Endings are actually beginnings too. This is what I told myself as I sat in the tiny, oh so tiny, room in Osaka. It’s one […]
Writing an article about Zen is almost a contradiction in terms. That is unless I simply leave the rest of it blank…
Just a finger, pointing […]
“You have to imagine,” said the man in broken English, “that this…” he gestured his hands at the view in front of us, “big lake… flood wide and deep… great water!” He broke into a wide toothy smile.
There was a pause as we considered this.
“But… not at the moment,” Cesca eventually prompted.
“No!” the man said vehemently, still smiling and shaking his head.
“At the moment it is just a dry field full of Yaks”.
The closest Yak stopped chewing and looked up at us, as if responding to the sound of its name.
At one point in our journey I actually advocated to Cesca that we skip China. That she didn’t listen, and talked me round, proves clearly that I don’t know everything and Cesca has some great ideas herself.
Oh, boy were my eyes going to be opened!
Entering the country via a large bus with lay down seats was fun. It rattled through the night towards the modern city of Guilin and the Li River.
Very little survives a man’s death. I have commented before that most of the “Great’s” from history did not write much down for themselves and Gandhi is no different. For while he did write many letters (all available online) he did this not because he wanted to leave lessons for you and I to follow or to build a movement around, but simply because he didn’t have a telephone. If you are looking for published books then you only have one to find; his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”.
I have a copy of it, I picked up in Mumbai, and it is not what you might expect.
Delhi. Many people say they have “done” Delhi, but in all honesty they haven’t. They have perhaps done the tourist parts of New Delhi, or maybe spent some time in an Ashram there – which amounts to the same thing: a tourist experience. Delhi is so large to be beyond being “done” should you spend a lifetime there.
For one thing there are 16 million people living in Delhi and 249 thousand in New Delhi (the capital of the capital). This makes Delhi the 8th largest metropolis in the world (we will visit the largest towards the end of these journals), and once something gets that big you know that no two stories of visiting it will be the same. Each will be a “slice of life”, a “moment in time” and a “vision” of the city. Also, like other gigantic cities, it is more than possible to leave with a very un-favourable impression. Walk down the wrong street or pass by the wrong district in any major city and you may not come out the other side alive, but perhaps in Delhi of all these places are you risking coming out a different colour.
That is because coming here during the Hindu festival of Holi, white and vulnerable, must make you a serious paint target as if you are running the gauntlet of 16 million amateur Jackson Pollacks’. That’s what first went through my mind when we arrived on the train, our last train journey in India.
Udaipur is famous for many reasons. To those in the west it is mostly known for its gleaming white Jag Niwas hotel found in the middle of one of its many lakes. To the Indians themselves is it known as a home of the great Maharana family. To the travellers, who could never afford a night in such a famous hotel and are relegated to simply looking at it, Udaipur is mainly known for a very special ceremony involving unmarried women and coloured hats.
Udaipur was the first stop for us into Rajasthan. We had heard so much about this part of India and were looking forwards to our visit with relish. The historic capital of the former kingdom of Mewar in Rajputana Agency, Udaipur’s fierce independence had successfully led it into the modern world almost untouched. This is in part due to its mountainous region being unsuitable for heavily armoured Mughal horses; Udaipur remained unmolested from Mughal influence in spite of much pressure.
Eating food in India is no joke.
On one hand there are high-end coffee cafes that have prices that could only make sense to the gainfully employed. High-end coffee needs to be carefully metered out as it is too comforting and familiar a western experience to eat in such a cafe. Not only does it take you away from your local-encounters in this mighty country, but also takes a large amount of Indian coin from your purse and that directly affects how much you have to spend on the fun things.
On the other hand there are the types of restaurants that Indians eat in themselves. Entering one of these is the classic story of India – the locals stare at you, the menu is in Hindu script, you have no idea what the food is and your loud shouting for Poppadum’s doesn’t go over well. For these places, the average (read lowest common denominator) English person might make the classic mistake that acting like one would act in an Indian restaurant in one’s own country (where Indian immigrants are very supplicating to asshole western dinners) is perhaps not the best idea when there are a million people in the surrounding two miles all of the same culture. Basically, I wonder if the English causal racism played out abroad is not the cause of many of the poisonings you hear about (just wait until this blog gets to Agra for a story of tourist poisoning that will make your hair stand on end). However, treated with respect, and a little bit of savvy regarding the menu, these “true” Indian restaurants serve generally fine if basic fair.
No, the really bad places to eat – the places where one should just walk on – are the for-tourists cafes. This isn’t because they are all bad – some are great and should be cherished like diamonds in the rough – it’s because when they are bad… they try to kill you.
“Who are your inspirational hero’s?” I asked a friend.
“Dunno. King David, I guess, would be one.”
“Awesome answer,” I said impressed that he hadn’t picked a modern actor or, worse, a footballer.
“How about you?”
“My grandfather, Ghandi and the Buddha,” I said quickly.
“You’ve obviously thought about this!”
“Lots. My grandfather is easy; fighter-bomber pilot in the Second World War, boxing champion, and gentile but courageous Welshman. He died before I became old enough to truly know him, but I carry one of his service uniform buttons with me everywhere.”
“How about Ghandi? A bit pacifist for you?”
“Ghandi was anything but a pacifist. He was very strong and he used his strength, not of his body, but of his mind; his soul. His belief was in the Indian people and of leading by example. Not using violence was far more effective than using it.”
“And the Buddha?”
“I became a real fan of him when I visited Bodh Gaya and the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’…” I began.
The story of a simple Buddhist priest travelling from India to China in the 5th Century doesn’t sound like something that would make for an interesting novel, but the after effects of this solitary man’s journey still reverberate today. In all parts of the far east, the name Bodhidharma is still very well known. In Japan, for example, little girls have Bodhidharma key-chains and all sorts of other cultural influences and footprints can be found. And not only in the geek fringes or the religious halls, no his is a visage often seen in paintings; most of the time shown as an old priest with a particularly fierce expression of concentration, and it is for this ability that he was most highly prized. Bodhidharma didn’t bring Buddhism to China or Japan, but he started a school of Buddhist thought that spoke to something deep inside the Eastern people that heard it. Spoke to their marrow with a simple and unselfish message of compassion, dedication and submission.
This effect changed them forever.
One of the unique things about India, and one that you never quite come to terms with, is the trains. I would even go as far as to say that if you could understand Indian trains, then you might well lay claim to being truly at home in India. For almost everything that there is to experience in this wild and beautiful country is capable of being experienced by rail.
You see all sorts of things just by walking into a station. They are often grand buildings left over from the British age of iron and function as hotel for thousands of homeless travelers of all types. They have some of the best and very worst toilets in the world, and for some over the edge of the platform is preferred. They are often smelly, frequently dirty and occasionally horrid. But, for every bad thing there exists a good to balance it out. Stations are packed with families playing together, sleeping and eating together. There is the bustle and fizz of people meeting, people departing from loved ones and people wishing they were on their way. The best bookshops I found in India were operated out of mobile stores. Almost anything you could want is for sale on these strips of concrete, and after hours on a train you will eat almost anything (no matter where it has been). They are amazing places, a sort of nexus point and a melting pot of cultures. The gaps between the high and low fade away on these platforms. They are to India what blackcabs are to London. Almost, but not quite, romantic.
People sleeping at a Station.
India has invested heavily in its trains, a trick they learned from the Victorians, and something we back home should consider carefully. Short of flying, trains remain the quintessential method of transport around India. The tracks are everywhere. All the major cities are linked, and most of the minor ones. In fact, we never struggled to find a train going anywhere we wanted to go, from the high tech city of Bengaluru (Bangalore) to the deep desert city of Jaisalmer.
We just struggled to get on one or two.
They are not slow either. For while a journey, say from Varanasi to Agra, takes place over one night, a simple look out of the window shows how the train is hammering out the miles at mind-meltingly fast speeds. It’s just the country is massive. Eventually, train transport became a welcome break for us. We would even plan our journey around it and use it as a “free nights’ accommodation”. For seeing into a heart of India, trains are your choice.