Bye-bye, ta-ta; Farewell to India

It is with very mixed feelings that our time in India draws to a close. Different it certainly is! One minute we’re loving the chaotic bustle and vibrancy together with the curious, smiling, friendly people who crowd around us when we stop.  At the next we can’t stand the incessant head drumming noise, crushing crowds and appalling drivers. Not to mention the persistent touts, swindlers and beggars at many tourist attractions and sacred sites we’ve visited as we’ve laced our way across a strip of India.
Of course, more than any other country we’ve visited, there’s a feeling of “well we haven’t seen X”, but that’s why it’s called a subcontinent. Probably two years would be needed to explore the whole country, whereas we’ve trundled across it in three months, riding only half the time.
We’ve almost enjoy seeing the cattle, goats, dogs, less frequently pigs, ever present in the streets, or the pesky monkeys swinging overhead. All up for a vegetable stall raid if a merchant has dropped their guard. The cattle nonchalantly block the road or a passageway. Gid had a narrow escape meeting a bull who was ‘hoofing the turf’. A moment or two after he squeezed past, it hoofed again before tossing a 20kg cement bag up into the air where it got caught on overhead wires, trickling its contents in a shower back down to earth. Thus we learnt to recognise a bull in this mood, and avoid it! Most, however, are very tolerant of being moved along with a quick ‘ha!’ or simply squeezed past.
The mess and muck we’ve grown used to as well as the frequently present stench of ‘street’ toilets where well-dressed Indian men will only approach the general area before adding to the problem. No idea where the ladies go when they’re out in town!  Amusingly, in Bodhgaya there’s a street sign – Please use toilet. It was truly incongruous to see jewelled bare feet squelching through slime and muck after an unseasonal down pour. But we got used to it, although you won’t see us in flipflops!
It’s hard not to be disturbed by the visible poverty. It’s far more evident than in, say, Kyrgyzstan, despite the countries having similar per capita incomes. It probably testifies to India’s immense inequalities. However, Indians generally seem in very good spirits. It seems in England, everyone’s miserable because they are feel short of money and time. Can’t see why India should follow that model, and it doesn’t.
We encountered begging in tourist areas, with a peak at the Buddhist pilgrimage sites. The Hindu holy men are supposed to be a cultural fixture, and sustained only by those around them, but they seem to make a beeline for tourists. Having seen one old guy score basically a day’s wages in one hit, from four Thai pilgrims, it’s not hard to see why. Urchins often put their hands out, and in Bodhgaya and Varanasi there was real medieval stump-waving, but it’s impossible to work out what’s real – locals usually advise not to give. I passed a lady walking by the roadside in the country, and she lifted a hand to me: “Rupee, rupee”; yet she had about $400 worth of silver bangles on that arm.
In many ways India has seemed to be in a time warp. It’s been quite stunning to see so many ancient machines and techniques still in use where ox carts and man power still dominate. In the country, there are lots of new tractors, but apart from that everything looks pretty archaic. We passed the sugar cane harvest in Madhya Pradesh, a prosperous state. The factories filled the skyline, chimneys billowing out thick black smoke, but it was scythes and ox carts out in the fields that fed the mills. In towns, half the market’s spread out on the floor, and cobblers, tailors and puncture repairers have plenty of work, while roadside corn grinders and milk boilers are busy too. Aside from the animal hauled transport, some of the stuff on the roads seems crazily archaic. The tuk tuk is a fine piece of 1940s minimal engineering (sez Gid), but there are still motor tricycles running, that appear barely any advance on Carl Benz’s original 1886 tricycle, with the machinery (belts, chains) taking up nearly a cubic metre. But it’s juxtaposed with sleek new Suzukis, mobile phones and satellite dishes together with, adverts for ECGs and medical labs, and in the papers, India’s just tested a new, longer range, nuclear missile.
‘We’re not like your country, we’re relaxed.‘Without it it wouldn’t be India’, are a couple the claims I’ve overheard. And no one follows any of the laws that are passed for the safety of your citizens, I could add. ‘No, we don’t follow any rules,’ one lad chuckled as he agreed. Road traffic regulations are blatantly ignored resulting in the worst driving we’ve experienced and leading to one of the highest death tolls on roads in the world, as well as being a topic of frequent debate in the newspapers. We’ll make a separate posting for Indian drivers!
India is widely known as the world’s biggest democracy. But curiously, it feels more like a police state than anywhere else we’ve been. Not only are there heavily armed police all over the place, but there are rules, rules, rules prohibiting all sorts of things. No wonder Indians generally don’t attend to them. Passports are needed more than anywhere else, and numerous forms to be filled. Unlike everywhere else though, we can read the newspapers, and see the very public, and venal, politics (oddly, it reminds Gid of Irish newspapers and politics, dominated by the crookedness of the politicians). There are hugely snarled up checkpoints and taxation at the borders between states. We only realised while here, how separate the states are, and of course, with their own politics, perhaps like the USA. Maybe that’s one reason there’s an impression that the Delhi government says “jump”, and …it doesn’t work out the way the “Centre” intended (planned would be too strong a word, perhaps). It does feel as if the country is tied in a bureaucratic Gordian knot of its own devising, although some might comment that the British helped devise some of it!
The British often claim to be an exceptionally tolerant nation. But Indians seem much more so. They put up with – smile through – what seem to us the most appalling behaviour and difficulties.
Cricket, India’s unofficial national game, has filled the tiniest of crevices in passage ways and the busiest of road sides – fielders posed on the other side of the streaming traffic – to spare fields, parks and the ‘promenade’ of the Ganges, where yet again fielding was an issue. With the high levels of enthusiasm and skill displayed, it’s no wonder they’ve just thrashed England here, in the latest Test series… And One Day… And T20. Probably a good job we never managed to get to any of the matches.
Just before we flew in, the Indian government abruptly invalidated the two larger main banknotes, and prohibited cash withdrawals larger than roughly £23: “demonetisation”. Result, utter chaos in this cash economy. Enormous queues at the few ATMs that got stocked with new notes. Like other tourists we spent days hunting hotels that take (foreign) cards, working ATMs, and queueing for endless 2000 Rupee  withdrawals. And the banks simply lapped up the flat rate charges they levy when people make small transactions abroad, like a 10% tax. So it caused a lot of hassle and wasted time, we saw others in real distress, and a lot of Indians really fell foul of it as it killed the casual labour economy dead in some places. That plus the impact of the Brexit vote on the pound’s value, made a real difference to our budget here. Unfortunately we only worked that out after we’d stripped Rajasthan of souvenirs and posted them home on Concorde.
The other money issue is the swindling. Led by the India government, which charges foreigners typically ten times what Indians pay to see sites, there’s a culture of gouging in some sectors. It’s also common to quote one price at the start of a transaction, then try to charge a lot more with unexpected add-ons. There seems to be complete tolerance of swindlers who claim to be collecting for charitable purposes, but are not. There are different amounts of swindling in different sectors: 100% of boatmen, 50% of auto rickshaw drivers, whereas most shopkeepers seem pretty honest.
There’s generosity too. Free tea stops, the odd free meal…. Nice people about, especially away from the tourist trail.
We’ve seen spectacular sights in India, and found the present and past both fascinating. Much of the culture, to us has seemed, unique and other worldly. There were frustrations and dropouts with all the electrics, but most days we had WiFi or phone data, and rather wobbly electricity was available every night. The winter weather is nice, guesthouses plentiful and cheap, our tums have managed ok so far, and the roads are mostly flat and smooth. And yet….. It’s felt a struggle being here. Has India beaten us, or does surviving count as a win?

Madhya Pradesh Travelogue

At the start of 2017, we left the desert and dry hills of Rajasthan for the state of Madhya Pradesh. The country gradually became a lot lusher. Not so flat, either, although mostly it’s gently rolling terrain interspersed with occasional ranges of small hills. Of course, the wildlife changed as well, so the Beastie and Bird Log has a set of new pictures.


Not such a famous place outside India, considering its merits. Huge abandoned city, of which semi-ruined palaces, temples, mosques, tombs, and city walls (37km around!) remain. Extensive waterworks add to the fascination.


Like Mandu, not so many western tourists, and many more visiting Indians. A famous pilgrimage site on a holy river. Temples, walls, a (small) palace, and river boats (with middlemen gouging the tourists and giving the boatmen as little as possible). While ambling around town, we saw a yoga school, and while discussing it, up popped the head of the yoga teacher – from Brighton! She invited us in for a chat, which was lovely, ranging over ‘how-to-spend-our-lives’ philosophy to (sigh), the hassles of property in England. Unfortunately we couldn’t make any of the yoga sessions before we left, so we got ripped off by a boat tout instead. We reckon he ripped off the boatman, too.


Hoshangabad and Bhimbetka

Following the Narmada from Maheshwar, we stopped a few days in the unfamous town of Hoshangabad. Hoshangabad was on our route as an overnight stop between Maheshwar and Bandhavgarh, a seven or eight day run, with a rest day in Jabalpur. But it didn’t pan out like that. We got to Hoshangabad relatively early in the afternoon and, as usual, stopped on the outskirts to look on our phones for places to stay. Also as usual, we became the centre of a small crowd. One guy, astride his Honda, acted as translator.


An old chap came up and very straight faced was jabbering away. It transpired he was a sculpturer, and wanted us to come and look. We did, and very interesting too. There were remarkably lifelike, life size, lions, in various states of preparation, including one finished, complete with realistic, but vegetable, fur. And gods, who might ride them. All made in clay on a straw frame.

The young biker suggested popping round to his place for a chai. His family were builders, so they had their own, grandfather-built, temple. In the cool and quiet front room of their house, we met all three generations living there. And he told us about some of the town’s sights. Then he led us, on his bike, to the area of the hotels, where we were unusually fussy and chose the third one that offered us a room. Balaji-Inn turned out to be a good choice, we had long chats & good information from owner Deepesh about places to see, and our later route. And it had both hot water and WiFi. We started to think about staying an extra night.

So, we got up and going really late, that being ideal for a rest day, taking a tuk tuk to see the ancient rock shelters and paintings at the Adamgadh Hills. And bought some more souvenirs in this very untouristy town. That evening we met a lovely local couple, the Bhagats, in the restaurant, dining together. Ajay especially was a super-keen traveller, and gave us lots of good tips for along our remaining Indian route. We realised with a jolt that we were halfway across India already. And they insisted on buying us dinner, too. Come to think of it, our elevenses stop at a roadside diner had been complementary, too. Still, we’d attracted a huge crowd into the diner 🙂


Can’t remember if Ajay Bhagat or Deepesh at the hotel told us about Bhimbetka, 35km north. Cue more replanning. It was certainly Deepesh who told us of the Silk factory, and reminded us the town had extensive ghats down to the sacred Narmada.  We’d originally thought to divert our cycle via Bhimbetka, but 35km is an annoying sort of distance, and it’s likely not cheap to stay there, so we booked another night at Balaji-Inn and did a morning trip using the frequent buses to Bhopal. 1 hour bus trip – 40 r each. It was about 2km from bus route to the rocks, but transport was available on the back of a motorbike,  three up.
Bhimbetka was indeed impressive and intriguing. And we learnt some new words, mostly containing the syllable “lith”. Then back again on the bus from Bhopal. It was, err, interesting to see the maniac bus driving from the other side. To be fair, only one of the two drivers adopted the horn blaring maniac stereotype, the other was a peaceable, careful fellow. Both stopped to make an offering to the gods.
After this palaeolithic experience (the buses as much as the paintings, one had its roof held up by a metal post, the other’s windscreen parted company with the frame over every bump) we rushed back to Hoshangabad for a tuk tuk to the Silk factory,  which showed some aspects of silk we’d not seen before, indeed different types of silkworm chrysalis. There was no weaving, but it turned out some of their yarn went to the silk hand weaving works of Maheshwar, which we’d seen there. And of course there’s a shop… Oh dear, more souvenirs, making up for buying nothing in Maheshwar. Then the early evening wandering the ghats. And our third night in Hoshangabad. Very restful. To be fair to ourselves, we also did a lot of blog work, booked our days in Bandhavgarh National Park, and mostly sorted ourselves out for the increasing risk of malaria over coming weeks: The many labours of the long distance tourist. Sometimes we overlook the time we need to find for planning, preparation and blogging.
With all these people keen to chat extensively with us, Hoshangabad rates as the very friendliest town we’ve been to in India, where everywhere has been friendly. And on our last evening, one of the hotel lads knocked on the door, and waved the local paper at us: Our moment of fame, in Hindu. We’d been flagged down a couple of times by local press on motorbikes – this was the outcome. The headline most ungallantly highlighted Clare’s age.

Bheda Ghat

Still on the Narmada, more famous religious sites to see. And a waterfall. Not sure if it was Grade IV or Grade V.

Bandhavgahr – Tigers – No, no Tigers today.

Indian National Parks seem not to be accessible unless one forks out for a jeep (or elephant) and a guide. Pretty pricey, so we limited ourselves to two jeep safaris. Here’s what we saw. Mostly birdies, plus deer and boar.

And on to Uttar Pradesh… A few roadside snaps from along the way…

And more wildlife too, see the Beastie and Bird Log.

Another gem from the Garmin

Despite being on National Highways we spent two days on bone shaking, bike wrecking roads, since arriving in Uttar Pradesh, on a par with the worst we’ve experienced so far.
Lorries weaved across the roads at pitifully slow speeds to avoid being the next victim at the already over crowded tyre and suspension repair shops that line these villages. On the good stretches, that were far outweighed by the bucking bronco sections,  my optimism about our ETA rose, only to plummet as the next morass of potholes emerged out of the dust cloud. On arriving at Mirzapur we asked the hotel manager what the road to Varanasi was like. With dismay we listened to, ‘Another 15 km of broken tarmac and pot holes but after that it’s alright.’
Varanasi, our next destination, was only 52km the Garmin displayed. We could manage that even on lousy roads but as we came to set off the locals stepped in to direct us. With a few arm waves, head wobbles and the words ’65km’, it was job done, our route was sorted, except it was in the opposite direction to the Garmin’s.
Keen to please our hosts, we set off as directed; I tried to combine electronic and ‘verbal’ instructions. Gid, a few road turns later, pointed out that we were heading south despite our efforts to travel north. At that point I gave up trying to merge the two and stated, ‘OK, are you up for a Garmin route?  I can’t see where it meets up with the main road.’ Truth be known, it didn’t!
Our route trundled along some single lane dirt roads, cobbled roads, tarmac roads but nothing as bad as the National Highway. We were right ‘in the middle’ of rural India passing through tiny villages with lots of people excited or curious to see us. Many communities were engaged in activities long since mechanised in England turning the clock back as we watched man power at work.
We were both excited by the route and appreciated that we could never have navigated it from our maps but Gid was most concerned. ‘Can we cross the river? Are you sure we can cross the river?’ he kept probing. Both Google and Garmin showed a route across the river. But was it true? On this road? A bridge, or a ford maybe? Thankfully, as we got nearer to the river we turned onto a bigger road allaying Gid’s fears. At least this looked big enough to have a bridge and, suddenly, sweeping round one last bend, there it was.
From our high vantage point we looked down across the half mile, pontoon and beams, covered with sheets of metal, bridge. On approaching the toll ticket barrier we were beckoned on with beaming smiles; cars and tuctucs have to pay and struggle across as best they can but we were free to go.
The approach from both sides was through sand with two lanes of 10 x 3 metal sheets providing a firm surface. This was fine until cars needed to pass or …. oh no – a three wheeled tuctuc where lots of people were frequently out pushing or digging out the front wheel.
We made our way across, stopping to take photos as we went, absorbing another terrific  sight and spectacular event in India.

May your God be with you

‘Safe journey, may your God be with you’ were the parting words of one Indian gentleman we have spoken to.

We got used to the high profile of religion in Turkey. Our first experience was in Kirklareli, where an Imam very kindly welcomed us into the mosque, explaining the symbolism on the walls and the practise of Muslims. The frequent calls to prayer and tidal rush of men accompanied us across the country.
In Indian, the birth place of four now global religions (Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism) where, by law, Indians have a freedom of choice,  religious practice is all around us. Red ribbons mark a sacred tree and shrines, erected in the smallest of stone hearths, are placed at seemingly random places along the road, desert and countryside. On a bigger scale there are frequently larger shrines and full sized temples in and around villages and towns. These are usually brightly decorated with incense and flowers around the deity being worshipped with plenty of places to buy these things nearby.
On the way to Ranakpur, to see the famous Jain temple, a man passing us on his motorbike guessed where we were heading but was very insistent that we should see his village’s temple. 5 km down the road he was waiting for us to arrive, eager to point out ‘his’ temple which turned out to be a couple of flags placed on a hill sized rock.
Later, another proud villager sped after us on a motorbike imploring us to rethink our hasty transit as ‘his’ temple was not to be missed. It had been quite impressive to have such a grand building in such a small village but it appeared to be of a similar structure to many we have already seen on our route across India and time was running short. We very guiltily continued on our way.
It’s not uncommon to start the waking process at 6 am with an hour of chanting which can give way to a lengthy session of ‘random’ bell ringing or drum thumping which can be followed by the call to prayer enabling many Indians to start their day with worship.
At numerous other times along our way we have been accompanied by banging and crashing as a religious service takes place. Occasionally a procession escorts a highly decorated truck that emits, from its loud speakers, volumes of thumping music. It all seems to add to the general melee of high noise level the Indians don’t appear to notice.
At the other end of the scale there are many silent almost fleeting gestures. Another moment to be noted was when our bus, on the way to Bimbetka, stopped for the conductor to leap out and purchase a garland of flowers. On passing the sacred river Narmada the bus stopped while the man placed the garland on a roadside shrine. On our return trip the bus slowed while a coconut and garland of flowers were thrown into the river demonstrating a religious side to the maniac bus drivers who invariably scream along the roads with horns blaring.
At Maheshwar, on the sacred river, we stayed for a couple of days to again visit temples. Late one afternoon we took a boat trip out towards Baneshwar temple.  The oarsman wasn’t fussed about us actually landing on the tiny island but set off up river to a religious ceremony taking place at the water’s edge. Singing and playing, accompanied by setting afloat candles in tiny dishes to create a light trail as they drifted off down river, made a magical moment in the fading light.
Washing in sacred water, to cleanse both body and soul, are very much are part of the Hindu tradition. Many Hindus make at least one pilgrimage to a sacred water site in their life time. On foot, with a knap sack, often wearing something orange and sometimes with no shoes, they are a frequent and unmistakable sight, especially as we approached the sacred places. One, we came across in the middle of nowhere, having just explained that he was on foot, to our amusement, jumped on the back of a passing motorbike and sped off ahead of us.
We’ve followed the course of the Narmada crossing it several times observing shrines, religious practice and places of pilgrimage. The marble rocks on the Narmada at Bheraghat, and Pushkar’s sacred lake, that originated from a lotus petal, are two such places but none are more important than Varanasi. Situated on the Ganges Varanasi is one of India’s seven sacred cities and of major importance in the passage of life and death in Hinduism. It is here, in a ceremony on the river bank, that the cycle of rebirth can be broken releasing the person from the caste system and setting their soul free. The ‘burning ghat’, as it is known, is ablaze 24 hrs. as the public cremations take place.

Varanasi is one of three sacred cities in India where aarti takes place. Aarti is a ceremony performed by priests, where fire is sacrificed to the Goddess Ganga, and a number of other deities.