Checkout was at noon, so I bade goodbye to my room , which happened to be Number 747, a truly relevant number for someone having just stepped off a plane. I walked down a few alleyways and caught my first tuktuk of this trip to Hua Lamphong train station to pick up my ticket for the overnight train to Chiang Mai. The driver dropped me at the wrong place, so I had to bring back to mind the trick for crossing the road in Bangkok traffic – wait for the locals to cross and get in amongst them. The midday sun beat down on my head mercilessly as I meandered about looking for the agency that held my train ticket. I finally discovered them craftily hidden in an abandoned-looking building and got things sorted. Another tuktuk back and I arrived at the guesthouse prepared to do the waiting game until my train left. This entailed busking with my ukulele for drinking water – a deal I set up with the reception lady who thankfully seemed to enjoy my plunking and wailing. Continue reading
I love that even moderately-priced hotels have idiosyncrasies galore in Asia. When going to the hawng nam (toilet) in the lobby of our hotel, I had to physically pick up the sliding door and heft it across the doorway before locking it with one of those safety chains that are often used on people’s front doors. In the breakfast room, they have a fascinating toaster that looks like it’s out of a mad inventor’s workshop. Your bread goes up a conveyor belt, is toasted under hot elements, then the toaster spits your toast back out the bottom. Unless it doesn’t, in which case you are required to perform delicate surgery with a pair of long metal tongs, potentially receiving a free new hairstyle courtesy of the hotel. Service plus around here… Continue reading
Back in New Zealand, I had organised via internet meeting up with one or two folk from the IndiaMike website we visit every day. It’s a really friendly site, chock full of info on travelling in India and the forum is a great place to visit with really friendly and helpful people.
So we had one Kiwi who lives in Paharganj, two Indian men and a Canadian woman turn up at the rooftop restaurant at our guesthouse. Us four kiwis completed the group. The Canadian woman sang a couple of Hindi songs for us in a very beautiful and poignant-sounding voice. That was an awesome experience while sitting under the night sky watching the bats. They were all really nice people and we had a marvellous time and parted with some new friends.
On Sunday, it was decided that I would be tour leader and take our friends Ernie and Leisa (first time in India for them) to Janpath – a place where there are Tibetan shops in Delhi. We hopped on the Metro and got there to find that Janpath was closed on a Sunday. Different districts close on different days in Delhi, so it’s a pot luck situation sometimes. We then were shown by a helpful local to a “Government market” (where local-made, child labour-free goods are sold). This place was really posh, with a doorman to swish open the door for us, air conditioning and prices to have heart-attacks over, as well as reasonably pushy salesmen. One of the men there was from a Kashmiri carpet-making family and showed us how the carpets are made. They do double knots ones and single knot ones (takes much longer). Your average medium-sized rug takes four people one year to complete. First they knot it (from thirty to one hundred knots per square inch), following a specific colour recipe, then they put it on the floor for two or three days to be walked over and toughened up, then they wash it and hang it in the sun for a day. A heck of a lot of work. So the prices people pay for them are very well deserved!
We walked out of there with our wallets complete then the tout took us in a rickshaw to another such place. This one was full of very aggressive salesmen who acted like stalkers in an alleyway, so we walked out pretty quickly. After the third place, we got fed up with being followed by Kashmiris crawling up our backsides to get to our wallets so we walked out of there too. The tout didn’t get any commission from us, but the rickshaw ride was overpriced anyway so he would have got his share of that. Essentially we just did this for the experience and something to do. I then proceeded to get us lost in the Connaught Place area. I know this area is supposed to have been built in a very logical and easily navigated sort of a way, but I have a fabulously blond talent for having no sense of direction and I had us going around corner after corner until the novelty wore of for Ernie and he took charge with his fabulously male sense of North and got us back to the Metro station. Even there I went to go out the wrong exit. Ernie and Leisa were up ahead of me (going the right way!) and turned around to see me getting stopped by a policeman. Ernie was pretty alarmed about that until I explained later that the policeman was being very helpful and kindly sent me in the correct direction for Pahar Ganj.
Later, we had dinner on the rooftop then set off for our usual dose of torture at the train station. This time, to our awe and amazement, it all worked out remarkably smoothly. The train was actually early (this I have never seen!) and the display units with the CORRECT platform numbers for the CORRECT trains were actually working. A veritable symphony of miracles. The train journey was fine up until Leisa and I (sleeping on the bottom bunks) woke up to rain coming in the windows at us. In the dark and crouched over between two very close together bunks, we couldn’t figure out how to close the damned things. The man sleeping on the floor between us made it impossible to get up and sort it out properly, so we just scooted down our bunks and handled having an impromptu, horizontal shower each. Our men, comfortably ensconced on bunks above us, slept on, blissfully unaware. I knew things had been going to smoothly to be true. This is India, after all.
Yesterday (Monday), early morning, we arrived, damp and bedraggled (well, we women were) in Orchha. Not the most glamorous of entrances, but most the village was asleep anyway, and I doubt the cows or street dogs cared. At least, if they were snickering, I never caught them at it.
We made a beeline for the Ram Raja Restaurant (which our good friends Parbhat and Rani own) to greet them and have chai, then we met up with Indu, who is a tour operator here and a very good friend of Paul’s. He is wonderfully connected here and pretty much took over and organised our day. Actually, he’s pretty much organised our entire week here. All we have to do is walk when he tells us to, sit when he tells us to and drink anything he tells us too. Which has included so far about four hundred cups of chai each, several whiskeys, multitudes of gin, a few beers and a Drambuie or two on the side. He is the master of the art of banishing dehydration. We went to book into the Shri Mahant guesthouse, where we usually stay here, but we got diverted by the Bhola brothers who own the corner shop and they steered us towards their new guesthouse, the “Palace View”. It’s very nice, but we know we are going to be in trouble when the Shri Mahant guys find out that we’re in town.
Indu took us to his home to meet his beautiful wife Rajni and their brand new baby. Chai. We then went to the Maya School which Indu and a Finnish woman called Eva started. This school they raise funds for themselves. It is for very poor children who otherwise wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of an education or even a decent meal each day. They have clothes remodelled from second-hand clothing for each child and provide them with a schoolbag and books. They also give them a meal of dhaal and veges, otherwise these kids only really get chapati (flat bread) to eat and are too undernourished to learn. We watched the children being taught in their classrooms. They all sit on the floor in rows and each child has a turn getting up and reading aloud what is on the blackboard. The rest of the kids chant out loud after them. They have beautiful manners and their eyes are almost popping out of their heads with their keenness to learn. Eva told us about one boy (age about six or so) who’s father died from drunkenness. His father’s job was to clean the police station. This little boy had to rise at 4am, run to the police station and do his father’s job, then run the three kms back home and go to school and learn all day. Recently they organised to get him a bicycle so he can bike to work and back. They say he is now the happiest boy in the world.
After visiting the school, we walked through the market place to go back to our rooms when we were accosted by the Shri Mahant guys. Sure enough, we were in trouble with them. “Some problem with Shri Mahant Paul Ji?!” It took us a while to explain we had no problem with their guesthouse and we are just finding it difficulty to spread ourselves around everybody. They were a little upset, so we have promised that after our day or two in Kajuraho later in the week, we will book into the Shri Mahant upon our return. They left us alone. happy in the knowledge that we still love them too. Whew! Potentially sticky moment, that one!
Once again, Indu met up with us, chai, then off to the Amar Mahal to see about booking a room on Wed night for Ernie and Leisa’s wedding anniversary. Now this place has some serious luxury! The dining room has twenty four carat gold in the design on the ceiling, which is slightly angled to catch the light. All rooms have four-poster beds and hand-painted ceilings. There is a huge swimming pool, courtyards galore, designer gardens, etc. Indu has connections here, so Ernie and Leisa got a healthy discount and will have a “honeymoon suite” on Wednesday night. We will be staying with them also, as there is bedding for four. This is all at their expense. They insisted, as they’re so delighted to be well looked after on their first and probably only trip to India. So we will wallow in luxury with them on Wednesday night and celebrate their anniversary with them. We all find this pretty amusing, as it would be impossible for the likes of us to be able to afford this back in our country.
Later on, Indu marched us up onto our guesthouse rooftop where we quaffed all the above-mentioned drinks while watching the sun set over three palaces in the background. Ernie and Leisa were just beside themselves with ecstasy. We then intruded upon our friends Rani and Parbhat and played Santa Clause. As per last time, we caused a riot with toy airplanes, marbles, traction cars, pop-balls, etc. It was such a good laugh, and made all the better for us because they didn’t expect this. We all had heaps of fun playing with the kids, then Indu took us up to the old palace (more connections) and commandeered a rooftop for a “special beer”. There were glassed raised and cheers all around, to everybody’s health, wealth and families, then we went back down to the restaurant and took over their back yard. Rani and Parbhat served us a beautiful chicken dish that Indu and cooked especially and rained whiskey, coke and beer upon us. They wouldn’t hear of us paying our bills – they were so happy to do something for us in friendship. We felt incredibly spoilt and once again entertained the local cows with our meandering home in a slightly crooked line.
This morning, Indu has taken Ernie and Leisa to book into the Palace for the night then for a tour of the local monuments. We’ve already seen these, so we’re having a relaxing day drinking chai, eating Rani and Parbhat’s wonderful food and catching up on washing and internet. This afternoon, a fair bit of lazing around will occur, followed once again by drinks (Indu’s instructions – we’re just doing as we’re told) on the rooftop.
The train ride back to Delhi was marvelous. And much to my very facetious satisfaction, my partner woke me up far too early for the train stop and we had to look out the window for ages until we got to our arrival point. Trivial, I know, but it did feel good not to be the only one overladen with cautiousness first thing in the morning on a train journey. And I got some really good shots with my camera, so I was pleased with that too.
We had a fairly laid-back day. We got back to our room, showered, then laid down again to get over the exhaustion of laying down all night. You only get about six or seven hours sleep while moving over hundreds of miles on a train and your subconscious is always semi-worried about your luggage, shoes and money staying put, so it isn’t the soundest of sleeps no matter which way you look at it.
Then, foolishly, we made our way back to the Railway Station and booked yet another bunch of train tickets. We simply never learn! This time, in three nights time, we will be on a train to Kalka, which will land at about 4.45 am. Far be it from us to travel during decent hours. But it does save money on accommodation and you get to where you’re going without having to stare out the window, sitting up, for seven to ten hours at a time. The novelty can wear off that no matter how wonderful a place is.
Then, with the favour of every god known to mankind, three-quarters of an hour later we will get on the ‘Toy Train’ (a very famous one) and go to Shimla. I say this because India is well-known for ‘India Time’, which does indeed stretch to the India Railway Company. So we’re really crossing our fingers that our first train will arrive in time to catch the second train. If not, we’ll play it by ear – what else to do? But it really is awesome to be able to go for hundreds of miles for a very small amount of money here. The India Railway System is the largest in the world and, if you ignore one or two idiosyncracies, is quite well organised.
From Shimla we will get on a bus (oh joy…) and go on to Sarahan. This is now in the Himalayas. Then, no doubt, we’ll flop around in a state of advanced exhaustion for a night or so then do it some more until we get to Chitkul. This is the village that is the last one in the Sangla/Baspa Valley that you can travel to without getting a permit. After that valley, with permit, you go more uphill then over into Tibet. We will not be doing that. We’re talking serious mountain-climbing here and I’m just not that into UP. It always hurts, you can’t breathe for panting, there’s always more UP in front of you, and then knowing my luck, there’ll be five days of cloudy weather and you can’t see a thing anyway! (Tis Monsoon season, after all.)
I wouldn’t be surprised if there was no internet there (in fact, I’d be pretty disgusted if there was – these are supposed to be remote, unspoiled villages) so I may not be in contact for close to two weeks. So there you go, you may just get a holiday from my ramblings, if you’re lucky.
Last night was cool. We sat around on the rooftop, yakking with a Kiwi, some Dutch, German, Indian and various other people. All well-travelled and all very nice with a great sense of humour. Then it RAINED. When it rains here in Monsoon, it really really means it. Cools the air nicely though. This morning, pretty much like last night. I’m enjoying just keeping still while I can. And eating meat. Rishikesh is a vegetarian area, and while I love vegetarian food, every now and again I need to eat something that once was moving.
Also, we saw a beggar here yesterday that we see regularly every year. We actually heard him coming and knew it was him. My partner calls him the God Botherer. He crawls along the ground with one leg stretched out in front, calling upon the mercy of all the gods he knows of and holding a stainless steel cup. We happened to be sitting with one of the shopkeepers at the time, and he told us that this guy is actually very rich. He makes about 1000 rupee a day, which is a fortune over here, and has pockets sewn all over the inside of his rags to hide his money in. Why he prefers to keep grovelling in the dirt and mud and doesn’t invest in a fleet of rickshaws instead, I don’t know, but he does put on a good act and really does earn his money. And it’s terribly entertaining to watch. Especially since last year I spied him standing up, shaking out his clothes and yakking with one of the locals, then getting back down on the ground again to continue his theatrics. I wonder if he owns a mansion in the hills somewhere and retires there in the off-season to swan about on his verandah and watch his peons work in the fields? I wouldn’t be surprised.