Driving into Delhi was a bit of an anticlimax. After being told hundreds of horror stories of the chaos and squalor of the capital of India, I was a bit surprised to see that the roads were disciplined (by comparison) and that they were relatively clean. We headed into the Tibetan area of town to find a decent hotel. With the huge immigration of Tibetans from their native land, they have set up large communities in Nepal and India. The area we stayed in was called, somewhat unimaginatively, New Tibetan Colony. Having checked into a hotel, we headed out onto the main street to get a taxi to the famous Red Fort. This was our first encounter with the Indian commission system. On the way to the fort, the taxi driver informed us it was closed on Mondays. In that case, take us to an internet café, we said. Several minutes later he was ushering us into a typical emporium full of tourist souvenirs. We left immediately having heard about this scam before. There then ensued a five minute argument with the taxi driver during which he implored us to stay in the shop for 10 minutes so he could get his commission – which was 3 times more than the taxi fare. Apparently we didn’t even have to buy anything. We tired of this argument fairly quickly, gave him his fare and left with a few swear words. This unfortunately was not to be our first encounter with the dreaded commission system. Later on, as we wandered around the modern New Delhi area – similar to the modern centres of many cities – we were to be continually spun lines by people obviously on commission. The first question they ask you after the initial pleasantries is whether this is your first time in India. This is to see how big a sucker you are. Then they ask you where you are going. If you say a restaurant or a hotel or a shop – they know one better or cheaper or nearer. They even went so far as to tell us the restaurant we were looking for had burnt down despite it being clearly visible across the street! One guy spent considerable time telling us how we should wear Indian clothes to protect ourselves from people on commission, before admitting that if we went to a particular shop and bought said Indian clothes then he would get a free T-shirt. Having just travelled from Turkey, Iran and Pakistan where people speak to you just for a conversation, it was a big disappointment to be spoken to only by people who want money. This was to be a constant theme in India and didn’t endear me to the country at all.
After a full days wandering, we got a rickshaw back to the hotel after dark. Well, tried to get a rickshaw back to the hotel. After much haggling – they always try to triple the price for a foreigner – we jumped in and got stuck in a traffic jam for about 20 mins. Then the guy brought us to the wrong area. Admitting he didn’t know where he was going, he found us another rickshaw. Within 5 minutes it had run out of gas. This guy then found us another one who did actually manage to get us back to the hotel. The whole trip took about 1 ½ hours. After a solid nights sleep we awoke on Tuesday morning to be informed that someone had broken into the Landy. Sure enough, one of the back windows was broken and Richard’s rucksack was gone. There wasn’t anything of huge importance in it but things like contact lenses can be tricky to replace. Later, I discovered that one of my bags had gone too but since it contained mostly dirty underwear I was pretty unconcerned. Discussions with the locals revealed that there was one prime suspect in the case – a junkie that had been hanging around the area recently. After a fairly intense interrogation involving several punches and kicks, he owned up but had unfortunately already hawked all the stuff. Police involvement was pointless except to get a report form so that insurance could be claimed. The hotel staff took us to an industrial area closeby where we got the window fixed for 300 Rupees (£4). When we got back we were informed that the locals had dispensed some community justice on the thief. Still, that night we figured it wise if someone slept in the Landy. Unluckily, I lost the coin toss and spent a remarkably sweaty and unpleasant night sleeping fitfully in the back.
Wednesday morning we were up early to go to Agra – the home of the legendary Taj Mahal. Leaving Dehli at 7am proved to be a good idea traffic wise but didn’t help us with navigation – most of the signs being in Hindi. We used the compass to get the right direction and thought we were on to a winner when stopping to ask for directions confirmed we could get to Agra this way. What we realised later on though was that we had taken the smaller road to Agra which passes through Aligarh rather than the main motorway. The road was in terrible condition and was of course full of the usual array of horses and carts, donkeys, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, trucks, tractors, people pushing carts and the occasional other car. All of which proceed in the most random and erratic manner possible. Keeping to one side of the road is a bizarre notion to Indians. There is one road which can be used to its full potential by constantly weaving into any inch of free space there may be. Regardless if that puts you into the path of a large truck or Land Rover. In short the journey was torturous, made more so by getting lost in Aligarh. This is a typical Indian city – chaotic and squalid. Piles of pungent, decaying rubbish fill the streets, left for the ever present goats and cows to sift through. The aforementioned traffic is crammed into every available millimetre of the streets. The sweltering heat squeezes sweat out of every pore in your body and your desire to leave is tempered by the knowledge that there is no road signs and that most peoples directions are unreliable. Eventually, we managed to get out after stopping every 100m to ensure we were going the right way. We arrived in Agra at 4.30pm to be met with a very similar scene to Aligarh except that here you have the added attraction of large numbers of beggars and touts. The crazy road system forced us into the narrow streets of the old part of the city where we caused much amusement trying to proceed down these streets with an inch gap on either side. However, it didn’t prove too bad in the end and we reached the Taj Mahal area fairly quickly. Running the gauntlet of touts and tat sellers, we made our way to the entrance and joined the huge queue. The king of Malaysia was in town apparently and was enjoying a tour of the Taj while we waited outside – the fecker. After a bit we were in but the delay meant we had to fend off more tour guides. One claimed that he could get us in without queuing via a secret tunnel!
The first sight of the Taj makes it all worth it though. It truly is a beautiful building. The Taj was finished in 1653 and stands as a mausoleum to the second wife of Emperor Shah Jahan – Mumtaz Mahal (hence the name). The white marble exterior is stunning and we spent a long time just marvelling at it. The inside however, is very dark with just one low wattage bulb illuminating the cenotaphs of Jahan and Mumtaz. We left the Taj after dark and headed out of the city towards Kanpur. We didn’t make it very far though because it is just too dangerous to drive at night in India. We thought we were hardened drivers by now but nothing can prepare you for the trauma of driving after dark in this country. After five close shaves in as many minutes we stopped at a truck stop for the night. We had stayed at truck stops in almost every country we’d been to so far and they prove to be pretty cool. The places are usually grubby but the truckies are always friendly.
Thursday was a non-stop drive towards Gorakphur, passing through Kanpur (not much different from Aligarh). Again we stopped at a truck stop. We only ever ate dhal at these places as one look told you it wouldn’t be wise to try any meat and we were getting pretty tired of it by now. The next day we reached Gorakphur then headed north to the border of Nepal. The Indian border town is called Sunauli and is a bit of a hell-hole. It took hours to get through the Indian side and several more hours on the Nepali side. The Nepali town was equally hellish and we had to fend off the usual gamut of money-changing touts.
Eventually we were through and looking forward to putting some miles on the clock to get to some cooler weather. Unfortunately, a road accident about 5km outside the border meant we had to wait for ages before following a bus through some muddy village tracks to go around it. We reached the town of Butwal at 8pm and went to a restaurant for some quality food. And quality it was. After the monotony of Indian dhal we were overwhelmed by how tasty and nourishing Nepali food is by comparison. The Nepali people were very friendly as well. It looked like we were going to enjoy our time here.
Saturday morning we were up at the crack of dawn to make our way to Sauraha in the Royal Chitwan National Park – home of tigers, rhinos and elephants. It took us a while to find it due to lack of road signs but we got there by 9am and booked ourselves on a nature walk in the morning and an elephant ride in the afternoon – all for 30 USD. The nature walk began with a boat ride down the river where we rowed perilously close to two Magur crocodiles. Alighting from the boat, we hiked through some woodland which was crawling with (thankfully harmless) cotton bugs. We startled a deer and got jeered at by several groups of monkeys after visiting the elephant breeding ground. The elephant ride was cool though pretty painful – its not comfortable sitting in a large basket on top of one of these beasties. We were lucky enough to find a rhino while on the elephant safari after a half hour of crashing through trees in the forest. We were also lucky enough to share the elephant basket with a charming Swiss couple (Phil & Cristine) who let us use their hotel shower later on and introduced us to some Australians who were doing a similar trip to us. We spent the night in the Landy and left for Kathmandu in the morning. We were still in a rush to get our visas for Tibet and China.
The road to Kathmandu was packed full of stunning scenery. And trucks. It was slow going but we got there in about 5 hours and I had the joyful task of driving through the jammed streets while Richard navigated. Within about half an hour he had navigated me into the smallest, narrowest streets of the old town which were crammed full of people looking at me disapprovingly as I tried to get out. At one point loads of people started hammering on the sides of the Landy which was a bit worrying. It wasn’t until a day or so later that we realised that this is what Nepalis do when directing a vehicle and telling it is safe to go forward. An hour later and with a profound sense of relief, we got onto wider streets and made our way to a hotel. The hotel car park already contained a Defender 110 decked out for overland travel which we thought was a good omen. Unfortunately, to get into said car park we had to take the roof rack off which proved to be fun given the huge weight of the fecker. This done, we headed out to explore the area and get some decent food in the form of a monstrously good steak.