Across India from Mumbai to Kolkata
via Nepal and some tropical islands, Feb-March 2013
||Our route from coast to coast, starting in
Mumbai via Daman, Udaipur, Delhi, Lucknow, Pokhara, Kathmandu, Patna and
Lucknow to Calcutta, then flying to the Andaman Islands.
Mon 4th Feb. We arrived in Mumbai about 11am and got a taxi through the city traffic chaos to Bentley's in Colaba, our favourite hotel in a sturdy old house with a room overlooking the park. Then we headed straight to Mondy's (café Mondegar) for a beer and a snack. We walked back via the Taj Hotel and the Strand, then did a bit of shopping along the Causeway and had a rest, then back to Mondy's for butter chicken and Sula sparkling wine (which had gone up from 5 pounds to 20 pounds since two years ago!) to celebrate our return to Bombay.
Tues 5th. Had baked beans with onions, spices and fresh coriander
for breakfast at Mondy's then did a bit more shopping up and down the
Causeway. We went by taxi to Dhobi Talao square and had tea and snacks
at Kyani and Co Irani cafe, one of the traditional establishments created
in the 1930s by refugees from Iran to Bombay. We walked back via the railway
booking office at Churchgate where we made enquiries about our onward travel,
then back to Colaba for Sheila to buy shot silk for yet more cushions. We
checked out the restaurant on the top floor of the Godwin Hotel which had
a fabulous view when we went there in the daytime, but in the evening it
was empty and characterless so we walked back to Café Leopold and
had a pitcher of draft beer and two extremely tasty curries.
||Cricket on the green, Mumbai.
Wed 6th. Our rather drunk taxi driver wove us through the traffic
to Bandra Terminus to get the 11:35am Paschim Express. At first the kilometre-long
platform was a sea of people with their luggage alongside the tea- and
book-stalls, then when the train came in everyone magically disappeared
into the 3rd class wooden-seat carriage while we found our cozy tranquil
1st A/C seats. The top seat folded down into a bed including bedding and
Sheila was soon away with the fairies. The train's ultimate destination
was Amritsar via Delhi, over 24 hours away, but after a mere 2½ hours
we got off at Vapi (pronounced Wapi), the nearest stop for Daman.
First we had a mission, we got an ancient Ambassador taxi with a fairly ancient white-bearded driver who took us 15 kms in the other direction to Silvassa, the 'capital' of a separate little state called Dadra and Nagar Haveli, the result of a local Rajah doing a deal in the 1700s with the Portuguese, to keep the British and the Moghuls out. We had lunch of spicy dhosas at a nice little restaurant called Hotel Paradise and then drove back through Vapi to Daman, a former Portuguese stronghold on the coast with intact solid grey-walled forts and the remains of terracotta-roofed villas.
||We stayed at the Hotel Marina, a lovely 'Portuguese
lord's house' according to its brochure, in room 10 which had high ceilings
and lots of dark-wood beams and window frames.
We walked through the town to the railway reservation office but they said to come back tomorrow, and we walked back through little residential back streets where everybody was really smiley and friendly, and all the kids were playing cricket in the streets and the men were playing handball on a couple of pitches by the river. Based on the write-up in the guide book we went to the Daman Delite restaurant in Hotel Gurukripa on Sea Face Road, the main road down to the sea lined with hotels, bars and restaurants. The Daman Delite was excellent with great food and wine, friendly waiters and a restful ambiance enhanced by the twinkling 'star-speckled' ceiling. And compared to Mumbai the prices of everything seemed amazingly cheap!
Thurs 7th. After running a bucket for our shower we went downstairs
for a boiled-egg-and-tea breakfast at the hotel then went on a walking
tour of Daman, starting at the railway booking office were we got 'emergency
quota' seats to Udaipur. Yesterday the train had been fully booked but
at 10am today the quota opened up and Sheila 'invited herself' to the front
of the queue with the help of the smiling Indian travellers and we got
||We walked across the bridge to 'big Daman',
the large Portuguese fort with the Governor's Residence and the Cathedral
inside the intact fort walls.
||After a very strange lime soda (it was more
like a chilli soda) we went back to 'small Daman' and walked round the ramparts
of Fort St Jerome, the small fort, and an old lady with the keys let us
into the Church of Our Lady of the Sea. Outside the fort we walked round
the port by all the wooden fishing boats, and up and down some of the colourful
back streets where each house is painted a different colour. Again all
the people were really friendly and brought their children out to wave
||On the beach there were elaborate pigeon houses.
We went back to Daman Delite for a freshly-caught fish and chip lunch with wine and port then snoozed the afternoon away. In the evening we had another wonderful meal at Daman Delite in what has become our personal table by the window - best egg curry ever (80 Rupees, about one English pound), baby corn Sichuan (110 Rs), mixed raita (45 Rs). Each evening as we got back to our hotel they asked sadly if we wanted dinner in their dining room but we had to decline.
Fri 8th. We had a leisurely morning packing and strolling round Daman, pausing to buy a fancy phone (Samsung Galaxy look-alike made in China) with all the gizmos (games, internet, etc) from a nice man at a stall in the market. Then we had our final delicious boozy lunch at Daman Delite before having a wild ride to the railway station with a crazy taxi driver. We were in 3A class for the overnight train to Udaipur, meaning 3 tiers of bunks so six to a compartment plus two more the other side of the corridor, with a curtain but no doors. It was crowded and noisy with babies and mobile phones, and pretty soon everyone got out their dinners from tupperware dishes and newspaper packets and picnicked all around us, but we were still full from lunch so just had a chai (tea) from one of the passing sellers going up and down the corridor. We swapped our lower bunks for the two upper ones (which the original owners were pleased about because they didn't want to climb up into them) and we dozed the night away cozily above the turmoil below.
Sat 9th. We slept surprisingly well and by the time we woke up
everyone seemed to have left the train, except the last lady who warned us
to watch out for 'prowlers' as she got off, so we kept an eye on our baggage
until we arrived in Udaipur. There we got a shiny
modern tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) down to our hotel in Lal Ghat by the lake.
||We had a moment of disappointment when we learned
that our favourite room was not available although we thought we'd booked
it, but as we sat on the rooftop over breakfast we watched some people in
the room with huge windows above and behind us and thought how nice it
looked, when the hotel manager came up and said we could have that room
because they were just checking out. Sheila perked up immediately! The room
was lovely, light and spacious with sweeping views of the lake and palaces.
It was also huge, 60 feet long from the cool marble bathroom through the
dressing room and entrance hall to the huge bedroom and lounge with a chaise-longue
covered in Indian cushions, and it had two separate balconies with tables
and chairs, big pots of bougainvilleas and fabulous views of the lake.
||We did the most important chores first, walking
round to Hanuman Ghat and booking our favourite tables in our favourite
restaurants for the next four days, down by the lake at the Ambrai and up
in the Mughal turret under its cupola at Udai Kothi.
We got a tuk-tuk out to the flower shops at Chetak Circle and bought a flower arrangement with 24 red roses and a lurid pink and yellow candle to have in the hotel room to celebrate Sheila's forthcoming birthday. We went to see Mr A, our friendly travel agent in Lal Ghat, and found that he has a nice new shop right by the Ghat but he was out of the country and his brother, also Mr A2, was very helpful and we booked various flights for the rest of the holiday which all worked out very well. We had a Greek salad for lunch at Govinda's cafe and drew a huge wad of money out of the ATM to pay Mr A2 for our flights, then had a rest in the heat of afternoon until it was time to walk round to the Udai Kothi for dinner. We were late and one of the waiters had let a group of four Chinese people sit in our domed Mughal turret but they moved out graciously and we wished them 'Kung Hei Fat Choy' (happy Chinese new year). With difficulty we sat cross-legged on our cushions and had an absolutely delicious meal of butter chicken and chicken tikka with Sula wines. We enjoyed it so much that we booked another night and went and cancelled one of the three Ambrais we had booked earlier.
Sun 10th to Tues 12th. Restful days in Udaipur.
||It was quite chilly in the mornings, but by the
time we'd had breakfast on the rooftop watching Udaipur wake up it had
warmed up to another sunny day.
||We had very worthwhile walks through the markets
in Bara Bazaar between the two clock towers doing chores and shopping
- we had Sheila's fancy new Chinese-made mobile phone repaired (the speaker
had gone so it was completely silent) and had a necklace mended for 40
Rupees (about 50 pence), had some cushions made, Sheila had a haircut by
a man who looked like Mr Teasy-Weasy, we bought fresh pea-pods and little
cucumbers as snacks in the vegetable market, had samosas and chai at a
very nice man's tea-stall, and bought two extremely tasty mangoes which
the man back at the hotel cut up and put on a plate for Sheila which she
ate on one of our hotel room balconies.
||We went for great dinners in our prime position
at the Ambrai, with the lake on two sides of us and a vista of floodlit
palaces stretching around us. The smoky curries washed down with Indian wines
were delicious as always, if a bit pricey.
||And watched beautiful sunsets from the balcony
of our room at Kankarwa Haveli.
Weds 13th. After breakfast we went by taxi to the airport some
way out of Udaipur (600 Rs) and flew on Spicejet to Delhi.
The flight was two hours late and all refreshments were chargeable but
otherwise it was fine. The prepaid taxi from Delhi airport was a bit of
a wreck and we had to show the driver the way, but we got to our hotel
in Karol Bagh district eventually. Our usual hotel the Swati was full so
we stayed at their alternative hotel about five minutes walk away which
was nearly as good. For a change we chose Chinese for dinner at Crossroads
restaurant and it was just as good as we remembered (we didn't try the mix
seafood grill, described as: 2 pc fish, 2 pc prawn and a handful of squid!).
Tues 14th. It was just too expensive to get a car for our onward travel so we went to a travel agent near New Delhi station and for a modest commission got seats on tomorrow's train to Lucknow at the unearthly hour of 6:15 am. We walked along Paharganj through the bazaar then got a cycle rickshaw to Connaught Place. There we did a bit of shopping and had a light lunch at the traditional old United Coffee House (founded 1942). We went to a couple of tourist sights at Bangla Sahib Sikh Temple, a huge complex similar to the Golden Temple at Amritsar and St James Church, the historic Anglican church built in the 1830s near Kashmir Gate. We had a fascinating walk through a rather run-down street to Old Delhi Station and got the metro back. In the evening of course we went back to Crossroads restaurant for another delicious meal.
||Kashmir Gate, one of the old city gates stormed
by the British when they re-took Delhi during the Uprising in 1857, and
now restored with a nice little garden around it.
||The ticket office at Delhi main station was pretty
||.... and so were the platforms.
Fri 15th. We were up before 5am to go by taxi through the eerily
quiet and empty litter-strewn streets to New Delhi railway station, which
was as busy and bustling as ever. Because we booked late we had to pay
a lot for top class 'Executive' seats which were huge and comfortable,
with so much leg room we could hardly reach our foot-rests. We sat and
read our free English-language Hindustan Times newspaper. It was wonderfully
comfortable and for the first three hours they kept bringing breakfast
in separate courses, starting with tea and biscuits then cornflakes then
eggs (fried, boiled or omelette) with toast, croissant and more tea. I chatted
with Mr Jafar Abbas, a retired university professor with diverse interests
in literature, computer science, jazz and much more. It was a very pleasant
way to travel. Things got more difficult when we arrived in Lucknow
at about 12:30, because none of the auto-rickshaw drivers wanted to take
us to our chosen hotel, the Carlton, which was described in the book as
'run-down palatial maharajah style' and when we finally got there we discovered
that this was because most of it was closed for renovation and the rest
was reserved for a wedding party. We drove around looking at several awful
hotels until we found the Mandakini Saket Regency which was a bit better,
but rather a long way from the centre of town. Along the way we stopped for
a tandoori chicken at a little street café called Dastar Kham (having
mistaken it for the more upmarket Dastarkhwan that Mr Abbas recommended).
Having left our bags we went straight back to the railway computerised reservation
office and booked our train out for the day after tomorrow. We got yet
another rickshaw to MG Road in the Hazratganj area where we walked up
and down looking in the shops then had a couple of beers in the Sports
Bar in Capoor's Hotel. Finally we went back to our hotel intending to have
dinner in the restaurant but discovered that there wasn't one, so we ended
up with pakoras from room service.
Sat 16th. There was a thunderstorm and pouring rain in progress
when we woke up (not expected in this season, they said) so we had room
service breakfast and whiled away the morning reading.
||By 2pm it appeared to have stopped raining so
we set off in an auto-rickshaw for the sightseeing tour of Lucknow. We
were walking round the Residency, a large complex of ruined and shell-pocked
brick buildings in a nicely kept park, where the British were besieged for
five months in 1857 during the Mutiny / Uprising / War of Independence (depending
whose history you read) when the next thunderstorm rolled in and we got
||We sheltered a while in the little museum in
the former Residency Annex, then splashed our way to the Bara (big) Imambra,
the huge tomb of the Nawab of Lucknow in the 1780s. It has huge carved
gateways, wonderful gardens and the main hall has what is claimed to be
the world's largest vaulted ceiling.
||A little further down the road, through a most
unusual gate with three arches on one side and what appears to be one
huge archway on the other side, we went to the Chota (small) Imambra,
another tomb constructed in 1832 which is smaller but much more elaborately
decorated inside, with an amazing collection of chandeliers hanging from
the ceiling. Nearby is reputedly the tallest clock tower in India, built
in the 1880s.
We thoroughly enjoyed the sightseeing tour but it was time to get back to the hotel to dry off and warm up, before we set off again on a cycle rickshaw through the teeming bazaars of the Aminabad district to Hazratganj for another couple of beers at the Sports Bar. Finally we cycle-rickshawed back to the hotel and had delicious chicken dopiaza and egg curry from room service. We have really warmed to Lucknow after a rather lukewarm start.
Sun 17th. After room service breakfast we checked out and went to the station in pleasant warm sunshine, unlike yesterday's pouring rain, but found that our 'superfast express' train was nearly 1½ hours late coming in. The journey in 2A class was pleasant enough but we finally arrived two hours late and abandoned any attempt to get to the Nepal border tonight. All the hotels near the station were full so for the ridiculously low price of 20 Rs we got a cycle-rickshaw for the km-long ride to the President Hotel, where we had beers and onion pakora in their sports bar, accompanied only by a single cockroach on the table which Sheila wasn't too bothered about because it was only a small one, although it was too fast to catch!
Mon 18th. A long day, with a range of transport choices, a lot of miles and a bit of sightseeing. We got a cycle-rickshaw from the hotel to the bus stand (30 Rs) and a rickety local bus for the 3-hour ride to Sonauli at the Nepal border (80 Rs each instead of the taxi for 800 Rs). The bus was fun - we got prime sightseeing seats at the front and it started off (eventually) with some spare seats but at every street corner and traffic jam more people jumped on until it was packed, and all we could see in front of us was a wall of backs. The other passengers were an assortment of colourfully-dressed villagers and grey-bearded old men and the bus crew seemed to be the driver plus three people whose role was to hang out of the door shouting our destination and hurrying people onto the bus. One of them was constantly spitting out of the door and after three hours we couldn't understand how one man could have so much spit in him! Sonauli is basically a single crowded street with the border half way along. The Indian immigration post was just a desk in an open shop-front on the street while the Nepal one was a slightly more up-market small bungalow. In both cases the formalities were quite painless - fill in a couple of forms, pay $US25 each on the Nepal side (which I exchanged from Indian rupees at a money changer at a not-too-bad-considering exchange rate), stamp the passports and we were through.At this point we had a lengthy debate with some taxi/tour touts/agents. It was now after 1pm (remembering to put our clocks forward by 15 minutes to adjust to the difference between India and Nepal time) and the plan was to find a hotel, see Lumbini (25 km away) and go to Pokhara tomorrow (over 200 km on a winding mountain road). However, the agent said he had a car from Pokhara ready to go back empty so he would take us today for 5,000 Nepal rupees, quite a good price, and he would take us via Lumbini for an extra 1,000 (the taxi wanted 2,000 for Sonauli to Lumbini and back). We agreed, although it would mean doing most of the picturesque mountain roads in the dark, and set off to Lumbini, Buddha's birthplace. According to an old guide book it was a peaceful, deserted place with a few historic remains, but now they are turning it into a sort of 'Buddha theme park' or pilgrimage attraction, with lakes and canals where you can go on motor-boat rides and a road lined with new temples built by each of the Buddhist countries in their own style - Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, etc. It seemed to be working (from the point of view of pulling in the Indian and Nepali crowds) and there were coach-loads of people there. It's quite spread out so we were persuaded to take a rather expensive cycle rickshaw round the sites for 400 NRs (about 3 pounds) and at the end he still had the nerve to ask for more money - I had to restrain Sheila who didn't want to pay the 400 NRs in the first place.
||At last we arrived at the central historical
point where Buddha was actually born. Here the great emperor Ashoka put
up an inscribed pillar to mark the spot when he visited in 245 BC, and there
are the remains of a very ancient temple under a hideous modern outer shell,
a square brick pool on the spot where Buddha's mother bathed and a huge Bodhi
tree with Tibetan-style monks sitting around it and chanting. We liked this
part of the complex but were less impressed with all the modern temples as
we'd seen the originals in their home countries.
It was now well after 4pm and we set off for the 5-hour drive to Pokhara, across the flat plain then suddenly beginning the mountain ascent up through the valleys surrounded by walls of mountains, which soon disappeared into the dusk. Bikram our driver was a lovely man and a very good driver and the roads were practically deserted so we had a smooth, enjoyable ride (except for the sections where the road surface had been washed away and was just corrugated dirt). We hadn't had anything to eat all day except a couple of fried onion bhaji type things at Lumbini, but Bikram said that plains people were dirty and he would only eat in the mountains so we stopped at a little wayside kitchen where a group of women were cooking up various dishes on a range of blazing fires and the water came straight from a pure mountain stream (apparently) and had tea and a snack. We finally arrived in Pokhara about 10pm, got a nice room at Butterfly Lodge where we stayed last year, and immediately went out to try to get some dinner. As we had driven through Pokhara town everything was dark and closed up tight, but in Lakeside the tourist district, many of the restaurants were still open - just. We went into Bamboostan Café and had a perfect late meal of salami pizza, San Miguel beer and a couple of glasses of red wine, sitting beside a real log fire - it was quite chilly at this higher altitude. Soon after we ordered they started shutting up the restaurant, bringing in the seat cushions from outside and closing the curtains, and we realised that the other 'customers' sitting around were actually family members. They didn't rush us though and we enjoyed our meal before collapsing into bed.
Tues 19th. We intended to have a quiet day in Pokhara today and it was just as well because there was a general strike and every single shop and restaurant was closed. The streets were eerily quiet with not a single car or motorbike in sight, just people standing around and a few push-bikes going along the road. There was also a power cut most of the day (and most other days). We sat out in the sun in the Butterfly Lodge garden or sat in our room reading until things started to open up in the evening. We had a drink and a salad 'starter' at Bamboostan, followed by chicken tikka butter masala at Lake Valley restaurant, our favourite from last year. Although the butter chicken was tasty the atmosphere at Lake Valley seemed very dead and we were the only guests, compared to Bamboostan where we sat around the log fire with several other couples as the waiters bustled to and fro (and the wine was also cheaper and much nicer).
|| Today's the day we jump off a mountain! At 9:30
the bus came to take us up the mountain to go para-gliding. Sheila becomes
.... it was fantastic; strapped to a 'pilot' each we ran forwards a few paces and suddenly we were suspended in mid-air, gently climbing higher and higher on the thermal until eagles (or some sort of raptor) were gliding underneath us. Lazily we drifted over the hills and the lake (Sheila opted for the twirly 'acrobatics' on the way down and loved it while I declined, although Sheila's 'pilot' didn't want her to because he said she was too old - she was not amused but luckily she was strapped in and couldn't get at him!) until we came in to land by the side of the lake. It was great!
Thurs 21st. After breakfast we had a very pleasant car ride to
Kathmandu (7,500 NRs) with Mr Bikram who had brought us
from Lumbini. All the way snowy peaks of the Annapurna range were visible
above the green foothills with villages and rice paddies across the river,
while white-water rafters drifted down with the current. Halfway we stopped
at Manakamana Resort, a lovely collection of bamboo bungalow rooms in a lush
garden, near a famous temple on a hill across the river (accessible by cable
car) and had tea. At this point we switched to a car from Kathmandu while
Mr Bikram went back to Pokhara, and our new driver was also very good and
careful, and knew his way straight to Basantapur in the centre of the old
city where we returned to the Sugat Hotel where we stayed last year and back
in 1996. This time we didn't get room 101, our normal favourite, because
it was already occupied but they gave us the huge room 205 (basically two
rooms combined) with a small balcony and three other windows all overlooking
the bustling square with its markets backed by the historic palaces. It also
had two bathrooms, each with a bathtub, but the better bathroom was unfortunately
connected to the bathroom of the adjoining room by a big hole in the wall
so it was hardly soundproof. There were two Chinese people staying in the
adjoining room; Chinese morning ablutions are a terrible thing! The room
could do with a coat of paint and some new furniture of course, but it was
great for 8 pounds a night. There is still a 750 Rupee charge for tourists
entering the Durbar Square area so as residents we don't have to pay it
and we actually make money by staying there! We walked up to Thamel through
the teeming streets and bazaars and went to the New Orleans café where
we got a table beside the roaring log fire in the open courtyard and had
humus and pitta starter (to spread the meal out) and delicious Indonesian
chicken satay (me) and English fish and chips (Sheila) accompanied by several
glasses of Australian red wine (me) and kir (Sheila). When we eventually
walked back to Durbar Square and the Sugat the streets were empty and everyone
Fri 22nd and Sat 23rd. Eating and drinking in Kathmandu.
We either walked or got a cycle-rickshaw to Thamel (70 NRs) for our favourite
breakfast of eggs Hollandaise (Benedict) at the New Orleans café,
a big plateful of poached eggs with bacon, fried onions, fried green
peppers and fried mushrooms on two slices of toast all topped with Hollandaise
sauce. Sheila had some remedial work done (manicure, pedicure, threading)
and we posted some postcards in the upmarket Kathmandu Guest House.
||We strolled back through the bazaar and the temples
and pagodas round Durbar Square to Old Freak Street.
After sending a few e-mails we bought some delicious yak's cheese and
slices of salami at a little streetside shop and had them for lunch at
our table in room 205 while watching the world go by in the bright sunshine
in the square below. Sheila retired for a nap while I went across the square
for very nice coffee at Himalayan Java Coffee, sitting at one of the huge
picture windows watching the square from a different angle. In the evenings
we went back to New Orleans café of course and had delicious meals
of jambalaya or very spicy Pad Thai with wine and kir. On Saturday there
was supposed to be a live Irish folk night but Sheila was devastated when
they turned out to be an American blues duo.
||We set off promptly at 8am with Mr Bikram for a
very pleasant drive to the border at Birganj (9,000 NRs). He had checked
with several of his friends and decided that the shorter winding mountain
road was better than the longer flatter one, and indeed it was better, with
amazing mountain views and villages with near-vertical cultivated terraces
sweeping down the hillsides. Nepal is the most amazingly beautiful country.
||Some mountain villages are protected by giant Buddhas.
The border at Birganj/Raxaul was predictably grubby and dusty but Mr Bikram found a jeep driver about to return to Patna and negotiated a price of 4,500 Indian Rs for him to take us there. The six-hour drive to Patna was awful; Bihar is one of the least developed Indian states and the infrastructure is terrible, especially the pot-holed dust-blown roads and our driver was the scourge of the countryside, tearing through villages at high speed sounding his horn all the way. The last few hours after dark were particularly scary as the road was teeming with unlit bikes, people and animals while oncoming lorries and buses drove straight at us with their headlights blazing on main beam. When we somehow miraculously arrived in Patna unscathed about 8pm we found that our first two hotel choices were full but then a bystander recommended the nearby Orchid 'business luxury hotel' which was very nice. There was no bar and the restaurant had apparently been taken over for a conference so we had room service masala papads and pakoras and a couple of bottles of beer that the room service man got from a bottle shop one km down the road.
Mon 25th. While Sheila remained in the hotel with tummy troubles
I went on a walking tour of Patna, down Exhibition Road to the huge dusty-grassy
park called Ghandi Maidan. Over in the far corner I crossed the road,
dodging the traffic by a hair's breadth and just down the road found the
Golghar, a massive bee-hive shaped granary built by the British Army in
1786 to prevent famine. It is closed on Mondays, a fact not mentioned in
the guide book. Behind a padlocked gate a few people were lounging around
so I began explaining to them that I'd come all this way to see it and I'm
leaving tomorrow so I've only got one day; one of the people came over and
I explained it again, I've no idea if he spoke English but without a word
he went over to a uniformed security man who unlocked the gate and let
me in! There are two spiral staircases on the outside of the huge building
and I went up the 250 steps of one of them to the top, where the views
of the city and the Ganges were wonderful. I went down the other staircase
and looked around the garden (the entrance to the building itself was securely
locked and I didn't push my luck to ask them to open it) and went over to
the gate to leave. I wondered if baksheesh would be required but when I
salaamed and thanked the security man he just smiled and let me out. I
went back down SP Verma Road to Dak Bungalow Road, all dusty, noisy streets
with pavements covered in shop-wares and debris, and back to the hotel.
In the evening we got a cycle-rickshaw across town to the Takshila restaurant
in a fancy hotel and had their signature dish - raan-e-takshila, a whole
leg of lamb marinaded for four days then cooked for 45 minutes in the tandoor.
It came with all the trimmings; onion with lemon juice, lime pickle, raita
and various sauces of varying spiciness. It was delicious.
Tues 26th. After another room service breakfast we got a taxi to
the station (200 Rs) and got the 11:40 express train for the two-hour
ride to Gaya. We were in the only chair class (comfortable seats) carriage
and the rest of the lengthy train appeared to be 3rd class. At Gaya we
finally decided to stop lugging our cases up and down the footbridges
across platforms and paid a porter 50 Rs for a 'head load' - meaning he
balanced our two cases on his head all the way up the stairs, across and
down the other side - the official price for all that is 30 Rs so he was
happy. We got an auto-rickshaw for the 12 km to Bodhgaya
for 200 Rs but that was probably too much, especially as when we got to
the edge of town he stopped and said we had to get a cycle rickshaw to
the hotel. The posh hotel we looked at first was full but two lads on a
motorbike took us to 'their' hotel, the Vipassana, a small, partly-finished
place which was rather basic but clean and not bad for 1,200 Rs except that
we used nearly a whole can of mosquito spray to kill all the mozzies which
had flown in when they had left the windows open to air the room; we don't
mind mozzies with us but only if they are all dead. Most hotel rooms have
a ceiling fan but normally there's a dial with about five speed settings
for it; in this room the dial had no effect so the fan had two settings,
off or frantic. We chose frantic because the room was quite warm, which had
the added benefit of drowning some of the outside noises of hooters and dogs.
We went for a walk round the town which is compact and easily walkable
but noisier than I expected for a place of Buddhist pilgrimage and meditation.
After struggling through the traffic-infested street for a few minutes
we strolled along the blissfully pedestrian-only area in front of the
||We stopped at the temple entrance but didn't go
in yet, and we were immediately 'adopted' by two little boys who said they
would take us to see a very interesting old house. We were sceptical at first
but went along with it and in fact it was fascinating - they took us down
a side street to a huge old house which was apparently a former monastery
known as Ghamandi's Hermitage after a wandering ascetic who settled there
around the early 17th century. There were three storeys round a central courtyard,
and we just went in with no formality or entrance fee and looked round
the courtyard in the middle of which was a sort of throne with cushions and
a tiger's head at the foot. We nodded thanks at the man sitting in one of
the colonnades who the boys said was the 'owner', then went up stairs and
walked all the way round on the flat roof looking down at the palace's lush
vegetable gardens, its Shiva temple, its farmyard with cows, and the river
which runs outside the place walls. The river bed was at least 500 yards/metres
wide but completely dry.
||There was an elaborate but rather decrepit river
gate which appeared to have arched elephant-houses in it and the boys said
"yes, there's an elephant there" but we didn't believe them, so when we
went out of the house into the yard we went through the gate to the river
steps, then along the bank a short way to an enclosure where there was a
camel, a cow and indeed an elephant! Apparently it is kept for ceremonies
and its ears and head were painted with elaborate designs. The 'guide' who
had attached himself to us gave us a couple of carrots to feed to the elephant
and we stroked its rough hairy trunk.
We thanked the little boys who had been absolutely right about the elephant and walked back through the town with them. We got a cycle-rickshaw a short way out of town to Hotel Sujata, apparently the only place allowed to serve alcohol (lots of spirits, only one sort of beer and no wine) and had an excellent egg curry and bhindi dopiaza and of course beers in their restaurant.
Weds 27th and Thurs 28th. Pleasant days in Bodhgaya.
We started off trying to book a train to Calcutta and a hotel in Calcutta
but didn't get very far, because the right train quotas hadn't opened
up and the phone number on the hotel's web site didn't work.
||So we went to the Mahabodhi Temple instead, one
of the most important places in Buddhism, where the Buddha gained enlightenment.
||We queued with the pilgrims to go inside the temple
itself, then started doing a circuit round the gardens outside.
||Everywhere people of all nationalities were meditating,
prostrating themselves towards the temple, or simply waiting to catch a
leaf falling off the sacred Bodhi tree, a sapling from the original tree
that the Buddha sat under some 2,400 years ago.
||The gardens were lovely and shady with trees and
plants and all shapes and sizes of stupas, and it was lovely.
It all went wrong when we left and found that Sheila's shoes, which we
left outside as you have to do at all temples, had been stolen. We tried
to involve some of the people standing around with 'Security' misleadingly
written on their uniforms but they weren't interested so we tried to contact
the temple management at the management office but it was empty. The most
reassuring thing anyone could say was 'yes that happens a lot, I've had my
shoes stolen here' - not exactly what you'd expect at a holy place - so we
gave up and I went and got Sheila's only other pair of shoes from the hotel.
Apparently there are plenty of unscrupulous people who, when they need a new
pair of shoes, go to the temple rather than a shoe shop.
Back at the travel agent's office some sort of quota had opened up so
we got places on a train which was good news, although the less good news
was that the train departs at the unearthly hour of 4am. We had a break at
Om café, a nice little traveller's café where we had delicious
home-made tomato soup - Sheila rated it the second-best ever after the
place in Kochi in Kerala.
||Next we went on a horse and buggy ride (150 Rs)
out to the Giant Buddha Statue (80 feet high), a serene statue set in nice
tranquil gardens, the effect only partly spoiled by the electricity pylon,
phone mast and water tower which try to intrude into every photo.
Spread around on this side of town are about ten temples built over the last 40 or 50 years by and in the style of all the Asian Buddhist countries, and the buggy driver managed to up-sell us into doing the full temple tour for 300 Rs. The temples were lovely, serene and sparkling and surrounded by gardens in their different styles, but Sheila was happy just riding round on the buggy so she didn't mind where we went. We bought some bananas in the bazaar and went back to feed the elephant again and in the evenings we went back to Hotel Sujata for another wonderful egg curry and aloo dopiaza. Despite the noisy traffic and the shoe thieves we really like Bodhgaya.
||Back at the Mahabodhi temple at dusk.
Fri 1st March. Rather an early start, up for the taxi at 3am to
take us to the station for the 4am train. Gaya station was like a refugee
camp with people sleeping on every inch of the entrance hall, waiting
area and most of the platform. The electronic signs were all wrong, showing
the wrong train at the wrong time on the wrong platform, and at one point
we actually got on the wrong train and tried to find our seats but someone
told us to get off just in time before the train moved off. A bit later
they announced our train over the loudspeaker but even then they said the
wrong platform and we finally saw our train coming into the adjacent one
and managed to find our allocated places in the dark, make our beds with
the bedding provided and snooze away what was left of the night. At about
6:30 we stopped at Dhanbad Junction and I stood on the platform in Jharkahand
State for a couple of minutes (in my quest to go to every state
in India, there's not much other reason to go to Jharkhand State). Soon
afterwards the attendant came round and tried to wake everybody up for breakfast
but I warned him that waking Sheila before she's ready is dicing with death.
Later he came back and served me complimentary tea and biscuits which was
||We arrived at Kolkata Howrah station
at 10am after a remarkably smooth ride and got one of the Ambassador taxis
from the prepaid taxi desk, across the rickety historic Howrah bridge and
through the city to Sudder Street.
We have now completed our grand circuit of India and arrived back where we started over six years ago so we were spotting familiar landmarks all the way. We stayed at the Astoria Hotel which has a rather basic reception in a run-down building on the street, but then you walk back to a whole different world of very pleasant and clean bedrooms in the modern building adjoining at the back. We had a nice brunch from the extensive menu at the Blue Sky traveller's café down the street.
||While Sheila had the regulation afternoon nap I
went for a walking tour of the city. I walked through a rather awful rubbish
collecting area to RAK Road (also known as Wellesley Street - most roads
are still known by their colonial names) then turned north and walked all
the way up until it became College Street and was lined by what is reputed
to be the biggest second-hand book market in the world, although most of
them were academic works for students.
||At College Square I had a cup of coffee at the
legendary Indian Coffee House, once a meeting place of freedom fighters,
bohemians and revolutionaries, with high ceilings, archaic fans and grimy
walls echoing with deafening student conversation. On the main road outside
I jumped onto one of the rickety old metal trams that rattle up and down
the streets (metal bodies, metal seats and metal grilles over the windows),
and went to what turned out to be its terminus at Esplanade, a short walk
(once you get across the frantically busy road) to Sudder Street, where
I celebrated with tea at Blue Sky café.
We had a walk round the extensive nearby market, then went to the Princess
singing bar which we really liked six years ago. Unfortunately now the girls
don't sing any more, they just mime to the music as they dance around admiring
themselves in the mirrors, collecting 100 Rs notes from the admiring punters
- all that's missing are the poles to wrap themselves around.
Sat 2nd. The hotel breakfast (included in the room rate of 4,000
Rs) was quite good, Sheila had corn flakes and I had boiled eggs followed
by potato and peas curry with a chapati. Then at 9am we got a taxi through
the surprisingly quiet streets to the airport (400 Rs) and flew on Spicejet
to Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. We had to buy
the in-flight lunch for 200 Rs each but it was a very tasty biryani which
was worth it. It was noticeably hotter when we arrived, as you might expect
on a genuine tropical island, and we got an Ambassador taxi driven by Cortez
our driver to our first choice hotel which turned out to be full so Cortez
took us to the Lighthouse Residency in a good location near the clock
tower and the local ferry jetty, where we got a reasonable room 708 with
a little balcony with a view of the sea for 2,000 Rs. Sheila wants to
point out that most of the rooms we stay in on any of our holidays her friends
would recoil from in horror, so I suppose it wasn't that good. Cortez then
whisked us off to the ferry booking office where we got the last two seats
on tomorrow's ferry to Havelock island for 950 Rs each one-way, quite
costly. Exhausted by all this activity (and the heat and she said it was
a bit of a dump) Sheila had a nap while I walked down to the ferry jetty
and had a tea at the nearby New Lighthouse Restaurant in their pleasant
breezy upstairs area.
||The clock tower in Aberdeen Bazaar, the central
part of Port Blair.
|| In the evening we went up to the Residency's breezy
rooftop restaurant and had a delicious whole red snapper cooked in spices
on their barbecue.
Sun 3rd. We've had lots of bucket showers along the way but at
the Residency we had to introduce a new rule that if you can't see the bottom
of the bucket when it's full of water you don't use it! Cortez arrived
good and early and took us to the port where we got the big catamaran
ferry for the 1½ hour ride to Havelock Island.
||An auto-rickshaw driver took us to 'his' hotel,
the Blue Bird Resort at Beach number 5, which had nice thatched cabins
with cool woodwork inside and a veranda with wicker chairs outside, for
3,500 Rs (including the driver's commission - he only charged us 20 Rs for
the ride). The beach was actually across the little island road and down
a path but we looked at a couple of hotels on the 'beach' side of the road
and you had to walk just as far to the beach from them.
||After settling in we walked 600 yards/metres down
the road to the Wild Orchid, an up-market resort with a highly recommended
restaurant. The restaurant was indeed superb, with a high thatched ceiling
and dark polished-wood floors, and we splashed out on a bottle of Sula
Chenin Blanc wine with our huge lunch of seafood chowder, fish and chips
and wok-fried Manchurian prawns with noodles. It was all delicious.
We walked back along the beach to Blue Bird Resort splashing our feet in
the Indian Ocean. After a quiet afternoon we walked back to the Wild Orchid
for a delicious dinner of seafood chowder and spicy Bengali fish fry, with
another bottle of Chenin Blanc.
Mon 4th. After the complimentary breakfast at the hotel we went
for an auto-rickshaw ride to Beach 7 on the other side of the island.
||Beach 7 is reputed to be one of the best beaches
in Asia and it was beautiful - a classic yellow-sand arc fringed by palm
trees, washed by the warm blue ocean with Indian ladies splashing in the
sea dressed in their saris and backed by the deep green jungle.
Nearby we went to the very tasteful up-market Barefoot in Havelock resort
where we chatted to two lovely Irish men who are members of the Traveller's
Century Club, and swapped obscure places that we'd been to (on this occasion
we were easily out-numbered!). We auto-rickshawed back to Beach 5 and had
lunch at Wild Orchid, but only beer and one Manchurian prawns between us
this time instead of the huge lunch we had yesterday. We got an auto-rickshaw
to the jetty and the 4pm catamaran back to Port Blair and checked back
into the Lighthouse Residency, room 710 with a similar balcony and a view
of the sea. Back up in the rooftop restaurant we had another wonderful barbecued
red snapper for dinner.
Tues 5th. We woke up to find that the hotel seemed to be deserted.
We were the only guests so all the staff had gone and there was no running
water anywhere as some sort of master switch had been turned off. The
very groggy security guard said breakfast maybe 11am. We walked down to
the local jetty and after several boats had come and gone to other places
we got the 8:30 ferry for the short ride across to Ross Island.
The sea was quite choppy and boarding the ferry was tricky because it
moored up alongside three other boats and we had to scramble through a
world of motion to get to it.
||Ross Island was fascinating, full of the crumbling
remains of the elegant British headquarters established here until an earthquake
in 1941. Now all the buildings are roofless and huge trees wrap their roots
around the brick walls. We went on the earliest ferry and everything was
peaceful, until the 10 o'clock ferry arrived and suddenly the island was
full of sightseers.
||We walked all round the island suffering from the
intense heat and humidity (it must have been awful to live here before air-conditioning)
but admiring the peacocks and tame deer that wander wild among the trees.
||We got the 10:30 ferry back and immediately walked
up the hill to the 'Cellular Jail', built when the British deported Indian
criminals to the Andamans. Although only three of the seven original cell
blocks remain, radiating out from a central guard tower, it was still very
grey and sinister. By contrast the administrative block at the main entrance
was very colourful and not at all jail-like.
Thoroughly hot and dehydrated we got an auto-rickshaw for the ridiculously
short ride back to Lighthouse Residency and had most welcome soups and
lemon sodas in their pleasant restaurant. Then promptly at 12:45 Mr Cortez
arrived and took us to the airport in his Ambassador taxi. Everyone had
said that an hour would be ample time for a domestic flight but in fact
the airport was packed and the queues enormous at the endless security checks
and double-checks - to get into the building, to get to the check-in area,
to get through security (as always, separate queues for men and women even
though there was only one x-ray machine) and then up to the departure gate
and onto the bus to the plane. We basically queued continuously all the
way without a break and were one of the last onto the bus. Nevertheless,
somehow the flight left on time and arrived in Kolkata right
on time at 4pm. The taxi (290 Rs) took us an interesting back-street route
to Sudder Street where we checked back into the Astoria Hotel but the room
this time was a bit disappointing. We had high hopes after our last stay
but this room, one floor lower down, seemed smaller and they had to come
and fix the bed because a leg was missing and it pivoted like a see-saw, and
fix the standard lamp because the plug was broken. Sheila also had to storm
down the corridor to 'ask' some rowdy neighbours to keep the noise down.
We started off on a walk round the market but got distracted by Jimmy's bar
and restaurant and had very nice Chinese spring rolls, Kung Po chicken and
Singapore style noodles with cold Fosters beer.
Weds 6th. Calcutta seems more civilised, more cultured than other big Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai; there's more respect for people, a bit less hooting of horns, streets are shadier with trees planted along them and signs with street names; and of course Ambassador taxis and so many book sellers!
After a good hotel breakfast we walked down Chowringhee Road as the shops
and stalls were opening for the day, and continued up Bentnick Street
and left onto Mukherjee Road where a shoe mender who we were assured was
'the best in Kolkata' did a great job of mending my shoes while I had
a chai from one of the numerous tea and snack stalls lining the pavement
(I have them mended every time we come to India because they are so comfortable
I refuse to part with them). Round the corner opposite BBD Bagh we got
some information from West Bengal tourist office in preparation for our
||We got an ancient Ambassador taxi across town
and the river to the Botanical Gardens. The gardens were blissfully quiet
away from the traffic and crowds, and the main attraction, the 'Great Banyan
Tree' (in the Guinness Book of Records according to the sign) was indeed
impressive, but the rest of the gardens were a bit of a let-down - the Large
Palm House was locked, the Small Palm House was derelict and overgrown and
the Japanese Garden had disappeared.
We got a taxi to Blue Sky café in Sudder Street, intending to just
have soup but we ended up having a big lunch of mashed potatoes with
cheese and fried onions (comfort food for Sheila) and smoked fish salad
(me) as well. In the evening we got a real rickshaw (no auto, no cycle,
just a man pulling us along) round to the market and walked around the
stalls and listened to the band and rather awful singing from a temporary
stage outside. We ended up back at Jimmy's for another delicious meal of
sizzling garlic prawns, Manchurian chicken and Singapore style noodles with
||We had another interesting walk to the market,
especially the all-action fish market where they were chopping, slicing
and scaling huge fish and breaking up ice for the storage containers,
surrounded by crows and dogs looking to snatch a morsel.
Alongside the market was a narrow dark alley of single doorless rooms, stacked two high, where extended families of up to six people live in each room. The younger people there welcomed us in and wanted us to see their houses and take their photos, although the older ones were not so keen to have foreigners wandering in and peering into their rooms.
Finally it was time to take another taxi ride to the airport, in an Ambassador
whose driver seemed to be having a duel with another Ambassador taxi,
cutting each other up as they wove through the traffic all the way to
the airport. We had a pleasant flight on Indigo, another new budget Indian
airline, and arrived back in Mumbai where the whole trip
started. We went back to Bentley's hotel where they gave us room 17 again
with a nice view of the park at the back (2,500 Rs without A/C - we certainly
didn't need A/C a month ago but it is noticeably hotter now).
||We went back to Leopold café for a delicious
butter chicken and 'jug' of beer (more like a tower with a tap at the bottom).
Fri 8th. We had spicy baked beans for breakfast at Mondy's then
did some chores - clothes for mending and dry-cleaning and picked up
Sheila's new glasses. Then we got a taxi (with the same joking driver
as last time but he seemed sober now) to the Britannia Restaurant in
Sprott Road (another Irani café established in 1932) where we
had an early lunch and met the original owner's son, now aged 91, who
proudly showed us his letter from the Queen. After a bit more shopping
Sheila succumbed to the heat and had a nap while I got a double-deck bus
to the bookstalls near Hutatma Chowk and bought a street atlas of the city,
then got another bus back via Back Bay. In the evening we collected the
dry cleaning and mending and after queueing for a while for a good table,
had another great butter chicken at Leopold Café.
Sat 9th. After breakfast at Mondy's and a stroll through the leafy residential streets of Colaba we got an A/C taxi to the airport (it's much too hot to do without A/C now) and flew back to London. I just wish I'd had a pound for every time Sheila said "I don't think my nails will ever be clean again"!