Here is what I have been up to since I left Nick and Tom:
Manali to Shimla was a fantastic cycle over two days with dreamlike tropical scenery, beautiful butterfly’s and packs of angry monkeys. The second day was a 100 mile uphill race against time in which I only managed to stop to eat once (a packet of peanuts) in 8 hours. Shimla itself is the old British summer time capital of India – as Delhi was too hot for much of the year the (British) government of India would evacuate complete with paper work and all their staff to this tiny hill station and rule 1/5th of the world’s population (at the time it include Burma, Bangladesh and Pakistan) for 7-8 months of the year. A fashion developed for building here in a mock Tudor style and the result is a little corner of England on the Indian sub-continent. I took a beautiful train journey through the Himalayan foothills to get back to Delhi from here.
Delhi itself was a disaster in a way. I developed a cough coming over the Himalayan deserts with Nick, probably as a result of inhaling so much dust. The day after I arrived in Delhi the cough progressed into a fever, a very sore throat and vomiting, turning my first week into a write off. The week before I left Delhi I picked up some bad food poisoning which progressed into a fever and lots more vomiting turning my fourth week into a write off. So I was fit and healthy for just the two middle weeks.
I can say the time I was able to attend the shelter was very challenging but undoubtedly inspirational. I had not expected it to be easy but I was taken aback by the challenges facing these children. It was sad to see so many (even the youngest ones) had self-harmed or had been suicidal. Much of the time I felt like I was the one learning – not the kids – and this is very rarely comfortable given the reality of daily life here. But whilst there were many problems for the children still to face they were full of life and enthusiasm, and the shelter takes advantage that enthusiasm by providing a stable platform for the children to grow and follow their own passions. The Salaam Baalak Trust has a huge task on its hands but it is great to see a genuine difference being made. Anyone interested in seeing a little more should watch the famous film “Salaam Bombay!”
Thankfully I was fit and healthy on a few weekends and took the time to visit some of the nearby sights (nearby meaning within a 12 hour train journey) – here is a run down of each:
Jaipur – Rajasthan
The pink city – so named because in 1876 the Maharaja had it painted pink (the colour of hospitality) in honour of the visiting Edward, Prince of Wales. It is now a legal requirement that the buildings in the old city maintain this colour. There were lots of attractions in Jaipur, the amber fort, the lion palace, the royal Albert hall and a temple over run with monkeys (from which I paid a 10 year old boy to protect me) but being a lover of all things science I will focus on my favourite – “Jantar Mantar”. Completed in 1734, these are a series of fixed and focused scientific apparatus for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking stars’ location as the earth orbits around the sun, ascertaining the declinations of planets, and determining the celestial altitudes and related ephemerides. Built by the astronomy mad Maharaja Jai sing II (there are 4 similar but smaller sites in northern India also commissioned by him) the huge, solid geometry is great fun to walk around and very photogenic. The largest sundial in the world takes pride of place – at 27m tall it is accurate to 2 seconds! They are truly impressive instruments and must have added appeal for boys who are into their stars, including myself!
Amritsar – Punjab
There are two great reasons to visit this town on the border with Pakistan – the first is the Golden temple – the holiest pilgrimage site in the world for Sikhs. The second is a very peculiar border ceremony which takes place every evening before the gates are closed.
The stunning Golden temple, connected to land by a single bridge, sits on an artificial pond which is in turn surrounded by a beautiful marble complex. To go inside the complex shoes must be removed and the head covered.
There was a very strong community atmosphere here; all visitors were getting involved in cleaning the temple, or cooking/cleaning in the kitchens which provide free food for 80,000 visitors a day! Prayers are played live over a speaker system from inside the temple and echo around the complex. I came here twice to admire the temple in different lights but only went inside once. It was a two hour queue (the best queuing I have seen in India yet – which to be fair isn’t very hard). I am still none the wiser on the Sikh religion. But it felt great to be there regardless.
Anyone who has ever seen Michael Palins Himalayas may remember the bizarre and over the top ceremony which takes place every evening on the Indian Pakistan border. Crowds of spectators open the events by waving flags, dancing and shouting patriotically (on the Pakistan side everything I am about to describe is mirrored but there were less spectators – perhaps because it was Friday, the Muslim holy day). After a while the spectators are encourage to their seats and some uncommonly tall Indian soldiers wearing tan uniforms and large red head dresses (black uniform with green head dresses on the Pakistan side) began marching in a manner which made monty pythons ministry of silly walks look tame. It is so over the top you really do wonder how it has survived in its current form. The soldiers themselves are visibly running on testosterone and adrenaline – it seems to be an important and very macho ceremony for them. After 20 minutes the Indian and Pakistani flags are brought down in a manner which looks as if they are crossing each other from the spectator’s angle, and are then folded and promptly marched back to their respective barracks. The commanding officers from each side then meet either side of the white line which marks the border and partake in the most aggressive handshake I have ever seen. They then turn and hurriedly march away from each other and the gates of each country are very suddenly slammed shut leaving you wondering what on earth just went on.
Khajuraho – Madhya Pradesh
Often referred to as the karma sutra temples, these medieval constructions probably suffer fewer tourists than they gain from the focus on its erotic sculptures and I basically had the place to myself.
I will not for a second pretend that statues of orgy’s, women performing oral sex or men getting intimate with horses weren’t fun to look at; but the temples are for more than just a novelty act. Set in lovely green gardens, each one (there are 11 in total) has more detail than you would have imagined possible (850 statues on the biggest one), so much so that at times you really don’t know where to look as you are overwhelmed with choice. Although taking time to focus on the individual sculptures, which are rich with well-preserved fine details, is definitely worth it. Khajuraho is relatively remote and peaceful by Indian standards – no one is quite sure why they were built in the middle of nowhere but their remoteness has saved them from destruction by Muslim invaders, thankfully, as I think the temples here may be my favourite buildings yet.
Agra – Uttar Pradesh
I was not expecting much from the Taj Mahal. It had a lot to live up to given the hype that surrounds it and the fact it is so close to Delhi (Agra is actually the former capital) only led me to believe it had earned that hype by virtue of its accessibility rather than being more impressive than some more remote sites. Well I am happy to admit I was wrong – It is very impressive and touching as well. Its huge size does not come across very well in pictures but I am sure those who have been up close will testify to its magnificent presence. The fine marble inlay work is also stunning to admire up close. You are probably already aware of the history behind this building, of the death of Emperor Shah Jahan’s 3rd wife and his subsequent 35 years of mourning (until his death) during which he built this monument to her. This story genuinely added to the already serene atmosphere for me and I am extremely glad I decided to stop by.
What I would like to mention here is an enjoyable quirk of the trip – In Uzbekistan we admired the architecture in Samarkand and Bukhara of Timor the great and his predecessors. Now in India we are admiring the practically identical Mughal architecture of Timor’s close descendants, which have come to be synonymous with India. It was nice to look at the Taj – the most photographed building in the world, and feel the connection with where we had been cycling not long ago in a country many won’t be able to point to on a map. It really made me feel like it was worth travelling at the slower pace of a bicycle.
Now I have met up with Nick and Tom again for a farewell in Varanasi – one of the holiest places in the world for about a billion people – death here is supposed to liberate one from the cycle of life death and reincarnation. We have sat and watched bodies being cremated in the open and their ashes swept into the river whilst just meters away others wash their clothes, their cattle or themselves in the same water – taken a sunrise boat trip to see the morning ritual for many of “cleansing” in the holy Ganges (I use quotation marks because 1.8 billion litres of raw human sewage is discharged into the Ganges daily) – visited the sight of the Buddha’s first sermon in 528BC and enjoyed dropping floating candles into the river whilst watching the flaming evening praises offered to the river goddess Ga ga.
In a few days I am off to Burma where I will be getting back on the bike to explore as much as I can off the very recently off limits country. Apparently Obama will be there as well so I might meet up to offer my perspective on how to encourage reforms in the country and then maybe I will beat him in a game of basketball.