Friday, 17 September 2010

Varanasi and The Games

I arrive in Varanasi slightly dazed from the 12hr train ride and find lodgings at the Shanti Guest House. Not easily, I hasten to add - it's down near the ghats; the steps down to the Ganges used for a variety of activities, from washing and bathing to burning the dead. Shanti GH is near Manikarnika Ghat, the biggest of the cremation ghats, and getting there requires navigation through a labyrinth of markets and side streets that are teaming with cockroaches, touts, stray dogs, cows and shops; littered with rubbish, paan splotches, various animals' crap and an ominous, viscous black sludge that slides down the gutters. Corpses pass by on the streets, carried on stretchers by small, chanting processions.

After a much needed shower I head to the rooftop restaurant. The view is incredible and the atmosphere charged - great boulders of thunder roll over the Ganges and around the ghats, eyes stinging from the pyres' smoke. I go for a wander around the backstreets and see some of the ghats. Then I'm directed to a music shop and school by a friendly drug dealer ('I sell everything'), and end up taking a tabla lesson right there and then, and book a bunch more.

Munshi Ghat

The Jolly Music House is run by the genial Jolly, who seems to spend most of his time sitting drinking chai, getting jolly, and generally smiling a lot. He also has a nice turn of phrase and puts things in ways that only non-native English speakers can, and we have some interesting conversations. Also play a few times with him and my teacher Om, in which I'm hilariously out-drummed but that are fun nonetheless.

It's a very Indian city, and despite the superficial reservations it's easy to have about the place, it has a great atmosphere and I like it here, as do most visitors. After a few weeks of pleasant sameyness, I head back to Delhi to catch some of the madness that is The Commonwealth Games.

Rant time! The metro system in Delhi during The Games would've been better organised had it been designed by a one-year-old going nuts with some crayons. At the entrance to the New Delhi metro station, there's ONE body scanner and ONE bag scanner. This is one of the busiest metro stations in Delhi, next to the biggest and busiest train station, and the way into the city from the airport. And the hundreds of thousands who use the metro daily are let in one at a time. I just saw (and promptly left) a queue about 300m long and 4 people wide - so perhaps 2000 people - and the queue was getting longer. One at a time. The incompetence involved in designing such a system is staggering. Then there's the free metro tickets that come with the event tickets. Each one has a code that has to be manually recorded every time you enter or exit the metro station. So come the end of an event - thousands of people trying to get home - not only are they let in or out one at a time, but everyone's shouting numbers and thrusting tickets slips all over the place, one guy frantically trying to write down long strings of numbers in a huge ledger. Complete mayhem. I can't fathom how anyone in the world, ever, would think this was a good idea. Or even a vaguely passable idea.

Ok, rant over. In comparison to the other methods of city travel it's actually a pretty good service (or at least a much needed one), despite all its faults - it's just that seeing a system that a moderately intelligent monkey could improve upon annoys the hell out of me.

The Games themselves are great (again, the infrastructural elements are woefully inadequate and under prepared, but I'll refrain from more ranting) and the events that have Indian competitors inevitably lead to the crowd going completely bonkers which can be very entertaining.

I'd meant to head to Mumbai next, but the trains are booked up for weeks in advance, so instead I book a ticket to Ahmedabad, and intend to head to Diu. It's a seaside resort-type town on the southern tip of the Gujarat peninsula, and I figure possibly a nice base to head off for some biking around the bulbous coastline. Looks like my plan to head down the western coast and end up in Kerala may not come off as planned. But plans in India are made to be broken it seems...

Sunday, 12 September 2010

From the top.

We get into Delhi after an 8-hour plane ride (on which I get NO sleep). I'm amazed at the airport; it's all changed massively in the 6 months since I was here last. The Commonwealth Games are here next month and it's clear they've spent some serious money preparing - all shiny marble and perfume shops. The taxi ride into Delhi is striking as well, construction everywhere you look. I ask our taxi driver if it'll be done in time for the games, he laughs and shakes his head.

We wander around Paharganj (the backpacker area I'm familiar with), dump our bags at a guesthouse and grab some tasty samosas on the street. This is also undergoing major renovation - about a metre has been ripped off the front of the buildings on either side in order to make the street wider.

A rickshaw ride later and we're in the Chandi Chowk - a big network of markets near the Jama Masjid. I'd heard of a mystical, heavenly street that just sells paranthes of various shapes and sizes where you can choose any filling (image all the things you could put in a paranthe! peppers... peas... cashew nuts...!) called Gali Paranthe Wali (the lane of fried bread). So we went on a mission to find it, did eventually and had a fantastic aloo paranthe. Shame I didn't know the Hindi for cashew nuts.

At this point I'm an absolute wreck from lack of sleep, so we relax in a cafe and hide from a thunderstorm before heading to the station to get our train to Haridwar. I'm out cold for the whole ride (my dad doesn't fare so well) and we have chai and share a rickshaw with a friendly German to Rishikesh (which I describe in my blog from last year).

We find Enfields to hire pretty easily, from Ranjeet Motorcycles (recommended!) which is actually the place I bought my bike last year. If he remembers me and my... clumsiness last year he doesn't show it. Quite a few shop/cafe owners remember me though which is nice - one remembers both my name and what drink I'd order ('Ah, Mr Ben! Lemon tea?') which I'm mightily impressed by.

Oh if only I had a handlebar mustache.

We decide we'd like to head up to Joshimath, towards Hem Kund and The Valley of Flowers, where I actually went with Tyler and Gribb last year. So, after a few days rest, we set off from Rishikesh and have a great day's riding. A few scary patches, but mostly fine, and some nice sun. We also see many incredible road signs, my favourite being 'Driving and drink: a fetal combination'. Drink driving as a method of conception? Interesting...

That night it absolutely pours down, and after a few kilometres the next day we reach a few major landslides. We sit in front of the first, eyeing it up, when an Indian biker with a passenger rides up and sails through, as though the huge rocks and foot-thick mud were nothing. Fine, we think, we're just being wusses. After bumping around like crazy and getting stuck a few times we manage to get across and stop at a chai stall - by which time the guys in front returns saying the way forward is totally blocked. It's safe to say they weren't exaggerating.

Since we can't head onwards to Joshimath we decide to head back in case the road home is slow too. Turns out to be completely blocked. The next three days go pretty much in the same vein. Every day we get up early, get about 10km down the road, get confronted by ridiculous landslides; navigate our way through one to be met by a bigger one a few minutes later. Some of the things the locals are doing are truly staggering though - basically carrying entire bikes over huge mounds of slippery mud or zooming along foot-wide paths of mud and running water, both just a few feet away from hundred metre drops... Wish I had my camera handy!

Many bikers got through this, and it wasn't the worst by a long way.

It's getting to the point where we're not sure if we'll be back in time for my dad to get the train back to Delhi and catch his plane, but luckily by the fourth day the roads are pretty well cleared, and we bomb back to Rishikesh, the 'scary' parts of the first day barely registering in comparison to the landslides further into the mountains. Pretty dusty though.

The Masked Banditos

Just time for a bit of shopping and a nice hike into the hills (where I get attacked by one of the supposedly docile white monkeys) before heading back to Delhi.