India 1998: The Come Down

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The Tanglang-La Pass, reckoned at the time to be the second highest road pass in the world, [although now allegedly the twelfth highest]. Still, this was a high altitude road trip and we were fortunate to have undertaken our trek, which had toughened us up and got us acclimatised. Our conveyance was a bus, driven by an experienced driver of course, into whose hands we’d be committing ourselves. The road, if it can be described as such, was single track and largely unpaved-at times a mere dirt shelf carved from the mountainside. This was manageable, with our brilliant driver in charge, but became hair-raising when vehicles approached from the opposite direction [mostly lorries] and our far-side wheels would overhang the ledge.

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We’d be travelling down from Ladakh, where we’d been hiking, to Delhi, but the final part of our journey back to where we’d begun would be by train.

There were plenty of opportunities to stop and take in views, or to use such facilities as existed-the most notable being what [unless you, reader, know different] must take the accolade for most lofty loo, [and with a view].

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Along the way strings of prayer flags hung in forlorn tatters, meaning someone had taken the trouble to place them-prayers from the roof of the world. Small wonder they were in tatters when you consider the parlous state of the world today.

Sometimes it seemed the road was being constructed ahead of us while we motored, although it must have been repairs that were being undertaken. There was little mechanisation, the workers using woven baskets for rubble and boiling up tar on fires by the roadside then spreading by hand-gruelling work.

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The terrain varied, providing fascinating views, sometimes a group of riders, sometimes a facsimile of a fortress or palace, sculpted from a hillside by fierce winter winds.

There would also be refreshment stops. Forget motorway services. They would be solitary tents by the roadside containing a small range of canned drinks and snacks and offering cooked dishes such as fried egg sandwiches, produced from a stove with a cylindrical chimney poking our through the top of the tent. High up here where the temperature was punishing and the wind chilly, these tents were warm and cosy. There would sometimes be one or two stalls selling hand-made goods like knitted socks made from course wool. My investment in a pair of these was to prove a godsend in the coming night.

During this long journey there were no hotels. We were not put up in Travelodges or hostels. Overnight stops had to be spent in tented villages. We arrived at ‘Sarchu’ camp, where the standard tents were set up in neat rows and we were allocated one, before joining our group in the open-sided dining area for an evening meal. By now we’d donned warm clothing seeing as we were no longer trekking and the weather was cold-made colder still by a cruel wind and the night approaching.

That night in our tent we rummaged through our bags and unearthed every wearable garment we had, layering up until we resembled Michelin men, then got into our sleeping bags for what must have been the coldest night I can ever remember spending-even with the addition of my newly purchased socks. There was also a point when it became necessary to prize myself from the sleeping bag, out of the tent, into the dark and over to the toilet tent, an undertaking requiring true grit. I was never so glad to see morning arrive and with it a warm coach to continue our descent out of the north.-

India 1998. Taj.

It must be safe to say that the first iconic sight anyone thinks of in relation to India would be the Taj Mahal. It is, of course a large mausoleum, built by hundreds of workers over many years by emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a fact that spoils the romance a little in that she was not, exclusively his wife. A terrific novel, Taj, [Taj] tells the story of the building of the monument and Shah Jahan’s relationship with his wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child.

In my memory, Agra as a city was not a stunner. It may well be now, but then, as we entered the conglomeration by coach, it did not immediately reveal impressive buildings or elegant streets. We became entangled in a traffic jam, as usual, which allowed us time to study the mesmerising spaghetti of electric cables that crowned every roof corner. The jam, we learned,  was caused by a demonstration by primary school teachers…

We checked into the Hotel Ammar, modern and featureless, otherwise fine. Next day we would visit the Taj.

Our transport to this jewel in India’s crown was by camel cart, the animal amenable and well-behaved despite its arrogant expression.

We enjoyed some trundling along, sitting in the cart then, never one to pass up an experience I embarrassed Husband by taking up the driver’s offer to sit and ride the camel.

Before long we’d arrived at the Taj Mahal. And there it was, just exactly as it is in every photo, a perfect white wedding cake perched behind a rectangular pool. Except the pool was empty.

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Some work was being undertaken at the monument. The pristine lawns were being mown and some decorative panelling restored.

The Taj is not, in fact, perfectly white. Up close it is covered with an intricate tracery of pattern on each and every surface and it is this, rather than the shape of the building which takes the breath away.

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The interior holds the two tombs, of Shah Jahan and of his beloved[ish] wife. These, too are encrusted in ornate designs.

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The Taj is built beside the River Amuna, which provides a stunning setting, especially at sunset.

For the duration of this first leg of our India adventure I’d been seeking the ‘Holy Grail’ of naff shelf discoveries and had thought it would be found somewhere in the Golden Triangle. [The Naff Shelf]. At this time I was still swapping keepsake atrocities with a friend. And so it was, following the Taj Mahal visit, amongst the jumble of gift stalls peddling all manner of tat, I found the best horror of a souvenir I have ever seen, before or since. Regrettably I have no photo of it; a replica of the Taj, nestled in a small perspex box decorated with pink swirls, flanked by two miniature Christmas trees. Two wires protruded from the base of the box meant that it could light up!

Flushed with success, we boarded the bus, but my pride in my purchase was lost on a few members of the party whose sense of irony was not so well developed.

Back in our hotel room with Steve and Jane it was decided we should try out the electrics and see the mini-Taj illuminated, so in the absence of a plug Steve suggested we should jam the wires into a socket and ‘see what happened’. The experiment was not without result, as there was a crack and a flash, then the hotel’s electrical system was caput, everything dark and quiet [without air-con] including the model Taj, which we never did get to see lit-up.

In the morning we left Agra to visit a deserted city called Fathepur Sikri, beautiful and a little melancholy, we the only visitors, then on to ‘Akbar’s mausoleum’ which appeared to be run by monkeys.

It was time to return to Delhi. We’d seen a wealth of iconic sights and were ready for a change of terrain, climate and activity. And we’d need to say goodbye to our tour friends, Steve and Jane, who were returning to the UK rather than embarking on the second tour as we were. For we were to meet a new tour guide and fly up to the highest airport in the world-in Ladakh!

 

India 1998. Part 1.

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Following a successful and eventful trip to New York in 1997, Husband [though not Husband at that time] and I must have decided we could endure one another’s company for long enough to make a substantial visit to India. Pre he-who-was-to-become Husband’s entry into my life I’d been planning to visit a friend who had taken a teaching job in Indonesia, but it wasn’t going to work out for dates over the summer, so we plunged into booking two, back-to-back tours in India with the travel company, ‘Explore’.

We chose a ‘golden triangle’ tour [Delhi/Jaipur/Agra] followed by a trekking exploration of Ladakh, in the north.

On this occasion I did not keep a travel journal, so my memories must rely on photographic prompts, but at the time I was in the habit of collecting all manner of holiday-related items such as tickets, labels, maps and menus and constructing elaborate albums on my return that included all this collected junk. Nowadays of course photo albums have become virtual and keepsakes have shrunk to one sought after artefact per trip for our naff shelf [of which I have written].

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I can see that we flew out from Heathrow to Bahrain, initially and then on to Delhi. I also have the itinerary for the first tour, called ‘Moghul Highlights’. This time, rather than blundering along following our own, hopelessly inadequate plans, we’d have the benefits of a tour guide and all planned ahead. This is a regime that many people enjoy, but experience has demonstrated [as it did on this occasion] that tour guides can be double-edged swords. We were to discover the drawbacks quite early in the adventure.

We arrived into Delhi early on a Saturday morning, feeling the effects of time differences compounded by long flights, together with that shock of heat and fumes that you get when stepping out of a plane into a hot climate. Then we were gathered up as a group and ushered on to a tour bus to our hotel. By the time we arrived we were in need of first, rehydration and second, sleep, neither of which was forthcoming! We had a few minutes to deposit bags and must assemble for a lecture, followed by a day’s sightseeing.

Too feeble to protest we duly gathered for the talk, delivered by our guide, a proud Indian lady who was champing at the bit, wanting to get started on showing us her city. So, no water, no sleep, no time to waste-and no currency either, as I’d hoped; we could have sneaked a purchase of a bottle or two en route.

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In retrospect it was madness to comply. We should have collectively protested. We’d all had long, dehydrating flights and were now embarking on a day’s sightseeing in unaccustomed, searing heat. The guide was lucky that none of us needed to be hospitalised!

Despite the deprivations of that first day I was able to follow, listen, look and photograph as we took in the major sights of Delhi, the huge Jami Mosque, the Red Fort, the Ghandi Memorial and cremation site. At this early point in the tour we did not yet realise that our guide’s insistence on strict adherence to discipline was to become a problem but it was not too long before a minor rebellion in the ranks began to germinate…