25. Impasse at the top of the world

November 9th, 2010

(Written 24/10/10)

On my first day proper it Lhasa I investigated whether it was possible to re-enter Tibet overland after visiting India and Nepal although I had already been warned it was difficult. The answer was very disappointing, it was possible to re-enter Tibet from Nepal, however, as you were only permitted to on a special Chinese group visa I would not be able to continue back into China proper. I could only fly out of Tibet to another country. This is where I had to confirm the details of my backup plan and the horrible decision I had to take in not going to India overland. The decision I've made may seem silly to someone reading this but on a journey like this, not breaking the overland line is important. I’ve always said that I can pause the overland trip but not break the line. But it may seem even more silly when I say that I will be flying to India from Hong Kong in a week or so!

Let Me Explain......

I've been thinking about this for quite a while and I have to continue my journey in the spirit of the adventure of the overland trip and not enter anywhere by land or sea that I can't get out of. To enter India would be like entering a Lobster Pot, easy to get into it but you have to smash the whole thing to get out. In fact, if I was continuing my journey "properly" I would not go to India at all as it is a dead end however, I promised to re-visit a place in Calcutta I visited in 2001 where I ended up sponsoring a kid. I promised to go back, meet the people who were there then and see how the kids got on. This is a really important part of the trip for me and one of the reasons for my career break so I have to go.

So the options.....

1. Why not pause the trip in Lhasa, continue overland to India and fly back to Lhasa and resume the trip, this way I would only fly once and the line would not be broken.

Ans: Can't re-enter Tibet from Nepal and continue into China even if I fly. Government does not allow.

2. Why don't I fly to another place I'd been to before in China (i.e. Urumqi) and pick up the route again from there.

Can't break the line and the spirit of the overland route and retrospectively change the route, the decision to pause was made in Lhasa so I have to go back to Lhasa. If not there would be a break in my overland track which is the return trip from Lhasa to Urumqi. See it like carrying an overland baton (which never leaves the ground). If I left it in Lhasa, I wouldn't have it in Urumqi.

3. Why not Fly somewhere else in China and make your way back to Lhasa and restart.

Potentially could be done but highly risky and likely to lead to a break in the overland route. I would need to obtain a second series of permits for Lhasa/Tibet in the space of a month or so. Realistically this is not going to happen. I would also need to obtain a total of three visas for China in one year which is also very unlikely. I'm already pushing it at two. So this is too much of a risk as it may jeopardise the whole challenge.

I hope that this explains the decision although, but trust me, I don't want to fly anywhere as it does feel strange to come all this way overland that and I’ve got too much baggage to fly!

The next steps...

So before I make my way back into China I am going to do one thing. As equally as it is important to me not to break the overland route I am not going to miss out on those things I want to do either so I've booked a trip to continue from Lhasa to the Border with Nepal (the friendship bridge) passing Everest. At the Border I will then turn around and come back! Then I will continue to Hong Kong where I will fly to India, I hope to do the route from the Pakistan border I originally planned, through India to Nepal, just that the Amritsar to Calcutta bit will be in reverse. In Nepal I will continue to the Nepal Border with Tibet at the other side of the friendship bridge. From Kathmandu I will fly back to Hong Kong, hopefully get a second Chinese visa and continue south. This way I had a distinct "overland route" and a "what if" route, that is to say where I would have gone if I could have got a visa for Pakistan. Actually on that note, it was actually lucky that I did not get a visa for Pakistan on the route to India because I would have had to exit India the same way and with winter the road between Pakistan and China is now closed for 4 months!

Anyway, I hope that all makes sense. It may seem silly but when you're doing a journey like this certain things become important which may not seem so from the outside. And it's all because I promised to go to India!

Oh and regarding my wish to get to India overland. I will do it properly one day and do the route I wanted to do via Pakistan (thinking about cycling it!), but in the mean time I'm happy that by getting to the border with Nepal, I've proved to myself that I've all but dotted the I's so to speak. India was just two relatively short and easy bus journeys (4 hour + 10 hour) from there and less than a day away, I've actually done the route before.... but in reverse!

26. The Great Tibetan Theme Park.

November 15th, 2010

(Written 28/10/10)

On my first morning in Lhasa I was taken inside the Jokhang Temple, the spiritual home of Tibetan Buddhism. I’ve been in many temples before and quite a few Buddhist ones at that but this was very different. In a continuation of what I had seen on the evening of my arrival, the devotion, the emotion and the complete immersion in their particular branch of Buddhism was intense, memorising and captivating.... although on occasion quite annoying when someone would push you out of the way so they could pray to one of the many Buddhas. Standing in the smoke filled rooms, pervaded with the smell of Yak butter which is used for offerings to the Buddha and also as a fuel for the candles which add a low orange/yellow glow to the faded red, brown and gold paints of the ornate wooden building, you can’t help but be drawn in to the fervour.

Lhasa, Tibet

Buddahs in their glass cases were barely visible underneath the piles of “minority money”, the small worthless notes given as offerings. While looking at this, I kind of realised why the locals used the smaller notes as offerings and not the larger ones with Mao on them. Mao banned religion in Tibet to various degrees (monasteries closed but people still practised in other “secret” but known places) in Tibet in 1950 and it only re-emerged again in the 1980’s a few years after his death. Why would you want to make an offering of money with the face of the guy who banned the religion/belief on them? The only people using these larger notes appear to be the Chinese tourists putting them in the cases while having their picture taken of the good deed, but in time even the locals will have to use them. The government is slowly replacing the minority money with coins. These coins have erased any image of any minority group and I suppose this could again be taken as yet another metaphor for erasing the cultural image of these guys in China.

Lhasa, Tibet

But there was still something stuck in the back of my mind. The guys preying here really are Buddhists, they pray for peace for the world and everyone else before themselves and they are really devoted to helping those around them ensuring that they don’t harm others. So China, when they invaded in 1950, was there a fight, well not really, violence is not in the Tibetan’s nature. However after nine years of occupation there was a revolt which was brutally put down with tens of thousands of Tibetans killed. In the same year, 1959, the Dali Lama fled to India for his life.

Lhasa, Tibet

The next day I headed off to the Potala Palace, the amazingly iconic home of the Dali Lama and a building know throughout the world.  As amazing as the place is I couldn’t help but be left cold by the way in which we had to see the palace.  Although you pay quite a lot of money for this part of the world, you cannot take pictures inside or amazingly outside due to the huge Army presence and you are extremely limited in what you can see in the building.  Additionally you are only allowed in for one hour with your guide, so I gave mine the slip half way around and managed to sneak around for two hours.  The place is really amazing with a maze of temples and massive tombs of previous Dali Lama all hidden within the building but it has to be said, the Chinese tour groups spoil the atmosphere.  The Chinese guides show very little respect for the locals who pray in the temples or at the tombs of the Dali Lama, they shout and holler while people pray, then push past those trying to pray.  While I was squeezing past one of the groups, a short arsed Chinese lady deliberately pushed me out of the way with quite a force which nearly sent me flying down some stairs.  When I turned around she was sniggering, so I just lost it with her, particularly as it bought back memories of being pushed by a Chinese woman in London once which had quite irritating consequences.  But the Chinese can be so rude like this.  I don’t know anywhere else in the world you can push someone like that and get away with it.  They can really lack manners sometimes!

Lhasa, Tibet

Back in the main square facing the palace I looked up to the highest point of the building to see a flag flying proudly, dominating the building.  The Chinese flag flies alone with the Tibetan flag completely outlawed anywhere in China or Tibet.  For info, photographs of the current (14th) Dali Lama are also banned but tourist should sneak some in to give to people if possible.  In front of the Palace is a drab, grey concrete soviet style square with soldiers stood around another Chinese flag which appears to be placed in a position so that wherever you take a picture of the palace, you must have the flag in it.  Behind this with more soldiers stood around it is the “Liberation” monument.  Confused?  The Chinese all stand around and take pictures here as they are proud that they “liberated” Tibet.  Still Confused?  How could Tibet actually be liberated when its sole population were Tibetans, and its leaders also Tibetans?  More confused?

Lhasa, Tibet

Well, the Chinese see it as a liberation of society, from a feudal system the communists despised to the communism system.  So put very simply, the Chinese liberated the Tibetans from a system where they were forced to work collectively for their feudal masters for very little pay, if none at all, and live in fear of their lives.  The Chinese bought in a completely different system in which the Tibetans all had work given to them by the Party which they had to do while if they objected then their lives would be in danger, oh hang on a minute.......  obviously not thought that one through.....

Lhasa, Tibet

I could and should go on a lot more about all of the fantastic sights I’ve seen in Tibet, and the people I met, including the pointless trip to the Nepal border; pointless because much of it on the way there was by night and then on the way back it was so dull grey and cloudy I could barely see anything but luckily I’ve seen Everest before, but hey-ho that was the challenge I set myself! However, the more I think about the great things the more irritated I get about what is happening here. On my last full day in Lhasa I was taken to a temple where the elderly basically go to spend their last remaining days. Tourists aren’t meant to go there and the police got a bit physical but with a bit of cash, they went away. (You can bribe the Chinese, but the Tibetans would never take anything!)

Lhasa, Tibet

But inside was an amazing sight, there were maybe one thousand people throughout the temple complex just sitting and spinning their prayer wheels. When I asked what they were praying for I was told, they are praying for everyone in the world, but now some are praying for you for visiting here and wishing good health in the future. Within seconds of this I was inundated with Yak tea which is basically tea made with Yak butter, hot water and black tea. Sounds horrific, but trust me, it tasted great, made more so because as soon as I’d taken a sip, someone else would come along and top me up with their own homemade tea. I could have spent all day there, just sitting, but I do fear this way of life, this innocence, will all die along with this generation.

Lhasa, Tibet

The people in the temple kept asking for their picture to be taken, not for money like in other parts of the world such as India, but just to see their image on the back of the camera. I thought I’d go one better though as I’ve been carrying a mini portable printer around with me so I could make my own postcards etc. So I thought I’d surprise this one lady who wanted to look at herself and printed her a quick picture. I didn’t really think, but thought it may just be a nice thing to do but when I did it all got quite emotional. It turned out that in 89 years it was the very first picture she’d ever had of herself which made her really happy with others around also coming over and saying thank you for what was such a simple thing really. I gave a few more pictures to people before leaving. I was told by one old guy (who nicknamed me big nose, which yes I have, but it’s more to do with the fact that they have little stub ones!) that the old women had actually put the pictures in their inside pocket next to their hearts as apart from having the picture in a handy place! It will remind them of the day I came and they will always have a prayer for me when they show people the picture. I don’t do emotional things, so that’s when I had to leave!

Lhasa, Tibet

But that’s Tibet. Or that was Tibet, it is a wonderful place and I’m glad I’ve seen it when I have because it isn’t going to be here much longer, not in this form anyway. On my last evening I took one last walk around the Jokhang temple with the hundreds of other worshipers, when I made it back to the start I actually felt really quite sad, I really didn’t want to leave. Looking at the people walking and prostrating I just thought I had to go around just once more and I was glad I did. Within a few minutes of walking a guy behind me shouted something so loudly and so aggressively that it made me jump. Turning around I saw eight soldiers in two lines of four marking towards me, clearly they wanted me out of the way. So annoyed at their rudeness in what is a really sacred place for the Tibetans I simply turned my back on them and walked even slower making them have to file past me on either side. After this an old lady walked past grabbed my arm and smiled and walked on. Maybe these soldiers, like the lady who pushed me out of the way in the Potala Palace, is a metaphor for what is happening here, the Chinese are pushing the Tibetans about. But how far can you push a Buddhist before they explode? I think it’s getting very close.

I just sat on the stone floor in the middle of the square looking back at the Temple and the constant stream of pilgrims circling.  It bought tears to my eyes, just as it does now writing about it, and I dare say it will should I ever read this again.  I have the final image of the square engrained in my mind as I turned away one last time not actually wanting to leave.  And an image not destroyed by the eight constantly circling soldiers with guns ready to fire.  I think I found a place where I've seen the best in human nature and I wanted to be part of it, but I can't, but there is no doubt it will always have a part of me.

Lhasa, Tibet

On the train journey back into China I got into thinking about why things were changing here and what I’d seen in Urumqi with the once majority Uighur now being a minority in their own city surrounded by immigrant Han. Then I thought about what I’d seen between the new train station in Lhasa and the old town, miles of crisscrossing straight roads with huge placards down the sides showing what was about to be built there. On the placards were Chinese families sitting on grass outside their new homes, I suddenly got a chill up my back. I remembered a line on the English audio announcement played on the train on the way up here. To paraphrase it said “The Chinese Government was proud at the successful completion of the Tibetan railway as it would lead to more understanding between people with their increased movement.” Lhasa is becoming another Urumqi and I was riding the thing which was causing it, the train, Tibet was now very easily accessible. Since 2000 the Chinese government has had a deliberate policy of moving Han to “minority” regions to create a “better understanding.” But understanding if Urumqi is a model is to simply dilute cultural diversity to a minimum and assimilate the local population into theirs.

In 2008 there was an uprising in Lhasa just two years after the railway was built and that was partly about increasing numbers of Han Chinese along with diminishing rights of Tibetans. If immigration continues there will be a point as in Urumqi where the Tibetan population will fall below 50%, this would mean that even if a free and “fair” referendum was given about independence the Tibetans could never win. The Chinese will have succeeded in liberating Tibet from the Tibetans, so maybe that’s what the Liberation memorial is actually all about. Tibet will just become another Chinese Religious theme park as so many other sites in China are where people play at “what should be done” in temples as it makes a cool picture rather than any actual belief.

As dusk fell I had one last horrific epiphany, I noticed that nearly all of the workers outside performing maintenance of the railway were Tibetan. Because of the altitude these guys really are the only ones who could do this work and were the only ones who could have built the railway. The Chinese have actually used and are still using the Tibetans in the building of their own destruction.........

Well that’s my interpretation anyway......

Lhasa, Tibet

27. The Road to Hong Kong

November 18th, 2010

(Written 28/10/10)

Originally I had hoped to go to Hong Kong via Xi’an and Shanghai but thanks to the 20 days I was limited to on my visa I only had time to visit Xi’an. Leaving the train station in Xi’an I was suddenly hit by the turmoil, noise and mass humanity wandering the streets outside. So far I’d only been in cities with small populations of about 2 million (yes, that’s considered almost village like here!) but Xi’an is about 5 million and everyone seemed to be at the train station. Finding taxi was impossible, there only seemed to be one working in the whole town. At this point I’d met two Alaskans who were travelling together and we made a joint effort to find something. Eventually we found a motor rickshaw but immediately there was the language barrier. Although I tried to say the street name and hostel name I wanted I had originally hoped to just to show the address of the place written in Chinese on my iPod. However, thanks to the rudeness of the Chinese the message had been deleted from my iPod while I was trying to get off the train. While queuing to exit, this horrible fat-arsed woman grabbed my hand to move me out of the way and push her way to the head of the queue. Unfortunately at the same time I had been looking at the address on my “touch screen” iPod which she touched as it was in my hand, she managed to not only press the delete button but also the delete confirm! I no longer had the address! But I had a backup plan....

Just in case I needed the written address I’d switched on my mini laptop (something I never thought I’d ever take backpacking) and opened the message on that. I’d slipped the laptop down the front of my jacket and when the rickshaw driver asked “where” again, I quickly pulled out the laptop to the amazement and laughter of all around and showed him! Three of us squeezed into the rickshaw with our luggage, none of us able to move as there was so much and we arrived at the hostel with no problems!

Xian, China

So I’d come to Xi’an to see something I’d always wanted to see; the Terracotta Warriors. The hostel was a bit strange for me; it was the first time since Istanbul over two months ago that I’d been somewhere with so many backpackers with most being British or American. Think I was having culture shock! A group of us went to see the Warriors from the hostel including a really annoying American guy who would just not shut up. I think he managed to just about offend everyone on the trip and even those not by coming out with extremely stupid and loud comments while deliberately trying to antagonise people. Worryingly he was in this part of the world to teach English as a foreign language. I really hope that the kids don’t pick up his accent or think his attitude is normal and at the very least distinguish between the British and Americans, god he was an arse. The Warrior site itself is majorly disappointing, I had expected to see green farmland as the site had originally been found about 35 years go by a farmer digging a well. Now the whole area is just concreted over with about one kilometre of the route from entry to museum lined with tacky tourist shops overpriced food stalls and street hawkers trying to sell fake fur hats as genuine.

Xian, China

After taking in the film which gave the history of the site we went to pit 3 first leaving the impressive pit 1 until last. The sight of the pits and the warriors was undoubtedly impressive with some of the warriors intact, but I had believed that much of the site was intact when in fact much had been destroyed in about 200BC just after its completion. I also tend to be a little cynical about historical claims as well and nothing more so than the quote made everywhere about no two warriors being identical. Sounds amazing at first when you consider that they found 7,000 of them, but then you realise that all warriors were made by hand as moulds were not used back then so they were bound to be all different weren’t they? I’d have been more impressed if they were all identical, that would have been a lot harder to do! Walking around the sites and trying to take pictures was next to impossible, the Chinese tourist would simply manhandle you out of the way or when you were taking a picture would push in front of you blocking your view showing no consideration for anyone but themselves. I really have a thing about manners and this was really getting to me. In the end I turned to the old expression, “if you can’t beat them join them.” But I twisted it around slightly by saying that “if you can’t beat them, beat them!” Well it worked, I got my pictures and people were surprised that a foreign tourist was pushing them around for a change but for me it was another tourist site ruined in China. Will my memory be the amazing image of the Terracotta Warriors or the mass of concrete on the way there and the constant jostling and pushing for pictures by the locals.

Xian, China

The centre of the old capital of China, Xi’an, is nice enough though with some beautiful sights still remaining but some like the city walls so completely over reconstructed that in places it looked like a wall around a new Barratt housing estate. The Muslim quarter is probably the best place to visit and contained my favourite sight here, the 8th century mosque. In the centre of all the noise and pushing the grounds were tranquil and serine and the buildings looked old and were not over repaired as so much is here. It was also not what I expected as a mosque as all of the buildings were definitely Chinese without the telltale Arabic domes or minaret. I then tried to go to the little goose pagoda at a Buddhist site but they wouldn’t left me in for the 5Yuan (50p) ticket it said on the door. As a foreigner I had to buy a ticket that included the city museum costing 110Yuan (£11) although I only wanted to see the pagoda, doesn’t seem fair somehow! It’s been the same in most places though and it’s even worse in India. So heading for the Big Goose pagoda I wasn’t surprised when the same thing happened again. I paid the extortionate fee to get in thinking that it covered everything, but when I got closer to the Pagoda it turned out that I had to pay again to go inside, well I didn’t have to so I didn’t and left.

Xian, China

One image of leaving Xi’an will remain with me for a few years to come, that of a farmer in a triangle of land created by the tracks of a railway junction. As we passed on a misty chilly morning he was squatting, arse facing the train and taking a dump, you could see everything including the “movement!” What made him do it there in the middle of a really busy railway junction I don’t know but maybe it was a fitting farewell to this part of my journey in China. In Guangzou I quickly headed across town to get to the train station for Hong Kong, bought my ticket and “checked out” of China. This part of the journey was a little surreal as I don’t know whether this is a really rich part of China but it all seemed a bit fake. All of the buildings en-route were relatively clean, the roads were new with extremely ordered rows of trees and hedges all the way to Shenzhen. I’d come the whole way across the country and the west was nothing like this, it was almost as if they were trying to put a show on for visitors from Hong Kong saying, “hey look, we are modern and clean.”

Xian, China

Crossing the border into bastion Hong Kong actually felt surreal. As the train pulled over the narrow 10m wide but heavily polluted Shenzhen River everything changed quite dramatically. Because I’d been travelling so long and hadn’t been in Western Europe for months my idea of what was clean, ordered and easy had changed. Passing the old but still heavily defended British border post with its mass of impenetrable barbed wire everything was a lot more clean and ordered but in a different way. Whereas the roads from the border to China were ordered with trees and hedgerows regimented almost as if to say, we are in control, everything is good here, in Hong Kong the grass and trees at the side of the roads although well managed were left to look natural, like an English garden, natural looking. Everything just looked cleaner straight away, almost to prove a point, about 1 mile in from the border there was a huge sewage treatment works, unheard of in most of China. As the train continued I couldn’t do anything but smile.

Hong Kong

I have been to Hong Kong many times and it has to be one of my favourite places in the world.  It is not just a big city as many think as if you spend time to travel about the territory you will find hundereds of tropical islands with white sandy beaches, many of them deserted. There is amazing wildlife and landscapes, great walks and beautifully coloured seas but many who visit see none of this.  If anyone is really limited on time just pop over Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island to Stanley or better still the fishing village of Shek'o and you will quickly see what I mean.  The journey to Skek'o is particularly stunning.

Stanley, Hong Kong Island

For this reason I have always wanted to travel to Hong Kong by land and particularly rail but this had only been at the back of my mind and not something I’d thought about on this tip. I was here thanks to the Visa problems in Central Asia but was glad I was. After pulling into Hung Hom station I walked out and headed straight to the sea front to look at Hong Kong Island on the other side of Victoria Harbour. For the first time on the trip I really got a shiver up my back realising the distance I’d travelled. I think it was because I’ve been here before so knew exactly how long it takes to fly here, the familiarity made it feel more real somehow. With hindsight I am really glad to be breaking the trip here as it makes a perfect reference point. If I’d broken the journey in Tibet I’m not sure I’d have had the same feeling when entering Hong Kong nor the same sense of continuing the journey when I restart my overland trip.

Hong Kong

Oh, the best thing about being here. It’s the first time since leaving Estonia that people don’t stare at me for looking different! Cool.

28. I’m never going back!

November 25th, 2010

(Written 28/10/10)

Those were the words I said in July 2001 when I crossed the border leaving India and entering Nepal. I had a really hard time in India and suffered a massive culture shock, not to mention food poisoning which actually hospitalised me, so why have I come back? A good question as I didn’t have to as it puts a big pause in my “overland challenge.” But I’m basically here because the last time I was in Calcutta it came as a bit of a surprise to me. Although this has been the poorest big city in India for some time, people seemed friendlier here and there was less begging here than other big cities. Kids would not ask for money but would ask if you wanted them to do something like shoe shine, show you around, carry your bag etc. for money. With a little exploring at the time I found out that this was because there were a number of charities in town which supported kids in developing skills and work for their futures and as poor as shoe shinning and bag carrying sounds to us, here it’s a start at least. So after all too briefly visiting one these places and seeing for myself the good work they did I decided to help and made a promise that when I got a job I would sponsor a child at this particular place in Calcutta. So being very northern, I’m now back here to see what has happened to my money! And help out a little of course...

So this will be a pause to my overland blog for a month or so while I grapple with India. There’s no real challenge regarding my time in India as it’s not on my route anymore and I’ve been here before so the blog maybe hard to keep up (although trust me India will still be challenging as someone will be out to intimidate me into paying out for something I don’t want or something I’ve done which I “shouldn’t”). I think blogs from India are far better when written by people who have arrived for the first time and so I feel a bit of a fraud as I know what to expect. So as I’ll be stuck in Calcutta for a couple of weeks I’m going to cheat and copy a few days (heavily abridged but still amazingly long) of my first travel diary from my first visit to India. I would only read it if you’re bored, but apart from explaining why I will never go back to Bombay, I found it useful to remind myself about things I now take for granted and don’t even acknowledge when I travel, I’ve learnt to switch off to certain things which are hard to ignore at first. It’s interesting to see my shock and horror of the place. I’ll start my current India blog proper next time, I’m sure lots will have happened by then.

------------ OLD BLOG ------------------

16h May 2001: This Isn’t How it looks on TV!

The first thing I’ve discovered about backpacking is that when you decide to travel anywhere you should make sure you know what season it is in the place you are going. This is India’s hot season. On landing it was 38°c with 97% humidity which was basically 26°c and 77% higher than the levels of a damp morning in Kentish Town, London. What’s worse, it was midnight it could only get hotter. So dripping with sweat I queued to get some money changed so I could quickly head to a hotel and relax. It took ages to get money as women kept pushing in front of me. This was really annoying but eventually I discovered that women get priority in India when it comes to queues. What was more annoying though were the European men who had become wise to this and were now sending their partners to the front of the queue leaving a line of single male backpackers waiting and getting increasingly annoyed.

Eventually I managed to book a hotel through the airport information desk and within fifteen minutes I was in a taxi and on my way to bed. Looking out of the taxi window I was shocked at what I saw. I did expect a certain amount of poverty from what I’d been told and seen on the TV but nothing quite prepared me for what I saw. I suppose I’d read old books and seen films where India was a land of fairytales, dance and music, however the fairytale appeared to be in fact, a fairytale. Through the window were mile upon mile of shanty towns covered with litter, dirt and grime. Peoples’ faces were lit up by the orange glow of fires burning outside the huts which I suppose were started in the vain hope of repelling mosquitoes. People were lying everywhere in the streets, even stretched across the central reservation of the road some looking dead as their bodies were draped over the broken concrete and metal barriers. Litter blew everywhere and a smell of decay and sewage prevailed in the air, a smell I cannot even describe as I have never before smelled anything so foul. This is not the India of the Indian tourist board. This is not India, the country of palaces, maharajas, temples and mysticism they had sold me back in Britain. Nor is it the India of the guidebooks, I’m very confused. This is the India seen through the eyes of someone not paid to ignore the poverty to sell books and holidays nor are they the eyes of those who visit India having taken copious amounts of narcotics or those who’ve found religion and now whose sole purpose in life is to run down London’s Oxford Street wearing bright colours chanting ‘gouranga’. This is the India seen by someone who was raised in the safety of a small housing estate in a provincial English provincial city. Through my eyes India’s mystical beauty had quickly become dirty, derelict and ugly. It would be folly to say that my world is perfect but I am not used to these extremes, but I do realise that India is probably different things to different people. People will react differently but it’s clear to me that I’m suffering from a major case of culture shock although I think the term ‘social shock’ may be more appropriate.

17th – 21st May 2001: Something From You to Me Sir

After talking to many people who have visited India, they all have one thing in common. Whichever city they first arrived in they hated without exception and for me this is slowly becoming true of Bombay. The reason for this was purely down to the way I was treated as soon as I arrived, everyone who tried to talk to me at the airport was either pushing a hotel, a taxi or holiday guide. Everyone appeared to be on commission and as such I was being told lies, having emotional blackmail used against me with suggestions that if I didn’t use their hotel then the guy’s family would starve. This was hard to believe looking at the size of the man who told me this, he could have fed a few in a plane crash! I was being manhandled by these people with rickshaw drivers even fighting amongst themselves to stake a claim on my business even though I didn’t require any from them. For a first time visitor I was feeling smothered and being alone and defenceless seemed to amplify this. I guess I might as well have had a big sign stuck on my head saying “easy target, get your money here.”

As I was introduced to the hotel manager it soon became apparent that this was to be my first interaction with the bad side of India, the person who tries to get money out of those who are vulnerable. I quickly realised what was going on but didn’t know how to deal with it, I had to go along with it otherwise I’d be left in the middle of nowhere without a hotel room in the early hours of the morning. Then I made my first major and pretty fundamental mistake and one I know I will never make again. The hotel manager asked me if this was my first time in India and I stupidly said yes. This may sound pretty inconsequential but I could practically see the dollar signs spinning in his eyes with the accompaniment of cash registers ringing. From this moment on I was a walking cash machine as far as he was concerned. He knew I didn’t know how much costs should be and who and what I was expected to tip for. As such I was quickly introduced to the bizarre Indian system of getting money out of people called ‘baksheesh’. It is an unusual form of tipping whereby you don’t give money for what a person has done but what they will or won’t do! To me this is blackmail as if you do not give ‘baksheesh’ then you will not receive the service that you paid for in the first place. But this was the hotel managers preferred choice of extracting money out of naive tourists.

After inventing hotel taxes amounting to 500 rupees for two nights we then entered my room which just happened to have a bed that was broken. Amazingly even though I had paid for a room with a non-broken bed, as I tend not to go for the rooms with a broken one, he went on to say that he didn’t know what had happened and he would get someone to come and fix it. He didn’t move, he just stood there and stared at me. Eventually the standoff became painful as I didn’t know what to do but eventually he uttered the words “Something from you to me sir?” A little shocked I had asked him to repeat himself, he said it again. It took me a little time to figure it out but basically this was ‘baksheesh’. It was an underhand and somewhat shorter way of saying, “yes I have deliberately given you a broken bed so that you will ask for a new one but I will not get you a new one unless you give me some money!” I was tired and really needed to sleep so I offered fifty rupees about seventy five pence. He then said that he was offended at so little, and stood there until I gave him two hundred rupees, far too much but I was stuck in his hotel at 1am in the middle of nowhere. The sad thing is he probably thought that he’d won his little game in getting extra money out of me however, his actions were actually self defeating as I now plan to leave tomorrow, he would have made more money if he hadn’t lied as I’d have stayed longer. But this trait seems to be common here, make as much money today forget about tomorrow! So within the first few hours of entering the country I feel demoralised, robbed and tired but I have learned my first three vital lessons. Firstly, never say that it’s your first time anywhere, secondly, make sure you have a good idea of what the real price of goods, services and tips should be before going anywhere, and thirdly, never say yes unless you really mean yes, people will hold you to it otherwise.

Later in the morning I wandered outside the hotel in one of the poorest suburbs in India but within seconds I was surrounded by kids pulling at my clothes with one hand and the other held out begging for money. Faces covered in dirt, pained grimaces with broken and blackened teeth using their hands to mime eating food. As I walked the kids followed endlessly crying out for money. Then older women came up pushing the children out of the way so that they could get close enough to catch my attention. Tugging my clothes then rubbing their stomachs, uttering words I could not understand but with pained expressions on their faces which clearly showed their desperation for food and money. You would not willingly beg in such a humiliating and a degrading way, I truly wished I could have helped them all but this would have been impossible, it was getting claustrophobic; I had to head back to the hotel to escape. To escape the attention and to escape the smell of raw sewage, the putrid rotting smell mixed with the heat and high humidity made the whole experience very overwhelming. I don’t believe there are any words which could ever describe the overall experience but the smell, this is the one thing about India you can never forget.

Bombay 2001

A few days later after moving hotel I ventured out onto the streets of central Bombay. There is an amazing and extreme contrast between the inside of the hotel where everything is quiet, calm and relaxed and just one step outside where your senses are fully loaded to dizzying levels. The sights, smells, noise, heat, dust and humidity are disorientating, people walk into you, and you can even taste the air which is thick with pollution from car and bus exhausts. The busses were barely battered metal boxes on wheels. Rubbish blows around, open sewers, people defecating in the street next to which street hawkers sell sweet smelling food. This all gives a truly indescribable olfactory sensation. Within yards I was surrounded by beggars with bodies twisted from leprosy and polio, others would just stand and stare at me, clearly seeing a western man as a bit of a novelty. This does surprise me as I’d expected that Indians would have had contact with the British due to the country’s history, but it seems not to be the case. I found myself walking faster and faster to avoid the attention. Walking down one of the streets of the old bazaar an elephant was being used to collect rubbish, it was not the most efficient way of doing this but it was truly the most Indian as it appeared to be producing more mess than it was clearing.

Bombay 2001

Leaving Bombay I spent most of the day just sat waiting for my train at the Victoria train station while being stared at. I had decided not to go and visit anywhere else in Bombay as I’m pretty fed up with the heat and hassle but having said that it was just as bad in the station, particularly as people have absolutely no idea of personal space. Young men would walk up to me, stand eyeball to eyeball literally just a few centimetres away just looking at me, it was quite intimidating. This started to irritate me slightly so I’d move away, but the buggers would just follow me. While sat down pretending that the entire train station was not staring at me I noticed a group of porters dressed in red carrying a solid metal tray like stretcher. As they rushed towards me I saw something on top, an old man dressed in nothing more than a dirty white shroud wrapped around his waist. As they ran past a lifeless arm slid off the stretcher which a porter just pushed back on. From this I guessed that the old man was dead, died somewhere in the train station, alone, a Dalit. Where he was being taken I don’t know, but no one else here looked surprised such is the accepted circle of life. Hopefully if Hinduism is right, his next life would be far better than the one he had just left.

Bombay 2001

For all of the inequalities I’ve seen in my first few days, India is still out there for me to discover and as everything I thought I knew about the place was slowly dissolving before my eyes it’s clear that I will be making my own discoveries. They will be discoveries that a similarly named TV channel could never provide me, nor a sleepy two hundred yard street in Sheffield.

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It seems harsh but now in 2010, although I am aware of all these things, the death, the disease, the decay, the constant negative attention and insults I have become hardened to it and can without feeling wave away and ignore even the most desperate beggar. India has made me a very hard person, but if you travel alone here the thing I “discovered” in 2001 is that you have to be.

29. Re-opening the black hole.

December 1st, 2010

(Written 28/10/10)

Flying in Calcutta felt a bit weird. Apart from the fact that I was actually flying against my original “overland” plan, I’d never see India from the air before as last time I arrived was at midnight. As we flew lower over the outskirts I could start to see the first buildings in the Calcutta suburbs. At this height the buildings looked like a massive collection of multicoloured matchboxes thrown up in the air and left to land in piles on top of each other; a mass of multicoloured concrete blocks, it did look strangely pretty although I knew if I got closer this illusion would be destroyed as the litter and dirt of the slum came into view. As the plane came to a halt the guy next to me was looking a bit furtive at which point I saw him grab two of the blankets they give you on the plane to keep warm and shove them into his bag. I thought, yep, petty theft, I’m definitely back in India!

So I wasn’t ripped off with the taxi I thought I’d go to the fix price taxi stand and pay in advance. When I walked away after the guy had spent most of the time trying to distract me with pointless conversation I noticed that he had short changed me by 100 Rupees (£1.40) buy using the simple “folding the note in half trick” so you count one note twice. I quickly went back and confronted him for his “mistake” but it was a wakeup call that I had to be on my guard all of the time. This is India. This was just 40 minutes after landing and someone tried to rip me off! And it was only 11am!

Calcutta, India

In Calcutta I quickly found a hotel and headed out around the Sudder Street market area and within seconds I was jumped on by people trying to drag me into random shops. These aren’t shop owners but just guys who simply take commission when you buy something after they take you to a shop. I thought I’d go to one just to see what they had as presents. Buying in India is hard as you have to barter for everything including water, but it seems to have got a little more difficult now as they play a new game with tourists. Instead of coming out with a massively inflated price you have to barter down, they now ask “how much do you think you should pay.” I didn’t want to play this game so I would come out with a ridiculously low price which would really irritate them. I would also make it clear that I was not buying anything today but they would be really friendly unwrapping loads of pashminas, shirts etc. to show me when I asked them not to. Then when they figured that I wasn’t playing their “well they’ve opened lots of thing, spent a lot of time so I should buy something” game, they would turn nasty shouting, “just go away, you’re wasting my time!” The last time I was in India I found this distressing as it happened all of the time but this time I was waiting for it, and quite enjoyed wasting their time. After all, they were wasting mine and treating me like a fool, I was simply doing the same to them. I have to admit that I couldn’t help but walk around with a smile as people were trying to rip me off as I’d “just arrived” but they were oblivious to the fact I’d been here before and knew how to brush them off,,,,,, or wind them up depending how I felt.

Calcutta, India

Calcutta itself seems to have picked itself up a little although the traffic which was bad before is now horrific. Most of the streets are now one way (although road makings are still for both directions) and in a bizarre maddening but typically Indian kind of way, at 1pm all of the major one way roads change direction. This is a daily logistical nightmare using hundreds of traffic police to make sure people start to go the right way. All it seems to lead to is gridlock between 1 and 2pm. Also last time I was here almost all of the Victorian era buildings were falling down thanks to a bizarre rule made by the communist groups which have a strong political influence in this state. Basically, to ensure most people can afford housing, the rents on the old buildings are set ridiculously low, sometimes as low as 1 rupee (1.4p) a week. So there was no money for repair and the buildings eventually become untenable. But now more and more of the buildings are being repaired and brought back to their former glory.

Calcutta, India

Although disappointingly in front of the beautiful old Indian museum they have now built an elevated road blocking the view. It’s also blocked access to the park and the promenade on the other side which when I was last here was a nice walk but is now basically just a huge stinking open toilet where motorists stop for a quick pee. Calcutta does have some wonderful buildings including the stunning Victoria Memorial which in any other city would be a major sight, and one of the most important buildings in the country, but here they seem to be ashamed of it, but in time hopefully repairing these building which are rightly or wrongly part of India's history will continue but they do have a habit of wanting to remove any evidence of the British here. Hence why when I was last here it was called Calcutta, now it’s Kolkata, Bombay has changed to Mumbai and Madras to Chennai, the list goes on. Although they change the names of places with negative history (black hole of Calcutta) they don’t however, seem to change the names of colonial settlements where they can make money out of the name such as my next destination, Darjeeling.