North India: Chaos, Carnage, Confusion and Castles

Apologies, yet again, about the delay – it’s time to get involved with India which is, unsurprisingly, rather too big to write about in just one post. Even two won’t reeeally do it justice, but it’s gonna have to do as I’ve since been back to England for Christmas and then moved on into Australia…things are almost happening too quickly for me to cope!

But yes. India. Having very recently re-emerged from the vast emptiness and desolation of the Himalayas, being dropped headfirst into the evening rush-hour traffic of Varanasi was a bit of a sensory assault. After all, we had not seen anything with wheels for nearly three weeks! Preconceptions of traffic in India proved fairly accurate – no lanes, no traffic lights, no order of any sort whatsoever. It’s a survival-of-the-fittest situation out there, where “fittest” in this context stands for “most willing and able to weave through non-existent gaps in traffic”. Add endless streams of three-wheeled tuk-tuks (which are great fun to ride in!), a generous dollop of cows ambling around aimlessly and a sprinkling of elephants, painted and hung with jewellery for weddings and other ceremonies, and you just about get the idea. The word “cacophony” has rarely seemed more appropriate.

One of the countless tuktuks congesting India’s streets. Their drivers exhibit varying levels of death-wish driving, affection for Indian beats (excellent driving music!) and talkativeness, but sitting in the front seat of one – basically on the driver’s lap and blocking half the steering “handlebar” – is an experience not to be missed! Tuk-tuks are also slightly different from city to city.
This is, well, an elephant. Not the one we saw blocking traffic in Varanasi, but the only one I have a photo of. Still painted from a wedding it was used at a few days previously, Steve and Jonatan were keen for a ride. I thought the conditions he was living in (a concrete barn/bunker and fetters around his legs) were rather depressing and didn’t want to support the practice, so I wanted to wait for them to return. However, the owners ended up letting me go along for free. In the end, I couldn’t say no – I’m not proud…

Fortunately, then, our hotel was a rather more tranquil affair: the Ganges, holiest of rivers to Hindus, flows placidly in a wide bed here and the smog is bad enough that the far bank is obscured most of the time. Horrendous pollution problems aside, the evenings, when the smog and river are illuminated by the rising moon and out-of-sight orange streetlights, are pretty magical. Our evenings were duly spent wandering the riverbank Ghats, always on the lookout for street food – one of the best things India has to offer. Steve and I regularly managed to overeat for the equivalent of about 50p each! Buying food from street vendors also offers the advantage of trying lots of different things in one evening. It is just as well that our stomachs were prepared for non-Western fare after a few weeks in Nepal, as I managed not to fall ill at all. 

Eating sessions tended to end with various sticky affairs from little bakeries. These generally turned out to be lumps of solid sugar, held together by liquid sugar and often immersed in syrup for good measure. Sweet!

Sunrise from our rowboat. One of the advantages of the smog is being able to look directly at the sun while it’s rising for quite a while, and the incredible reds and oranges of said sunrise!
A Holy Man (or, all too often, a guy with a painted face who expects tips for putting red dots on tourists’ foreheads) sat in one of the colourful Ghats lining the Ganges in Varanasi. The rubbish in and on the river is depressingly ubiquitous.
Sunset over the Ganges.

Anyway – it’d be far too easy to just go on and on about all the food we had. Eventually, Steve made the crucial error of drinking orange juice from a street stall. Almost certainly made with water fresh from the Ganges, it knocked him out completely for about three days. This made jumping off a moving train – after we’d boarded the wrong one trying to get from Varanasi to Agra – all the more enjoyable for him! We hadn’t planned to stay a night in Agra, which has very little to offer apart from the Taj Mahal and a lot of seedy tourist ripoffs, but Steve was ill enough that he ended up staying the night and joining us (Jonatan, a Swedish guy with an unusual but endearing affection for small furry critters, and myself) in Jaipur the next day.

The Taj itself, despite the swarms of people wandering its grounds every day, was absolutely magnificent; I was in awe, and spent a fair while just sitting in front of it and looking at it (while trying to ignore the thousands of people all trying to get jumping/touching-the-tip/waving photos at the same time). Try as I might, I couldn’t really get a photo I was really happy with – the rule of thirds doesn’t really apply here as nothing in the surroundings of the Taj really adds to the building itself; it is the unquestionable centrepiece of everything one could possibly do here. Still, a few shots below…

Our view at dawn, during breakfast on a rooftop.
Some detail from below. Marble plinth and writing around the doorway – it gets bigger further up so it looks like it’s all the same size. Ingenious!
From the gardens – though they add little to the building’s beauty…
And the obligatory overall shot.

Rajasthan was our last stop in North India – we visited Jaipur, the capital, and smaller Jodhpur. Jaipur drove home the point that big cities in India – especially when it’s not the monstrous ones like Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, the sheer, staggering size of which makes them spectacular in their own right – are less attractive than smaller places. They’re less walkable, more polluted and on the whole, touts and tuktuk drivers are more obnoxious. In Jaipur, we had one particularly keen would-be chauffeur follow us some 300m up a six-lane road during rush hour – on the wrong side of the road! Then, having ignored our loud “no”s before we ignored him completely, he became indignant that we didn’t want his services. 

Still, the place was pleasant enough – the Amber Fort (not actually named for the fossilised resin, but appropriately coloured) was our first taste of the giant fortresses dotting all of Rajasthan and relating the state’s tribal history. Wandering around these was particularly fun because unlike most European medieval castles, these things are less ruined and can be freely explored. The windy corridors, unplanned layout and hundreds of rooms, alcoves and staircases (and the royal latrines) conveyed a very Game of Thrones-esque feeling and were great fun.

The Amber Fort – a largish affair.
Fortified walls – Maharajahs, having thousands of people at their disposal, appear to have used them not just to build them nice things, but also to send them to war against other Maharajahs – presumably to conquer other nice things.

Of course, there are plenty of other palaces around – the maharajahs of old (and less old – the current one is, unsurprisingly, Eton- and Oxbridge-educated) are rich chaps, after all! One of them decided to have a massive artificial lake created in the middle of his desert city, with no other purpose than to then have a palace built in the middle of said lake (and creatively naming it “Water Palace”). Almost like a 17th-century Dubai…

As close as one can get to the Water Palace. Steve and Jonatan posed for portraits here with some chuffed-looking Indian tourists…

Jodhpur, then, was more laid back and a lot more walkable. Our efforts to buy pashminas here failed spectacularly, but it was a nice change that people here seemed slightly less used to tourists. We got plenty of stares, even more thinly disguised than usual, and small throngs of children following us for short distances screaming (in excitement, I hope, rather than hurling abuse…but you never know!). 

Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort dominating the city utterly. The place looks like it grows out of the hillside, and I’m not surprised it’s never been conquered.

This post took rather longer than anticipated – it turns out there is rather a lot to be said about India after spending over 3 weeks there, even though this is of course far too short a time to even come close to seeing the whole country. More on the South soon – a very different affair…!

Happy New Year!

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