Archive for December, 2007

India, Day 21 – Varanasi

Yesterday, after checking into my current hotel, I didn’t do anything touristy. I walked up to Varanasi Cantonment, which is where all the expensive hotels are. There’s also a mall, JVH Mall, on a street called The Mall. There’s a McDonalds, but not much else of interest.

I spent some time on the internet. I left a message on the travel blog of two Americans who are in Varanasi now – and got a message back. There’s some sort of New Year’s do at one of the aforementioned expensive hotels and it looks like I’ll be meeting them to go there.

I also sent a message to Emirates airline. And not just randomly – I flew with them to come here. I queried whether I could change my return flight. I don’t know if I will, but if the kind of frustrations I’ve been having continue then three months is going to be too much. End of January is a possible return date; that will leave me enough time to visit Jaipur (the third vertex of the Golden Triangle) and a couple of other places. The truth is I miss my home comforts, the familiarity and the stability. I miss Korea (how sad is that?).

For a while now I’ve known that my ‘Silver Donation Level’ in Aegis would expire on 31st December. It expired yesterday. Which was the 30th. Anyway, I’d already bought 20 Runes (Aegis is a free game, but you can pay for extra bells and whistles by purchasing ‘Runes’; a Rune is one euro) so I could upgrade to ‘Gold Donation Level’. Then I discovered that the extra things you can research all require you to buy more Runes. Aegis is the best on-line game I’ve played so I don’t mind paying for it – but I won’t be logging into Paypal from an internet cafe in India, so it’ll have to wait until I get back.

After two and a half hours on the internet I went to Varanasi Junction (from where I’d earlier picked up a few reservation forms) and attempted to buy a ticket. After a good few minutes puzzling over what train to go for (and why the station timetable listed different trains than Lonely Planet) I queued for maybe twenty minutes to get a ticket.

Just behind me in the line was an Englishwoman who was cancelling tickets because her husband was sick. They were one month into a twelve month round the world trip (well, South and South-east Asia and South America; she might have mentioned Australia as well).

When I finally got to the counter, the man told me to come back tomorrow – they were only doing cancellations. Now why do I have the suspicion that that wasn’t true and he just wanted to get rid of me?

First stop today is the railway station again. This time at least the Foreign Tourist Office should be open.

Addendum – Day 22

I’ve just beeen to the railway station again, and the Foreign Tourist Office is full of foreigners. I got there around midday, and couldn’t be bothered waiting. I tried the normal ticket counter, but the man there told me it was only for today’s tickets. I should come back earlier in the day tomorrow or the day after.

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Floating on the Ganges

India, Day 21 – Varanasi

I’m now a resident of the Hotel Ajaya on Kabir Chaura Road, Varanasi. It’s fine. In fact, its the closest in style and standard to a bog standard western hotel of any I’ve been in in India. Also the cheapest at 300 rupees (at least, that’s what I was told yesterday – I should check this again, just to be on the safe side (which is where I like to be)). One problem – you might call it a quirk – is that the bathroom has no mirror; I’ve just shaved in front of the bedroom mirror.

At quarter past six this morning I went on the boat trip organised by the other hotel up and down the ghats of the Ganges. It was cold. Bloody cold. Colder than it really was – sitting on a rowboat in the middle of a river at dawn is not a good way of generating heat.

We – we being myself, three Japanese lads and an Israeli man – were led down to the river under the grey dawn sky by the guy from the hotel who was my guide yesterday. Once there we were left in the care of a boatman. We were to have no guide for this – other than a few limited comments from the rower. The boat was a simple wooden rowing boat, big enough to seat maybe eight people comfortably.

The boatman pushed off, but a moment let let a girl onboard who gave us all paper cups filled with orange petals and a small candle. She told us to set the cups on the water saying our own names, and then again saying our family names, for luck. I didn’t hear any of us saying anything as we did so, and I didn’t even think about any such names, but otherwise we were obedient. Then she wanted 50 rupees from each of us. We ended up giving her 20 each.

We travelled south for a way. On the left, the sun slowly became apparent through the haze. As we went on, it rose and grew brighter and brighter. On the right, on the near shore, the ghats – the steps leading down to the water were dotted with a few Indians bathing or beating clothes against paving stones and the occasional tourist taking in the sight.

The other main purpose of the ghats – of couple of them, anyway – is the cremation of the dead (as opposed to the cremation of the living). We passed a smaller on on the way down. There were one or two bodies wrapped in brightly coloured fabric lying near the water’s edge. On the way back north we passed the main cremation ghat, Manikarnika Ghat. Bodies were less in evidence, but we weren’t as close; there was smoke rising from a number of places and several large stacks of wood. You’re not supposed to take photos of this latter ghat, but we all did – from a respectable distance, anyway.

There were plenty of other rowboats of various sizes on the river. The vast majority being tourists – small groups like ours, a few couples, the occasional single photographer, and quite a few parties of twelve, fifteen or so. Other rowboats were operated by sellers of flowers, postcards, necklaces, little pots of Ganges water and other tat. One of these struck up some banter with the Japanese lads – in Japanese – which they seemed amused and a little irritated by.

One ghat – I think it must have been Dasaswamedh Ghat – was pretty lively for this time of the morning. No huge crowds, but a number of people, stands, sunshades and boats, and music playing.

The whole experience is not nearly as special as its reputed to be – mainly for being so frigging cold. But the scene – even in the orange light of the early sun – is pretty drab. On the other hand, you can’t really come to Varanasi and not do a dawn boat trip.

Back at the hotel, we had breakfast, and I chatted a bit more to the Israeli guy. He found the hotel in the 2004 Hebrew Lonely Planet and was paying 150 rupees for his room – one third of what I was paying (he had no TV, though). He also recommended going to Rishikesh, which – now that I’ve looked where it is – might be a bit on the cold side for my wardrobe.

Then I checked out. As I’d expected, the hotel man wanted to know why and wanted to make a deal with me, but I refused to elaborate further than ‘I’ve changed my mind’, and eventually he gave me the money back for the other three days and I left. Hotel Ajaya doesn’t require money up front – just another reason to be here and not there.

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Incredible India

India, Day 20 – Varanasi

‘Incredible India’ is Indian tourism’s official slogan, but I’m it using ironically. Just thought I’d point that out.

The hotel at which I stayed last night wasn’t, in fact, the Ganga Fuji Home, it was the Ganga Yogi Lodge (I doubt whether any yogis lodge there). It’s all part of the commission racket that is rife in these touristy places. The rickshaw drivers get money from the hotels for bringing them guests. What you’re suppsed to do is check that the driver has taken you to the right place, and if he hasn’t, insist that he does.

As I posted yesterday, the place is, on the face of it, quite decent (except for the choice of TV channels; it has both National Geographic and Discovery Channel, but they’ve both been in Hindi every time I’ve checked them; there are a few English-language news channels – but it’s all Indian news (although the assassination of Benazir Bhutto is featuring heavily at the moment); as a consequence, my channel of choice is Ten Sports, on which I saw a Premiership game when I was in Delhi (unfortunately, there’s nothing so interesting on it at the moment)).

Yesterday afternoon I signed up for a temple and silk factory tour and boat ride for 400 rupees. I did the tour today. It was OK. I was expecting other people on the tour – the man on Reception told me there were other guests going in a separate autorickshaw, but I never saw any evidence of them. Which might mean he was lying – or it might not.

I and my guide – one of the guys from the hotel – visited four temples (including the large one on the huge university campus in the south of the city and the ‘monkey temple’ (which might have been the Vishwanath Temple – I forget), where there are lots of monkeys in the grounds, quite often expecting and getting tidbits from the devotees) and some silk works. At the end I was taken into a room with loads of bolts of silk on shelves and expected to buy some. Prices were 500 or 1000 rupees for an 18 inch by four foot piece of silk with varying colours and designs. I didn’t want to buy anything and said as much, but the man selling them kept on pushing it. I offered him 250 for one of the cheaper pieces, which he wasn’t happy about. Then I left.

I was taken back to the hotel and made a vaguely positive comment about the boat trip tomorrow and thanked the guide guy. Then I made tracks for the real Ganga Fuji Home. And found it to be less suitable than the Yogi Lodge. It had some very nice rooms, but at 990 rupees a night, they were too expensive. Its cheaper rooms while clean and pleasant, didn’t come with private bathrooms and certainly not a TV. I’m paying 450 rupees for my current place, which isn’t the cheapest you can get, but it’s reasonable value for the room – better than Hotel Sheela in Agra, which was 500 for no TV and no hot water (usually).

So now I’m in a quandary – do I accept it as a quirk of fate and stay there, or do I check out at the earliest opportunity? I’m not sure yet. My next destination is a pair of hotels next to each other, a little away from the river, nearer the railway and bus stations. If one of them has a decent room available I think I’ll go there either later today or tomorrow. If not, I may just take my chances where I am and be careful of any funny business.

On a separate, but quite interesting note, as I was looking for the Ganga Fuji Home (I wandered almost at random through the chaotic passages of the old city for a while), I’m pretty sure I saw a Korean man who I’d spoken to in the Malhotra Restaurant in Delhi. He must work as a guide for Koreans on holiday in India – he certainly had a bunch of people with him.

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To Varanasi

India, Day 19 – Lucknow, Varanasi

Well, that really wasn’t too bad. I turned up at Lucknow Junction, a short walk from my hotel (staying there was a mistake – both the hotel itself and the neighbourhood were incredibly noisy – staff talking in the corridor outside my room, clattering pots and pans, traffic pretty much 24 hours a day, ten minutes of bell-ringing at five in the morning), at 6:10 am expecting to get an unreserved ticket as I’d done from Tundla. I ended up with an AC Chair class ticket (there are eight classes on Indian trains).

The carriage was clean relative to the unreserved carriage I’d been in before, but still pretty grimy by western standards. The blue, faux-leather padded seats were arranged in rows of three on one side of the aisle and two on the other (illustrating the size difference between Indian and British trains). They were numbered in a kind of sinuous fashion, which I found slightly interesting:

. 1 . 2 . 3 . . . 4 . 5
10 . 9 . 8 . . . 7 . 6
11.12.13. . .14.15
20.19.18. . .17.16 etc

The train left just after seven and I slept for the first half of the journey, then read, then tried to doze a bit more. Close to Varanasi Junction the train was held up for half an hour or so before coming into the platform at ten past two. I was beginning to feel headachey by this time as I’d drunk maybe half litre of water on the trip (and hadn’t used the toilet at all).

Once out of the station I got a prepaid (ie, you pay an official before your journey) autorickshaw (these ones are white and black, in contrast to the yellow and green ones I’ve seen in other places) and headed to my new hotel. The rickshaw left the main streets after a while and headed down some narrow paved alleys. Then we had to proceed on foot as the alleys got narrower.

The hotel, Ganga Fuji Home, is quite pleasant. It’s location in the maze of constricted passages means there’s little traffic noise. The staff are friendlier than those I’ve met at other hotels. It’s also quite close to the Ganges, which I haven’t yet seen. The TV doesn’t appear to have Animal Planet, which I’m a little disappointed about, but I’m sure I’ll survive. There’s also a balcony (all of about two feet wide), although there’s not much of a view: a tree, a bit of temple, but mainly buildings. Right at this minute there are two kids on a roof terrace directly opposite my window and about a foot from my balcony.

We’ll see what wonders Varanasi hold for me in the next few days. Incidentally, this is where I’ll be on New Year’s Eve – I wonder if there’s anything going on then.

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A random wight, The Order of the Stick.

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Good luck now

India, Day 18 – Lucknow

Another tourist’s day has ended, only the train-ride hell tomorrow to face.

After finishing at Sahara Ganj, I headed straight to the Bara Imambara, north of the main Hazrat Ganj area in Lucknow. Having just now consulted my Lonely Planet I can now tell you that it’s a tomb built in the 1780s by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula as a ‘famine relief project’. It doesn’t explain what a tomb does to relieve famine.

The mosque, the hall building and the gates leading to them are typically grimy and decayed. What once might have been bright colour is now often caked with dirt or falling to pieces. It’s a shame that India doesn’t have the wherewithal to properly look after these and other monument – but at least it is making an effort. Everywhere I’ve been there have been various levels of restoration work – though it often seems quite desultory. International tourism must be a major source of income for the authorities – ticket prices are generally something like 10 rupees for Indians and a few hundred rupees for foreigners.

You can’t go into the mosque, and to enter the main hall you have to shed your shoes. The main hall comes in two parts – firstly the three halls: one long and two square ones at either end. The interiors are painted pastel green (or possibly yellow) and with not much in the way of windows are very murky. Impressively large rooms, though. The two small halls have little balconies dotted around the upper walls, while the main hall has a gallery several metres up with people walking along it. I wandered around a couple of time wondering how you get up there.

The secret is that you have to go outside and enter by a different point (still without your footwear). This is the ‘labyrinth’ (or Bhulbhulaiya, according to LP). It consists of a maze-like network of passages running through the walls and giving access to the gallery, inner balconies and two or three levels of roof. Its often dark enough to be unnerving, and overall quite a lot of fun. From up on the roof you get a moderately decent view of the nearby buildings and area.

There’s also another little part of the complex to one side – an octagonal building called the Shahi Bauli. Not so interesting really.

Once done at the Bara Imambara, I head north towards some other monuments. First under a gate called the Rumi Darwaza (‘Rumi’ meaning ‘Roman’ as it’s a copy of one in Istanbul (ie, Byzantium). I failed to drop by Aurangzeb’s mosque, which is very near here.

Walking up the road brought me to an imposing clock tower. 67 metres of imposingness, in fact. It was ‘built in the 1880s in memory of Sir George Couper, a reform-minded Governor of UP (United Provinces in those days).’ Next to that is a large pool overlooked by a red building (‘baradari’, it says here). And next to that are the remains of a stubby three storey brick tower. As it’s not in Lonely Planet I can’t tell you what it is.

Here I walked through another gate into a kind of plaza with gates on all four sides. At this point I was thinking of getting into an autorickshaw (if I could find one), but as I strolled up the square I realised that the the gate on the western side led into another complex. Looking through, it appeared quite pleasant so I went in.

And found what might, in hackneyed journalese, be described as a ‘veritable jewel’. A tank of water ran down the middle of the courtyard, on either side of which were small replicas of the Taj Mahal (containing the tombs of Mohammed Ali Shah’s daughter and son-in-law). In one corner was a mosque and at the far end was the Chota Imambara – a very well-maintain building, strikingly painted black and white. And inside this was a horde of treasure. Seriously. The walls were painted pastel blue and gold, and everywhere you looked there was gold and crystal and marble – chandeliers, mirrors, pictures, tinselly models of tombs, a silver throne (that looked a lot like a step ladder).

Then it was time to call it a day. I wandered north a little way through the gate, then back again looking for an autorickshaw. When I got back to the Chota there was one free. The driver didn’t seem to know where Mahatma Gandhi Road was so I had to show him the map in my LP. He also said, when I asked him How much?, that the money wasn’t important – I pressed on him a hundred rupee note and he gave me thirty change. He also pointed out that the road I thought was MG Road – the road the Lonely Planet says is MG Road – wasn’t.

So tomorrow, Varanasi. The plan is to get an unreserved ticket for the seven o’clock train. It takes six and a half hours according to – guess what – Lonely Planet. I’m learning not to take what it says as the truth, whole and nothing but. But I should be at the Ganges – or Ganga, as it’s apparently called these days – by early to mid-afternoon. And I should have a reservation. I might stay as much as a week there, but it has a bad reputation for touts and similar scum, so we’ll see how the first couple of days go.

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I Am Vexed

Fuck, that was far more stressful than a trip to the cinema should be. I don’t know how many terrorist attacks on cinemas there have been in India, but at the PVR multiplex (four screens) you’re not allowed to take in bags (women’s bags seem to be exempt), cameras, and a whole list of other things.

Obviously I had my laptop case and camera with me when I went to see I Am Legend this morning. I made a bit of an issue of it, asking if they had lockers (which they didn’t) and what people are supposed to do. The guards said I could come in, then I had to wait again queuing for a ticket. By the time I’d got my ticket, supervisors had been called down and they eventually stored my bag and camera in an office.

The auditorium was pretty empty when I got the just after the start of the film (I’d already seen the interview with Dr Krippen in Hindi, so I suppose I didn’t need to see it again). five or ten minutes later a group came in and sat near me, and just kept chatting and laughing all the way through the film.

And a few minutes after I decided I’d had enough and changed seats there was an interval. An interval! In a film less than two hours long. The only other time I’ve known there to be an interval during a film was one of the two times I saw The Two Towers at the cinema.

Then, of course, everybody left via the fire exit, and I wasn’t prepared to try bucking the trend. So then I walked a long, circuitous route down corridors, down stairs and up stairs back to the cinema’s entrance. Where I was patted down again by a guard, who also wanted to see inside my wallet. Clearly, Indians regularly carry firearms and explosives in their wallets.

The film itself was very different from the book. So different, in fact, that the meaning of the title is completely different in the two mediums. And that’s OK – films and novels (actually, I Am Legend is more of a novella – the volume I read a few months ago was half comprised of short stories) are completely distinct from each other and work in different ways. I liked it. I would have liked to have seen the completely bleak ending of the book transferred on to the screen, but in a Will Smith blockbuster that’s unlikely to happen.

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From uprising to surprising

India, Day 17 – Lucknow

You’ll never guess where I am. I’ll come back to that later.

Today, I took it relatively easy. I sat on the bed partly watching Animal Planet repeat itself ad nauseam, mainly working on photos. Shortly before midday, my laundry arrived, so with some clean clothes to wear I felt up to going out. Which I did two hours later. I got an autorickshaw ride from a Sikh man who spoke no English, and kept talking to me in Hindi.

Nevertheless, he got me to my destination – the 19th century Residency complex. I spent about an hour and a half wandering around there, taking photos (as ever) and absorbing a bit of the history. The site was an important location in the events leading to the First War of Independence in 1857. 3,000 soldiers, civilians, British and ‘natives’ were put under siege here. When the siege was finally broken by the second of two British armies to reach the place, only a thousand remained. In the cemetry I was a little moved by the monument of Frances Ellen Hale, a twenty year old officer’s wife, and her two daughters, Kate and Henrietta.

After that I walked down Rani Laxmibai Marg (‘marg’ meaning ‘road’) to the park we’d passed on the way here. The main part of Begum Hazrat Mahal Park (formerly Victoria Park) had an entrance fee of two rupees. Keeps the riff-raff out, I suppose. It also held a Victoria Monument – which didn’t involve a statue of Queen Victoria.

South of the park is the modern Social Change Monument, which occupies a roundabout. Getting into it for a closer look was a bit of a challenge – and not just because of the traffic (which is rarely so bad you can find a gap to slip through). The monument is walled; the wall is surrounded by a pavement (‘sidewalk’ for the North Americans among you); the pavement, in turn, is encircled by a railing. After one full circuit on the outer edge of the road, I couldn’t see a way in. It turned out that there’s a gate right at the place I originally approached the roundabout. Inside, it has a black needle, cross-shaped in cross-section, surmounted by a pale orb. Around it are statues of four luminaries of emancipation in India.

After doing that, I got on a cycle rickshaw and asked the lad riding it to take me to Mahatma Gandhi Road (MG Road). He didn’t speak English and I wasn’t sure he’d understood, as I didn’t recognise the way we went. The place he deposited me turned out to be worth it. I offered him twenty rupees in payment, but he kept asking for one. I showed him a one rupee coin, and he shook his head and said, ‘One rupees’. I think he was asking for one hundred. I left him with the twenty.

Sahara Ganj is a shopping mall. A very modern, shiny shopping mall. The kind that wouldn’t look out of place in Britain. In fact, no – it’s much too nice for Britain; it would be perfectly at home in South Korea, though. After the wall-to-wall dirt and delapidation of India, it was quite a surprise. There is almost airport-style security at the doors – metal-detector gates and  guards looking in your bags before admitting you. There’s also a cinema. I am Legend is on at 10 am. I might come back tomorrow morning.

Anyway, that’s where I am now. Specifically, in the Barista coffee shop on the top floor, with a typically very small latte grande.

Also on the agenda for tomorrow is seeing the Bara Imambara and maybe some of the other monuments in the same neighbourhood. And looking into train tickets. I think I’m going to be going to Varanasi unreserved class again, but I should be able to book ahead for Allahabad and partway to Khajuraho. It’ll all end in more adventurousness, I’m sure.

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Richard, on being restored to full size and power, Looking for Group.

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One of the dangers of using the internet here in India – and, indeed, at any internet cafe – is having all your keystrokes recorded by a key-logger. A key-logger being a device into which the keyboard plugs, and which then plugs into the keyboard socket on the computer.

After considering this – and, in fact, seeing what I assume was a key-logger plugged into one of the computers at Hotel Cottage Yes Please – I changed my passwords for WordPress and my main e-mail account, and since then I’ve been using the mouse to copy and paste each letter and number of my passwords.

Theoretically, I should be safe, but even in the event that I might want to use my credit card on-line I think I won’t – you never know what other devices and software might be present to record your every cyber-move.

Copying and pasting is rather tedious – especially numbers, because you generally have to navigate another window to a page with numbers on it. But it should help. My other main e-mail account – the one with all my passwords noted in e-mails to myself, and which I use for financial and ‘official’-type communication – I haven’t accessed at all. I wonder what messages I might have received.

I also have been typing my password to log into Aegis and IndiaMike.com. There shouldn’t be anything there to interest anyone. Unless an internet cafe owner wants to destroy by province in Aegis. If this computer has a key-logger installed, I wonder what the person reading it thinks of this. Have I just given them an idea? Or do they use software to automatically scan the whole of the key-log for strings of 16 numbers (ie, credit card numbers)?

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