfold whilst sipping thick Turkish coffee in glasses was the height of luxury after the last week.

Again there are very few women on the streets and most of those that are outside are covered from top to toe in beige chadaree with only their eyes showing through and even those have a meshed panel in front (burka ). It is of course still Ramadan. Diane and I make sure we are well covered in jeans and long sleeved loose tops, before going onto the streets, and even wearing a scarf wrapped around our heads (we both have very long hair). This does not prevent the male population from staring at us and occasionally touching us, but oddly we feel less threatened here than in Tehran or Herat.

Still we are careful not to be on our own.

On Journey Part Four

tehran – Mashad – Afghan border

This journey was even worse than the train in Yugoslavia. The bus was packed to bursting with families with half a dozen noisy children each and packets of food, accompanied by goats tied onto the roof, chickens and a duck or two in baskets. In addition there were a small odd assortment of Western travellers including us.  A few hours into the journey and the constant loud Middle Eastern music was giving me a headache. It all sounded the same. On top of that was the noise of the people talking (or rather shouting) at one another – even if they were sitting side by side. Were all these folk deaf?  The children ran around the bus as if it were a playground, pushing and shoving each other and yelling and fighting and screaming. Then there was the noise and smell of the old diesel engine and the sound of our driver crunching his way through the gears as we wound our way up the mountains and down again. In addition to the noise is the smell. Stale sweaty bodies, curry spices, decaying food and animal shit. I tried hard to concentrate on staring out of the grimy window, hoping to take my mind off my personal discomfort. And forget toilet breaks. It appears that only the men in this country need to go to the toilet as we never stopped at anything like a service station and I never saw a solitary woman crawl into the stunted shrubbery along the way as I was forced into doing. It made me wonder what they had underneath the voluminous black garments. (I paid severely for this journey as it resulted in damaged kidneys that I suffered with for a number of years).

Finally, almost 24 hours later we pulled up at Mashhad where we met up with Graham and Diane – a Scots couple whom we had bumped into at the Afghanistan Embassy. They had travelled to the border in a more luxurious coach and had no idea of our suffering. OK, I shouldn’t really complain given that this journey was “free” but I did. I was realising that Jon was a bit of a tight-arse.

We all caught the 2 p.m. bus to the border crossing, arriving at six thirty only to discover that the border had closed at six. We had to sleep in a huge empty warehouse along with the rest of the bus passengers including an Australian couple carrying a very large Persian carpet between them. I’d love to know if they managed to get it home, but at least they had the most comfortable and luxurious mattress for the night.

The rest of us were on dusty concrete.

Early the following morning we caught a bus to the border .

The story about that experience can be found here.