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From the Hills to the Desert

My time in India is running out, but I've been busy visiting an atmospheric hill station, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, watched camels getting romantic in Bikaner, and enjoyed a bit of rest and relaxation in Udaipur. If you've time for more, read on...

On my last night in Varanasi, I got food poisoning. I'd eaten at the hotel restaurant as usual, although the food had tasted a little off. I'd gone to bed early, aiming to be up for sunrise, but around ten o'clock became aware that I was feeling a little unwell. "A breath of fresh air will sort me out," I thought to myself, as I undid the bolt on the doors to my balcony. I took a large, lungful of air, which reminded me that I was downwind of the cremation ghats, and promptly dashed to the toilet to toss my cookies, and remained there for the best part of the night.

I caught a night train back to Delhi the following evening, almost missing my stop by sleeping in. I emerged dazed and confused onto the platform, blinking at the sunlight, checking with every third person I met that this was New Delhi Station. Things looked a little more familiar by the time I'd reached the exit, and I trundled up Paharganj and found some cheap digs. I met up with my cousin, Nigel, and had my first experience of an Indian bar, where we sat and supped beer. It was about as dingy as I had envisaged; at one stage I brushed a small cockroach from my hand.

The next morning we met at the station, and boarded the air-conditioned train to Kalka, where we switched to tiny train on a narrow-gauge track for the rest of the journey to Shimla. As soon as we left the station, the train began to climb steadily, weaving back and forth on the hills surrounding Kalka, gaining altitude but keeping the town in sight. The track is around 60 miles long, and has a gradient of 1 in 33, and passes through numerous tunnels and over bridges made up from layer upon layer of arches. It's certainly an engineering feat, and the views were good too, the terrain changing the higher we got, and the air feeling decidedly chilled.

It had been overcast all day, and hadn't long stopped raining when we arrived at Shimla, where drizzle still hung in the air. Our first impressions were astonishment at how steep the town was - I know it's a hill station, but I'd figured it would be on relatively flat ground. Instead the settlement was built on a very steep slope; we'd climbed around twenty metres just to reach the road alongside the station. We began making our way to one of the nearest guesthouses, but were accosted by a short Kashmiri man with an expressive face, wearing a heavy duty poncho. He talked us into going to the hotel that he worked from, which was quite a way away, but was already on a level of The Mall, the pedestrianized centre of Shimla.

The hotel room was quite nice, and not as expensive as we'd been expecting (I'd got a bit confused with my dates, and erroneously believed it to be the high season). We joined the man and his younger colleague in their office (a broom cupboard) for a cup of special Kashmiri tea, but failed to be persuaded to sign up for a side-trip to Kashmir, or even a trek in nearby valleys - unlike most of the backpackers staying there; the Kashmiris are known for their persuasiveness. The next day we spent some time around the atmospheric Mall, lined by old buildings, and populated by smart Indian gentlemen with interesting moustaches, dressed in suits and tweeds, greeting each other with formal handshakes. Most unlike the rest of India. They had a street cleaner too, picking up the tiniest bits of rubbish - again, very un-Indian. We found an antique book shop, and spent a good while browsing around the dusty books and old photographs.

The next day we took a trip into the nearby countryside, and were collected at the hotel by a man with a van who looked more German to me, with his brown hair and blue eyes; maybe there was a European ancestor and a bit of scandal in his lineage. Our first stop was overlooking the aptly named Green Valley, where healthy pines sprung out of crumpled peaks, and we declined an offer to dress up in local clothing and have our picture taken. Next up was a mountain resort where we ditched the van in favour of horses - well, little ponies really - to continue our journey to the top. At the top I saw my first yaks...and again turned down the chance to dress in local garb, and have our photograph taken on the back of a yak, although the Indian tourists that arrived squealing and chattering seemed well up for it. We also knocked back the chance for a go on the world's highest go-cart track, if the sign was to be believed.

Next up was the Himalayan Nature Park, which I was a little dubious about, it sounding like a zoo. It was pretty well laid out, though, and most of the animals had a fair bit of room, an exception being the snow leopard, which paced angrily up and down until a loud group of screaming Indians came into earshot, whereupon it hid. The park was peppered with signs asking visitors not to tease the animals, even explaining in detail what teasing meant, but they were only in English; maybe this noisy crowd didn't read English. We saw bears and wolves and a variety of deer-type things, and also a selection of pheasants and a couple of chickens, strangely. We ended our trip with a visit to a nearby helipad, for more views (and more yaks). A few flakes of snow fell while we were there, looking over towards the Himalayas; it seemed quite appropriate.

In the morning I said goodbye to Nigel, and caught a bus back down to the lowlands, dozing through the journey, thanks to the motion sickness tablets I'd taken. I switched buses, and caught one bound for Amritsar, where I was to spend the next couple of days. It was dark by the time I arrived, but I managed to find a room without too many hassles. I had two reasons for coming to the town: to see the Golden Temple, spiritual heartland of the Sikhs; and to witness the border-closing ceremony at Waggha, brought to the world's attention by Michael Palin. I planned to do both the following day.

On the bus the previous day, I'd developed a fascination with tubans, so I was in for a treat at the Golden temple. The temple itself sits in the middle of a huge temple tank surrounded by marbled walkways; it's also spotlessly clean. A multitude of worshippers walked around the enclosure in groups, or sit in the shade. Men and boys strip down to their underwear and immerse themselves in the holy water, being careful to wrap the straps of their sacrificial daggers around their heads. There were some mighty fine beards on display, and after an hour there I had developed a serious case of beard envy. The Sikhs are known for their hospitality, serving meals to all to demonstrate the principle of equality, and I took advantage of this by popping in for some free food.

Outside the Guru-ka-Langar I was handed a stainless steel dish by two men with wicked beards, who asked if I wouldn't mind taking their photo. Inside I took my place in a huge hall, sitting cross-legged on the floor in line amongst the turbaned men and scarfed women. A man with a bucket full of dhal, a lentil dish, walked slowly along the line, stooping as he dished out dollops of the stuff on each tray. Another man dropped chapatis into our hands from a huge basket, whilst another tipped a gigantic kettle, pouring boiled water into the shallow cups. It was nice nosh - I found the food at the temple to be the best I had in Amritsar...but this says more about the quality of the rest of the food I ate there. Afterwards I watched the hectic cleanup in process, with teams of washer-uppers. Next door was the food preparation area, where groups kneaded dough into chapatis, and a man dressed in orange guarded an enormous pot of dhal, which bubbled on the stove.

I returned to the hotel, and arranged for a rickshaw to Waggha, on the Indian-Pakistan border. There was quite a crowd already there when I arrived, and a number of stands and hawkers, selling VCDs of the proceedings, and plastic Indian flags to wave. It was a bit like an obstacle race to get there. First we were made to line up at the side of the border, being shouted at by men with bushy moustaches and origami on their heads. Having had nearly five months of practise, at Indian railway stations mostly, I was able to worm my way to the front of the crush without too much difficulty. There the crowd kept surging forward, ignoring the whistling of the soldier trying to keep us in check. He'd shout and they'd pause momentarily, then push forward the next minute, making the soldier step backwards to remain at the front of swell; it conjured memories of playing "What's the time, Mr Wolf" as a kid.

Then the appointed time came, the border guard stepped out the way, and the lines broke, everybody running to get a good spot, full of good natured excitement. There is grandstand seating overlooking the gates of the border, and the foremost section was roped off for VIPs. I noticed there were a couple of white guys up there though, and then I saw a group of middle-aged Europeans making their way through the barrier. I tried to look as if I belonged and joined them, making my way up to the prime position seats. The Indian crowd was much bigger than the Pak crowd; I felt quite sorry for them. I figure this is because Amritsar is a tourist attraction in its own right, so there are more Indian visitors here. Before long the fun and games had started, the border guards on both sides, dressed in fancy uniforms, goose-stepping in double time up to the gates and pulling stern faces at each other. The crowds on both sides shouting and cheering as the flags were slowly slipped down their respective poles, folded and marched ceremoniously back to the guardhouse, the gates firmly closed for the night.

I was booked on a night train back to Delhi the next night, so I had the day to kill. I checked out and spent the heat of the day hiding in expensive air-conditioned restaurants, eating revolting food. Mid-afternoon I headed back to the temple, enjoying the ambience and watching the faithful at prayer. Sikh prayers are a lot more peaceful than Hindu religious ceremonies, so it was a relaxing place to hang out. I ate another meal there after the sun had set, then picked up my bag and set off for the train. I slept well, and stashed my bag at left luggage before going to my favourite Delhi restaurant for breakfast. I had another long train journey ahead of me, my destination Bikaner, a desert town in the west of Rajhistan. The train was almost empty, and again I slept well, arriving refreshed in the morning.

There was lots to do in Bikaner, and if you want to know more about what I got up to there, check out my blog. In short I saw holy rats and shagging camels, trespassed on private property to do a spot of wildlife spotting, and had a bit of a walk in the desert. Jodhpur was next on my list, the Blue City, so called as many of the buildings in the old city are painted blue. The houses are so blue, in fact, that the sky often looked grey in comparison. I had a very enjoyable trip to the huge Meherangarh Fort, perched on high cliffs overlooking the town. The fort is owned by the current Maharaja, who has opened the place to the public, and created one of the best presented historical treasures over here. The audio tour enhances the experience, and the views of the city from the ramparts were unbeatable.

I discovered that the Maharaja would be at the fort that evening, as part of a procession celebrating a religious festival. I went back up before sunset, enjoying the brass band and drums; the decorated camels and horses; the colourful folk come to see the show. A row of smartly suited gentlemen sporting vibrantly coloured turbans followed on behind the musicians, and I tried to work out which was the Maharaja. As it turned out it was none of them, though he did show up later. There was one point where I thought I was going to die horribly in a crush - these things happen in India! - but that aside, it was a fun experience.

The next day I got on a bus to Udaipur, where I am now. It was a pleasant surprise half-way through the journey, when we entered a protected reserve, winding up into hills enjoying spectacular views. The town of Udaipur is set around a lake, with a couple of palaces sitting serenely on the water. I hear the lake has been dry for several years, but it's very much full right now. After one night in a mediocre room, I moved to the Anjani Hotel, where I've got a fantastic room. It's huge, has a raised platform with a table and chairs, so you can sit and enjoy the view from one of the windows that surround the room, their squares of coloured glass emitting muted light. There's a big bed, surrounded by lacy curtains; plus another supplied with comfy cushions, with a 26" television at the end of it. There's a bath in the bathroom, and a pool downstairs - and all this for just 250 Rs.

In a characteristic move, I've switched from non-stop sight-seeing and travelling to doing...absolutely nothing. I went to the city palace - which was a little flat, with the memory of Jodhpur Fort fresh in my mind - but not much else besides. I've done a lot of lounging in my beautiful room, reading mostly, hanging out in little cafes, and shopping for a miniature painting. I've discovered that nothing else besides diving makes me want to squander my money as much as these paintings, although the nicest ones are way out of my reach. Yes, here I have been mostly relaxing. My next stop is Pushkar, where my only aims are again relaxing and shopping, and then it's south to Mumbai, to meet up with my friend for a week before I fly back to Thailand.


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