It’s been really inspiring hearing all the doom and gloom scenarios since returning home. The economy is buggered, there are more jobs on the moon, more money in Sudan and less misery in a North Korean jail. Awesome. Welcome back. I left Scotland in 2008, accidentally rather than deliberately avoiding the brunt of the recession. I have returned to find it’s been a rather large brunt.
Meanwhile, in Asia, things are ticking along nicely. You may have heard China are doing quite well. They are. However, I’ve heard India being mentioned in the same exasperated breath by some who’ve been articulating on the Asian boom. From what I could see (and I’m no expert, I just have eyes), this is unwarranted. Yes, Indian economic growth is impressive. But if the place wasn’t improving I’m not sure how they’d get by at all. We’re talking about a place where thousands die every year shitting on train tracks. There’s no toilets see, so seeing the rails as a useful alternative, pissed up locals stumble about on some sleepers with their robes down before the Chennai Express splats them into a human dosa. We’re talking about a place where cows block traffic, where kids sell postcards for your old museum tickets so they can be made into more postcards, where men pan for the gold of melted jewelry in funeral pyres. We’re talking about a rather strange and wonderful country. It’s amazing. But it’s not going to be taking over the rest of the world anytime soon. The problem is, I think, they’re too steeped in their own culture. They’re too religious. It’s what gives the place it’s vibrancy and colour, but they’re all so deep into it all, making money and developing infrastructure is pretty low on the pecking order for many Indians, in comparison to say, the upcoming holy holiday or a distant relatives wedding traditions.
In comparison, many in China are at a loss to what their culture is. In the east, especially in Shanghai, money is the religion. They don’t have anything else. Culture is for time wasters. The government has streamlined the whole nation (minus the pesky west and their old chum Tibet) into a well-oiled, manufacturing machine. So you’ve got two countries, both massive in population terms, both massive in terms of their economic growth, but polar opposites in nearly every regard. One needs cash, the other needs culture.
Asian insight over. I’ll go get a job now.
Leaving Hampi was difficult. For one, we loved it so much it was a struggle to tear oursleves away. For two, our guesthouse owner scammed us with fake tickets so after we’d made the 15km tuk-tuk trip to the bus stand we found that no, we had not a seat to sit on. However, we weren’t on any old tuk-tuk. We were with “The one and only Vikram.” This was emblazoned proudly across the back of his wagon, and it soon proved to be accurate. Vikram took us to every bus stand, he fought with travel agents unitl we had seats to Mysore, then took us to a off-licence for some whisky before locating our spanish friends in a distant bar. If you’re ever in Hampi (and I’m sure you will be) please search out Vikram.
So, Mysore was OK. Palace. Market. Scamming rick-shaw drivers. Pretty standard. We did salvage what might have been an average day with the discovery of a roof-top bar, our spanish friends and a lovely japanese girl of whom neither G or I could remember her name. (Something like Tochoko).
Ooty was next. 2200 metres up, perched amongst tea-fields and towering eucalyptis trees, it was quite the setting. It was also quite cold. Now, heading south we had reckoned on beaches and sunburn. By 7pm when the sun had well and truly vanished I began to miss my Nepalese trekking gear immeasurably. It didn’t help that we were sleeping in a glorified shed with two german guys. I woke up at 1:30 am (thinking it was breakfast time) realising I couldn’t feel my feet. But morning swung around, we headed into the hills with some others and all was well. The views were incredible. The night ended with one of our Spanish friends (Carlos – he looks like Robert Downey Jnr) reciting the Old Testament to us. Odd.
So we’re very close to Mudrai, where we’re supposedly reconvening with the gentleman known as Spinks. To get this far we had to take a 120 year-old steam train through the mountains. It was a typical Indian experience. I had to stand for 2 hours, the steam from the engine filled our carriage like a dirty spa, some blokes started fighting in the booth next to us and monkeys tried to break into the carriages at one of the stops. Tranquil.
Hampi is absolutely, unflinchingly incredible. Getting there might be a bit awkward (that’s India for you), but when you round the corner on the first hill overlooking the village nothing else really matters. It’s quite tricky to do it justice. There are ruins of course. Big tall ones with ornate carvings, but we’ve seen enough of them to fill a Dorling Kingsley book. In between the ruins though, are boulders. Tons of them, as far as the eye can see, piled up to create mountains, teetering over cliffs or just lying in the middle of fields, like a littering giant has been in the vicinity. In between all of these are palm trees, rivers and smiling locals who just want to shake your hand. Enough.
I regained some man-points and got on a moped to see it all. Last time I drove a moped was in Vietnam. I crashed it. And the next two. This time, there was no such calamity. Not even a wobble. I was Valentino Rossi on a 95cc power hog, blasting round corners and being overtaken by cows. Meanwhile Stin (or Bunder as I’ve taken to calling him as he is a Bumless Wonder – seriously he has no arse, it’s weird) got by on a bike that I think the Terminator rode. Every now and then we’d get off and scramble up boulders, high-five and scramble back down. At night we drank rum with some lovely English girls (I wasn’t aware there were so many lovely English girls) and ended up watching Eat, Pray, Love at the guesthouse. It is one of the most offensively awful films I have ever seen. To wit, we are meant to sympathize with Julia Roberts after she has screwed over two rather nice blokes then goes on a paid year-long vacation to Italy, India and Bali, before meeting Javier Bardem on a beach. It should have been called Shag, Mope, Cry.
So we’re heading south again, in the vague aim to meet up with spinks who has survived his epic mountain ordeal and is flying to Chennai on the 15th. Do we want to really meet up with him again? Will he cope in India on his own for a day or two? Will he realise that the hotel we recommended to him in Chennai is actually a 5 star boutique hotel? Only time (and this blog I suppose) will tell!
Aurangabad was quite fittingly, bad. Really bad. The streets weren’t really streets at all, but dusty gaps between piles of rubbish and street vendors. Thankfully, the Ellora caves were nearby. After catching (mostly by luck) the public bus out there we were faced with a series of caves carved out a cliff-face by monks of various religions 1500 years ago. These were impressive. However, the Kailasanatha temple in the middle was rather more so. Carved out from the cliff in one single chunk, it’s twice the size of the Parthenon, covers three storeys and was designed from one blokes head. No drawings. Rather smug that we’d made our way to Aurangabad after all, we headed home in a guy’s jeep (don’t ask) and found out that we had actually made it off the waiting list and on to the sleeper train to Mumbai! Huzzah!
Now, obviously Mumbai is our finishing line so to speak, and we still have 5 or so weeks of travel left in the tank. But our thinking (and what thinking I may add) was that we could dump most of our stuff at the train station (warm stuff from Nepal, novelty hats, trinkets, Tibetan flags etc.) and get moving with minimal luggage and minimal fuss. Mumbai is not conducive to no fuss though. It’s hot, expensive and noisy. However, the buildings are stunning, none more so than the aforementioned train station. All designed by us plucky Brits no less, which got me wondering why most of the towns back in Blighty don’t look nearly so good. It seems colonial architecture was strictly for the colonies only. Shame really, I’m not sure Leeds’ high street looks as good as Mumbai’s.
We crossed the border. It was harrowing. Agreeing to purchase some onward tickets south to Varanasi we received them on the Indian side in a tiny shop fronted by the Indian equivalent of Del-boy. Glancing at the price on the tickets we reckoned we were paying the chancer far too much commission (as in triple the price of the ticket) so tried bargaining with him. Next thing we knew he was shouting, “I’m not your slave!” And trying to grab all our money and tickets off us. Marcus attempted to slip some of our cash out of his pocket, which is when a large mechanic from down the road filled the doorway and inquired why we were touching his boss. Some smooth talking and rather large compromises later we had evaded their threat of the police and slipped ourselves on the bus, wallets emptier but faces intact. Welcome to India.
From the bus we caught a sleeper train where we had been allocated a “box.” Thankfully the box contained beds and a fitful nights rest ended with the sights and sounds of Varanasi. My opinion of India was about to change. This place is magic.
The old streets don’t have space for traffic so I think it’s less hectic to get around than other major cities. Saying that, cows regularly pin you to walls, touts have offered us anything from drugs to boat-rides to head massages and yesterday I was confronted with a number of open crematoriums. The Hindus rather like the Ganges it seems, and a number of them stagger to Varanasi for their final days before popping their sandals and being burnt on pyres right next to the river. Strangely it wasn’t as horrible as I expected. There actually seemed to be a bit of a party atmosphere.
We’re heading to Agra soon, to see some curry house called Maj’s Tahal or something. Luckily we have the tickets bought already so no swindling this time round.
Oh, and we washed elephants in Nepal. I rode one and it squirted water all over me with it’s trunk. If you ever want to feel five again I highly recommend this.