Diary - India

Monday 25th March 2002 - DAY 54

Starting point: Lahore, Pakistan
Ending point: Amritsar
Distanced travelled: 43 miles

It only took us about an hour to travel to the Wagah border from Lahore so when we arrived it was still quite early and there was no-one in sight. After a about half an hour someone emerged and told us that we would have to wait until the Head Collector of Customs turned up. On the list of previous of Customs Collectors we recognised the names of both our High Commissioner friend in London and the Tourism Development Officer at the PTDC who had been advising us, so felt like we could do some good name dropping if there were any complications. We had some tea, changed some money and bought some 2nd hand books from an old man who said he hadn't sold any in months. The border area was very pleasant - leafy, green and relaxed with the odd monkey and parrot in the trees - apparently they only have about one or 2 people crossing each day as it's only open to foreigners. We were able to sort out the paperwork easily enough (with the help of our letter from the High Commissioner), and we passed unhindered through the gates to leave Pakistan. We couldn't quite believe it had been that simple and were half expecting to be turned back at any moment. On the Indian side of the border things were also relaxed, friendly and absolutely deserted - they seemed really pleased to see us and we were offered numerous cups of tea (probably trying to outdo their Pakistan counterparts - the tension between the 2 countries is obvious and each warned us about the other). As the Carnet was valid for India the paperwork was straightforward, although there was a fairly lengthy questionnaire to fill in for the car and the 'rummaging team' did a very thorough and systematic search of the vehicle and all its contents. They found nothing (we were glad we'd left our weapons, class A drugs and obscene magazines at home) so were allowed to pass through with them wishing us 'a sweet and happy time in India' and headed off towards Amritsar. Not even Pakistan had prepared us for the driving in India: the number of people, bicycles and rickshaws had doubled and there was absolutely no co-operation between them. It was also much noisier and more aggressive than any city we had travelled in so far. More than once we found ourselves driving the wrong way up a major road and no-one batted an eyelid. Like just about everyone else who visits Amritsar, we made our way slowly through the gridlocked roads heading for the Golden Temple where Sikh hospitality allows visitors to stay and eat for free for up to 3 days. It took us a while to find somewhere to stay as the place was absolutely heaving (we opted for a private room for 50 rupees - we figured we needed a good night's sleep) and went and joined the hundreds of people seated on the floor in the canteen for some food (chapati and lentils). We then took a very amusing and speedy rickshaw ride from the temple to enjoy our first beer in 3 weeks.

Golden Temple, Amritsar

Tuesday 26th March 2002 - DAY 55

Starting point: Amritsar
Ending point: McCleod Ganj, Dharamsala
Distanced travelled: 135 miles

We couldn't work out why our guide book said the bus to Dharamsala took 8 hours when it was only 120 miles away. The roads weren't in bad condition, but you can never get up to a decent speed because of the large number of villages and markets along the way. The windy mountain also make slow progress. The journey was enjoyable though - we passed through the beautiful and very green scenery ('like a tropical England') including huge marijuana bushes growing at the side of the road, and arrived 6 hours later in McCleod Ganj - home of the Dalai Lama in exile from Tibet. We found a lodge to stay in where we could park the car then went out to explore the streets full of Tibetan monks, Tibetan handicraft stalls and the inevitably large number of Westerners (some of whom had taken to wearing monk robes which just didn't look quite right). Despite the 'scene' we figured it would be a peaceful place to stay and relax for a few days: great scenery, great food (+ very cheap), various Tibetan temples and a great deal of 'anti-China' propaganda to prepare us for Lhasa.

Buddhist ceremony, McCleod Ganj Tibetan butter sculptures

Saturday 30th March 2002 - DAY 59

Starting point: McCleod Ganj, Dharamsala
Ending point: Shimler
Distanced travelled: 186 miles

Having spent a few days being lazy and actually growing quite fond of McCleod Ganj (even joined in with the hippies by wearing red paint on our faces - although we weren't entirely sure why, we just felt left out) it was quite hard to get back on the road again. The progress towards Shimler was painfully slow - bendy roads which were sometimes unpaved, meant we averaged 20 mph over 9 hours. The front off-side wheel had started to produce a strange clunking sound when turning left, but it turned out to be nothing more serious than some loosened wheel nuts - no doubt shaken up by the Indian roads. It was almost dark when we arrived so we were actually quite happy when a tout offered to take us to a cheap hotel with parking - we made him work for his money though as he had to run alongside us for about half a mile, but he seemed quite happy. Rob's bowels have been feeling a bit dodgy lately so it was a relief to get settled for the night.

Sunday 31st March 2002 - DAY 60

Went for a wander around Shimler - one of the more famous British-influenced hill stations, along with Darjeeling. Quite a pleasant place but difficult to negotiate as it's very high up and spread out over about 7 mountains, which makes getting from one part to another a bit of a trek. We found a fairly flat path leading to the Viceregal Lodge - an old colonial building, reminiscent of an English stately home with large, well-kept gardens full of butterflies - where the Pakistan partition agreement was signed back in 1947. Pottered about for the rest of the day, decided India was quite hard work.

Monday 1st April 2002 - DAY 61

Starting point: Shimler
Ending point: Haridwar
Distanced travelled: 221 miles

Rather than follow the obvious route down to Dehli we decided to avoid the capital altogether - apparently spending a day sat in traffic there is the equivalent to smoking 20 cigarettes which didn't really appeal somehow. Instead we travelled out of the hills and east aimng to spend a few days in the nature reserves with the remote hope of spotting a tiger, but mainly just to get some peace and quiet. Some Indian tourists we'd met in Dharamsala had said that Haridwar was a nice place and it seemed about the right distance, so we headed there for the night. The roads became a lot faster once we were on the flat again - up to 50 mph in between the numerous villages and roadworks (we soon discovered that speed, like personal space and hygiene and everything else in India is a relative concept). Found a suitable hotel (i.e. cheap and with parking) almost as soon as we entered the town. The hotel manager was friendly, although didn't speak any English, and we were able to eat in our room. We were woken up by a huge clap of thunder overhead in the middle of the night - no rain, just lightning every 2 seconds and lots of noise. A little frog hopped into our room to shelter.

Tuesday 2nd April 2002 - DAY 62

Starting point: Haridwar
Ending point: Ramnagar
Distanced travelled: 141 miles

It was a relief to get out into the countryside proper into parts where you could go for almost 5 whole minutes without seeing anyone. The way to Ramnagar was via a quiet track through the Sonanadi Wildlife Sanctuary for which we had to pay 40 rupees and write our details down in a log book (presumably to check that we arrived safely out the othe side before dark). We drove through - expecting to see a tiger at any moment - spotted various kinds of deer, a huge eagle, parakeets and lots of chipmunks scurrying about. The front wheel had started making strange knocking noises again so stopped to have a look at it, but couldn't fnd any problems. We approached Ramnagar mid-afternoon and drove to the gates of the Corbette Tiger Reserve to find out, unsurprisingly, that you aren't allowed to enter without a guide and that accommodation has to be booked in advance. The villagers said it would be fine to camp anywhere so we found a spot away from the road to stay for the night. Naturally within minutes a large crowd had gathered - at first from a polite distance, but very soon there were people all around us having a good look at the car and staring curiously at us. This went on in until the sun went down and we were finally able to get some peace. Despite the lack of privacy it was good to be camping again - and in a warm climate. We slept with the tent doors open (mozzie nets down) to get some breeze.

Wednesday 3rd April 2002 - DAY 63

Starting point: Ramnagar
Ending point: Dhikala
Distanced travelled: 62 miles

Dragged ourselves out of bed at 5.30am before the sun had risen - apparently the best time to see a tiger is early morning - and went to find a guide (the touts with their jeeps were very upset that we had our own 4x4 vehicle). It cost approx £10 for entrance with the vehicle and a guide for 4 hours so off we set, eyes peeled. About an hour in the guide insisted that the back seat wasn't comfortable for tiger watching so he came in the front and I went up on the roof which was much more fun. Again we saw lots of deer, monkeys, peacocks, the occasional warthog etc. but no tigers. It was a well-spent 4 hours though so afterwards we then headed back to Ramnagar to arrange our permits and accommodation for the other part of the reserve. We were allowed to enter without a guide as long as we didn't stray from the main track towards Dhikala. We had opted to stay in a dorm as it was 10 times cheaper than getting a room, but we didn't get too much sleep - the beds were rock hard and the Indians sharing the room were all fairly noisy.

Thursday 4th April 2002 - DAY 64

Starting point: Dhikala
Ending point: Aligarh
Distanced travelled: 199 miles

Dragged ourselves out of bed again at 5.30am to go on elephant ride through the forest. Our elephant was huge and had an exceptionally long trunk so we felt fairly safe as we headed off into the forest just as it was beginning to get light. The beauty of being on an elephant is that you can go anywhere and the other animals don't know you're there - in theory anyway. We saw quite a few animals, including a heard of elephants, and saw some very large tiger footprints but yet again the tigers had evaded us. We suspect that our chances were perhaps reduced by the fact that one of the Indians sharing our elephant was wearing a shocking pink turban and purple jumper - it certainly scared us. The elephant ride was finished by 8am which left us without a great deal to do for the rest of the day: the chances of spotting a tiger during the day are minimal and we would have to go all the way back to Ramnagar to book another night's accommodation if we wanted to stay longer. So we had some breakfast and decided to drive back slowly through the park and set out on the road to Agra with no particular destination in mind. As the sun was going down we had reached Aligarh which seemed like a reasonable place to find somewhere to stay. After trying a couple of seedy looking places where the management seemed very reluctant to take foreigners, we tried our luck at a very posh looking place with off-road parking and were surprised and pleased to find it only cost 350 (about £5) rupees for the night - just about within our budget and well worth the money.

Friday 5th April 2002 - DAY 65

Starting point: Aligarh
Ending point: Agra
Distanced travelled: 52 miles

We continued on to Agra, aiming for a hotel we'd heard of that had parking and was apparently 'popular with overlanders', but typically enough vehicles are no longer allowed to enter this part of the city. The streets of Agra are incredibly small and busy so we decided that the best thing to do would be to park and one person to look for a hotel, one stay with car. Neither mission was much fun in the 40° heat and crowds of people gathering around. Eventually we found a place where we could park on the street (after moving a few rickshaws) - the hotel was pretty basic with frequent power cuts, but the roof-top restaurant had a great view of the Taj Mahal and the river (which was practically dry and has been declared unable to sustain any kind of life) so we were happy enough. Our hotel manager told us that there had been lots of muslim/hindu fighting up in Aligarh recently - but we'd been oblivious to any tension. Spend the evening being bitten alive by mosquitoes up on the roof, but at least we were away from the crowded streets and touts.

A relatively uncrowded street!

Saturday 6th April 2002 - DAY 66

Starting point: Agra
Ending point: Fatehpur Sikri
Distanced travelled: 29 miles

Roo/Kiz - I hope you appreciate this!

Zippy at the Taj Mahal

Got up before dawn to try and see the Taj Mahal before the crowds arrived. Naturally, every other westerner in town had had the same idea and there was already a queue outside the ticket office when we arrived. People were starting to panic as the sun looked as if it was about to rise and the ticket office was refusing to open even one minute before 6am. Eventually we got to hand over our 750 rupee entrance fees and start to get our money's worth. We met quite a few people in Agra who hadn't bothered to visit the Taj as it was too expensive, but we were glad that we did as it's even more impressive close up. After we left the complex and had convinced the numerous rickshaw drivers that we actually wanted to walk we visited an internet cafe (pleased to see our documents had arrived in China - finally) and decided that Agra held nothing more for us. We set about finding our way to Fatehpur Sikri - a ghost city which had been briefly used as the capital of the Mughal empire before being deserted. The 35km journey west should have taken us about half an hour max, but we were stuck in one gridlocked street for at least an hour before taking a few wrong turns and finally arriving 3 hours later. It was a relief to find a hotel complex which was spacious and green (and very cheap).

Sunday 7th April 2002 - DAY 67

We have been sharing our room with 2 lizards, one of which came back without a tail this morning. Had a relaxed breakfast, changed the wheels on the car as the wheel mount holes seem to have become slightly elongated which could explain the clunking sound we've been having, and generally did nothing today. The heat has been making us feel very lethargic - apparently summer has come a month early which could be a problem is the monsoon season decides to come early too - we have to travel through to China before the Nepalese roads get washed away. In the evening our hotel owner asked us if we would help him hand out satsumas to the pilgrims who would be passing as part of a 5-day, 150km trek. He had generously bought 100 kg to distribute to some of the 30,000 people that would pass that day - tomorrow it would be bananas. People started passing at dusk, some were incredibly old and frail and gratefully accepted the fruit, others just walked on stoically and gave us slightly confused looks.

Monday 8th April 2002 - DAY 68

Starting point: Fatehpur Sikri
Ending point: About 100 miles east of Agra
Distanced travelled: 158 miles

Woke up with stomach cramps and realised the yoghurt I'd had last night probably hadn't been a very good idea. We left Fatehpur Sikri aiming to head south to Gwalior and to the temple village of Khajuraho, our main reason for which was to avoid going back into the horrendous Agra traffic. Travelling along minor roads turned out to be a bad idea as the roads were in terrible condition and completely blocked with trucks. After 2 hours of getting nowhere we decided perhaps going through Agra would be preferable. At some point during that journey - possibly as we sat gridlocked in city traffic where the only breeze was like a hairdryer on full heat and our drinking water had become the temperature that you could quite happily have a bath in at home, or possibly as I was being sick out of the window with food poisoning - we independently came to the conclusion that driving a car round northern Indian cities really wasn't that much fun. Seeing as we didn't have time to explore the south or relax on the beaches, or really penetrate the culture, we agreed that perhaps it would be better to cut our losses in India and head up to Nepal earlier than planned where it would hopefully be less hot, less crowded and less hassle. We managed to travel a grand total of 80 miles in 8 hours on the road (and this was a national highway), by which time I was feeling really rough. Miraculously we came across a sign for an 'international guest house' by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere - this was a real godsend and we were able to stay free of charge and be looked after by a wonderful Indian family - they didn't even flinch as I was sick in their drive and then in their bedroom. The place had been set up by a son in memory of his parents in honour of their belief of 'something that belongs to everyone'. The guest book was full of entries from other overlanders who had chanced across the place.

our wonderful Indian family

Tuesday 9th April 2002 - DAY 69

Starting point: 100 miles east of Agra
Ending point: Varanasi
Distanced travelled: 270 miles

The drive to Varanasi wasn't too bad, but we were still pretty tired by the time we had found our hotel. We met an Encounter truck who had travelled up from Chennai (Madras) and were heading to Khatmandu, and a guy who was organising ' the biggest motorcycle trip round the world' and was hoping to get into the Guiness book of records. He gave us his 1996 Rough Guide to Nepal. We were relieved to be staying in a hotel that was clean, green and away from the hecticness of the city.

Wednesday 10th April 2002 - DAY

the ghats in Varanasi at sunset

We spent the day in Varanasi - mostly at the hotel as it was too hot to do anything else. Then about 5pm we went down to the old city to have a look round the tiny streets and went out on a rowing boat along the Ganges for sunset. Our boatman showed us the mark where the level of the river would be in the monsoon season - it was a good 20 ft up and would completely cover all the ghats where people come to cleanse themselves and burn dead bodies. Didn't see anything too grim floating down the river, but it was amazing (horrifying) to see all the kids swimming about and swallowing the water. The river pollution here is apparently 250,000 times that of the World Health Organiation (WHO) recommended level.

Thursday 11th April 2002 - DAY 71

Starting point: Varanasi
Ending point: north of Ghorakpur
Distanced travelled: 165 miles

We decided to break the journey north to the border into 2 days. Geographically, Ghorakpur looked like a good place to aim for, but as we were driving through the slums and rubbish dumps we realised that perhaps this wasn't the best place to stay so drove straight out the other side again to find somewhere to camp. We came across a forest and found what looked to be a nice, peaceful spot off the main road. The next hour or so could have been speeded up and played with Benny Hill music as we put up the tent, were told we couldn't camp there, took down the tent, were told we could camp after all, put the tent back up, various people came and went, then a group of monkeys came to watch. We did eventually get a peaceful and much-needed night's sleep.