6th– 14th October
The forgotten hill station
After Rampur, we spend three delightfully relaxing days in Pachmarhi, Central India’s only hill station and home to some of the country’s most extraordinary scenery. Thankfully it also finally stops raining! Situated at 1,100m, the weather reminds us of an English summer. The landscape, though, is a much more dramatic. Thick forests of Indian elm, flame of the forest, teak, and dhaura run wild over a prehistoric terrain of kilometre high crags sided by sheer red sandstone cliffs, alarmingly deep ravines and gorges, majestic waterfalls and rolling hills.
We spend the days trekking happily, doing our best to avoid the innumerable Indian tourists and their infuriating and filthy littering habits. We spend the evenings enjoying the home cooking and conversation of Mrs Pramila and Lt Col (retired) Bunny Rao, owners a charming guesthouse converted from an old colonial bungalow. They are a fascinating, intelligent and highly entertaining couple; hospitable too: we spend our last night with them drinking copious quantities of ‘Old Monk’ Indian rum, diluted with hot water, in their nostalgic drawing room dominated by a huge bust of King George V.
They are hearty Anglophiles, exceptionally well read and hilarious snobs. Conversation veers from colonialism through to military current affairs, the Indo – Pakistan war of 1971 (the Bangladesh Liberation War) and English history and literature. “I still tell those idiots at the mess, the three best things about this country are the English language, the railways and cricket. All bought to us by the English” booms Bunny, simultaneously erudite and opinionated.
Bunny served during the 1971 war in East Bengal (then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh) and retains strong views on the subject, too strong to print here. He doesn’t leave us in any doubt about how much he thinks we’ll enjoy our time in Bangladesh.
Now retired, he remains heavily involved with army life: “we have these Kazakhi officers down here learning English. They have no manners, I tell you. Eating like animals and peeping Toms to boot!”
The final slog
Drowsy and not a little hungover the following morning, we cover 450km to Khajuraho, home of a selection of beautiful yet surprisingly obscene ancient temples. Khajuraho is another example of India’s heritage that was rediscovered by the British; only since then, deemed to be of national importance. Previously concealed by jungle, the principal eight sandstone temples are up to 30m high and were built in the 11th and 12th century: relics of the long-extinguished Chandella Empire. Much debate surrounds the reason behind the rude carvings – maybe just artistic licence?!
We’ve left ourselves a little short on time to get through the remainder of India; we need to cross to Bangladesh on the 14th and the central portion of India between Maharastra and Calcutta is vast, served mostly by very poor, congested and often dangerous roads. Although our stopovers are still interesting and sometimes restful, this part of our trip is in danger of becoming a slog, such are the distances we’ve left ourselves little time to cover.
Holiest of rivers
We arrive at Varanasi in the middle of the afternoon after a second consecutive 450km, eight hour drive. Purportedly one of India’s most touristy and tout ridden cities (plaguing both tourists and pilgrims alike) we are pleasantly surprised to make it through the centre without significant harassment. Our hotel is excellent value, peaceful and to our delight, has a swimming pool! A nice little bonus as we plan to stay here two nights.
Despite our exhaustion we make it up at 5.00am the next morning to head down to the famous ghats (steps) on the banks of the river Ganges, the Hindu’s holiest river, to watch the endless streams of pilgrims who come here to bathe, cleanse, meditate and in many cases, die. It is one of humanity’s most extraordinary sights, despite the boatloads of Japanese tourists snapping away - who certainly don’t add much to the mystique of the place.
Beyond the bathing ghats lie several crematorium ghats. Through the smoke and the early morning mist, the untouchables who keep guard and work here can be seen, building pyres of logs, bringing in and bathing the latest arrivals and the ashes of others recently deceased into the river.
According to the Hindu faith, to die near the Ganges brings instant enlightenment, hence the requirement for the crematorium ghats. On our wanders round the labyrinth of backstreets in the old city, we spot numerous ancient begums (ladies, usually widows) and homeless, all of whom have made their way here to die in this most ancient and holy of Hindu cities. It is a touching and profound sight, more so on the riverbanks where one sweeping meander incorporates life, death and enlightenment.
Meanwhile, the sludge brown and heavily polluted Ganges flows on quietly, impervious and oblivious to its own importance.
Our final stop in India, a mammoth 650km drive from Varanasi, is Calcutta (recently and unpopularly renamed as Kolkata). Confusion over the permits we require to enter Bangladesh mean we end up driving this entire distance in one day, rather than two as originally planned. We arrive in India’s 4th biggest city, at 8.30pm, having driven the last three hours in unplanned darkness - sunset here is a surprisingly early 5:30pm thanks to India’s single time-zone policy. Thankfully the NH2 highway is good and easily navigable, as is the city itself.
Our trip to the Bangladeshi High Commission in the morning is futile and renders the enourmous drive of the previous day futile also, but never mind – Calcutta is actually really quite a pleasant place to spend a day or two. It is packed with crumbling colonial architecture, wide streets, huge parks and amazing restaurants – Bengali food is some of the best we have eaten in India. True, there is more visible poverty here than other major Indian cities, but not as much as the average Western preconception would have you believe. It is over 250 years since the infamous ‘Black Hole of Calcutta’ incident, yet this one bleak night in history dominates most people’s impressions of the city.
After two months, it is time to leave India. It feels like we have passed through a dozen different countries since we arrived in Amritsar in the middle of August. India is not a country that can be easily summed up as a whole, such is its extraordinary cultural and natural diversity and sheer size.
We could use this description to portray nearly every Indian city we’ve passed through:
Walking through bazaar-lined streets, subtle sweet fragrances from the ubiquitous marigold garlands are overwhelmed by the stench of rotten vegetables, meat and excrement, making us subconsciously curl up our noses. These are in turn engulfed by the scents of incense sticks and fresh curries being prepared. Brightly coloured, patterned and glittering saris adorn every female. We concentrate on our feet – avoiding litter, decaying food, a recent mud slide. Brushing past the touch of a beggar competing for our attention, we simultaneously and instinctively shy away from cattle, impatient taxis and bullying trucks incessantly blaring their horns, and the numerous touts after our money. Of course, each footstep through this sensory minefield is accompanied by the high-pitched wail of Hindi music booming from nearby car speakers or rickshaw-mounted loudhailers.
But it really is a land of paradoxes. Day to day living has a distinct anarchic feel about it, yet the country is paralyzed by bureaucracy. India has just proudly launched its first nuclear submarine, yet 25% of the country’s inhabitants have no education or sanitation. Yet sanitation doesn’t seem to really concern this quarter of a billion people, so long as they have enough food, paan and a few rupees to gamble with. India has the largest democracy on the planet, yet also the oldest and most powerful caste system in the world. Mumbai’s movie industry is bigger than Hollywood, yet most inhabitants don’t own a television.
Driving here is like a computer game, or a permanent and dangerous archaeological dig of transportation: from ox and cart to omnipresent Tata trucks and buses, antiquated three wheelers to swanky Hero Honda scooters and tinted Mercedes. Every mode of land transport that has existed on earth for the last millennia packs the country’s roads, jostling one another in a crowded, impatient and often precarious propinquity.
We have met some of the friendliest people on our trip here; but also by far and away the rudest. The insipid and occasionally corrupt traffic police leave the mayhem on the roads untouched, yet someone’s idea of security means that checking into any hotel and even sometimes just using the internet becomes an irksome and frustrating procedure.
In hindsight (and in the knowledge we successfully negotiated our way out) our unexpected venture into remote and cut-off rural India at Rampur proved to be one of our most memorable experiences here. Furthermore, aside from the wonderfully generous and hospitable friends and contacts whom we have met along the way in India, this was the first and only example of genuine, spontaneous and motiveless kindness we have experienced in India. In complete contrast to the whole of Central Asia and the portion of Pakistan that we traversed, everyone else here has been after our money, tourist hotspots or not.
Throughout, it’s been a challenge that has left us constantly on the borderline between anger and amazement, frustration and incredulity.
We head to Bangladesh with the worst of expectations – how can a poorer, culturally less sophisticated and more densely populated country be better than this? Hopefully we’ll be proved wrong.