The flight path traverses Afghanistan. The skies are clear and the visibility good: it is harsh, mountainous terrain; nothing worth fighting over. In contrast, the Punjab is flat and fertile. Its historic capital, Lahore, ended up in Pakistan after partition, and Amritsar became the capital of the rump Indian state of Punjab.
The airport is new and modern, having just opened in 2009. Arriving passengers are subjected to a four-stage health screening, including a thermal scan for fever. I am just getting over a mild cold and have been coughing liked a consumptive because everyone in Turkmenistan smokes like a chimney; it is only through willpower that I am able to refrain long enough to get through. Because I already have my luggage, I am first out of the airport.
I check into the Grand Hotel. Across from the railroad station, it has a storied fifty-year history and wifi to boot. It's where every gringo with $25 stays.
The streets look especially chaotic, so I spend the afternoon relaxing, web surfing, and catching up on my email and. Later on I split the cost of a car and driver with a Dutch guy to go to the ceremony closing the border gate with Pakistan at sunset. But first we visit a city temple that is nothing so much as an amusement park funhouse with a Hindu theme. Visitors wend there way though a maze and halls of mirrors and tunnels and past gruesome exhibits. I don't really see the point, but it's fun for all.
The border is twenty miles from the city. Two ornate sets of gates separate the countries with bleacher on each side. When we arrive the Indian side is full, but there is a special seating area for foreigners fairly close to the action. Spectators are dancing, waving Indian flags and singing the new national anthem, "Jai Ho!" (from Slumdog Millionaire). It's very much a festive family outing. The Pakistani crowd is equally enthusiastic but smaller in size.
At five o'clock as the sun begins the ceremony begins: soldiers in outlandish fan hats march around, drill in formation, present arms, and salute in an exaggerated fashion. There is much stomping and arm waving. On the Pakistan side their counterparts reciprocate. It looks like competing courtship dances of exotic tropical birds. All the while cheerleaders on each side urge the crowd to alternately shout "Hindustan"(India) or "Pakistan." The ritual culminates with a simultaneous lowering of the national flags and slamming the gates shut.
The spectacle is courtesy of the Border Security Force, whose motto is "Duty Unto Death," strikes me as more appropriate to the Customs and Excise Dept.
The other thing to see in Amritsar is The Golden Temple, the holy site and spiritual center of the Sikhs. You gotta be barefoot (no socks) and your head covered, but hats don't do it. Not having a turban, I put on an orange do-rag thoughtfully provided at the entrance.
The sight is worth the trip. The morning sun and clear blue sky provide great conditions for photography. The interior of the temple is a winner too, but no pix allowed inside. Same rule for the Sikh Museum, which is mostly paintings of famous Sikhs receiving enlightenment, triumphing in battle, or serenely being boiled alive or sawn in half lengthwise.
I go back in the evening for some nighttime shots.
My next destination is Jaisalmer in the neighboring state of Rajasthan. There is no direct train or bus service: you gotta take a long detour and go via Delhi, Delhi is six hours from Amritsar and there are fourteen trains a day. So what time do I have to leave to make the 5:40 PM Jaisalmer Express? Try five AM! There are only two fast trains to Delhi: at five AM and five PM. The ones leaving at a decent hour take ten to twelve hours and don't arrive in time to make the connection.
If time were pressing I would leave the next morning. But it's not, so I hang around Amritsar for another day. Even as Indian cities go, this one is especially congested. The old city surrounding the Golden Temple is a maze of alleys and streets too narrow for cars and even autorickshaws (three wheeler motorcycle taxis). Bicycle rickshaws are better able squeeze through so that is a popular mode of transport. I go shopping in the wedding district; now, should I have occasion to be a Punjabi groom, my costume is ready.
The Shatabdi Express is Indian Rail's version of the TGV, except it is nothing like it and a whole lot slower. Still, it is several cuts above standard service. I arrive in New Delhi with six hours to kill. Parking my bag in left luggage, with typical Indian efficiency, consumes one of those. It is a short walk to Connaught Circus, the once-elegant heart of the city. It looks even shabbier than when I was last here twenty-plus years ago. Everything is torn up in some sort of renovation/revival program, but I am not optimistic that the end result will be a whole lot better.
In about three minutes I am reminded why I don't like Delhi: the tourist hassle is almost unbearable. You can't take three steps without someone attaching himself to you like a lamprey and, as your new best friend, begins peppering you with questions, suggestions, and demands. Ignoring them doesn't work, nor does pretending not to understand English. Subtlety and sarcasm are similarly futile: to the most common question, "What do you want?" a reply of "For you to leave me alone" is of no effect. Once you finally get rid of him, another takes his place. No matter what the ostensible topic, his goal is to persuade you to transfer rupees from your pocket to his.
Everything is closed for some sort of strike in protest of rising prices. Does that mean everyone advocates a tighter economic policy to rein in inflation? Of course not! The way to ameliorate rising prices is pay hikes and more government subsidies for all!
The restaurants are also closed. An exception is the Wimpy's which is only pretending to be closed: the dining room lights are out but a security guard will let you in to the counter and then you eat in the upstairs dining room. I go there partly out of nostalgia because I ate there the first time when it had just opened as the first western fast-food chain in India. (No cows are harmed in the process; the burgers are made from lamb.)
I read the Amritsar paper distributed on the train. A lawyers' group has declared a three day strike because they did not get something they want. (Gee, that will really punish everyone!) Lots of public announcements of name changes, but all the changes are from one Singh to another. And the Grewaltz Hotel offers unlimited vodka with buffet lunches and dinners.
About an hour before my train is to leave I retrieve my luggage and only then, for the first time, do I check my ticket and see that my train leaves from old Delhi station. An unnecessary panic ensues as I pay a taxi too much ($5) to race across the city. I arrive with ten minutes to spare and board; the train then sits in the station for another half hour.
The trip is scheduled for eighteen hours and finishes the journey in only nineteen. At Jaisalmer station, in a rare touch of orderliness, hotel touts are banished to the parking lot where they gather with signboards offering free transport. I go for the Rough Guide's top midscale pick; a nice room with a view of the fort sets me back $33/night (way too pricey for the backpacker set).
Jaisalmer Fort is a giant sandcastle on a hill overlooking the modern town. It is entirely built of golden sandstone which looks great against the azure sky and when lit up at night. Within its walls live about 2000 people and, it seems, about as many cows. The city sits on the eastern edge of The Great Indian Desert, much of which is now in Pakistan. It was to the southern Silk Road that Jaisalmer owes its prominence and wealth; the modern border has completely eliminated to the cross-desert trade. The economic mainstays are now tourism and military bases. (The Indian nuclear test site is not far).
Inside the Fort the palace of the Maharawal, the princely ruler, is now a museum. Also there is a complex of Jain temples open to foreigners for only an hour a day (ensuring the maximum tourist crush). The facades, building details, and interiors are intricately carved like fine wood or lace from the same sandstone used to build the city.
The commercial life of the fort and the city revolve around catering to tourists. For the first six hundred years of the Fort's existence, every drop of water was carried from an outside cistern. There was no sewage system or need for one. The advent of piped-in water led to a manifold increase in usage and the current problem: the city is collapsing. Wastewater simply goes into the ground and is washing away the foundations of the city walls and interior buildings. Much international hand wringing.
One of the standard activities is to go on a camel ride in the desert. Trips range from a half a day to two weeks. Most people opt for a night under the stars. Not a believer in unnecessary camping, I sign up for the half-day program.
We leave in early afternoon, stopping at the royal cemetery outside of town and a Jain temple. In town one notices quite a few people, mostly boys and young men, with kerchiefs pulled up over their noses and mouths: they look like they are getting ready to join Jesse James' gang and rob a train, but are just Jains taking extra care not to inadvertently inhale an insect and snuff out a sacred life.
We then drive about an hour into the desert. At one village our mounts await: mine is purportedly named "Mr. India" (I am skeptical). But it's camel-riding lite: no stirrups, and no reins ? the camels are led by boys on foot. It must have recently rained because the desert is surprisingly green. We see antelope and a desert fox. We end up at a set of dunes to watch the sunset, then the jeep fetches us and returns to the city.
Three are three buses a day to my next destination, the desert city of Bikaner, but none are comfortable or convenient. The train, at five hours, is faster than the bus, and leaves at noon. The downside is that it has no air-conditioned cars. The problem is not the heat, but the dust from the open windows; by the end of the journey I look and feel like I have put in a full shift at a brown flourmill. Also, as the only white guy on the train, I am the entertainment. The three questions in English that everybody knows and feels compelled to practice are: "What you name?" What you country?" and "What you age?" On the latter question I am gratified that the guesses are invariably on the low side.
Bikaner offers a relief from high tourist prices. At the Palace View Hotel a huge, nicely-decorated room overlooking the palace costs but $12.50. The palace itself, in addition to being the family manse of the Maharajah of Bikaner, has been largely converted to a five-star hotel. Beyond an overpriced restaurant, it features something else my hotel does not offer: a staff astrologer. I put on a shirt with a collar and infiltrate, spending an extravagant $10 on dinner. (The rest of the diners/residents are gringos on various $350 pp/day package tours.) The setting is lavish, the service superb, and the food mediocre. Perhaps the astrologer could have predicted this.
Bikaner doesn't have the charm of Jaisalmer, but it does have the Rat Temple. The rats aren't actually the subject of worship; the shrine is for a local goddess and the rats are venerated and protected as housing the reincarnated souls of her disciples. The overhead areas are covered with steel netting; the temple guardians apparently are unconcerned with those souls that may have reincarnated as owls or hawks. Like all Hindu temples, it's shoes off. I compromise the authenticity of the experience and keep my socks on.
I have been advised that the furry little souls tend to hide during the heat of the day so I am there first thing in the morning. The tour buses haven't yet arrived, so it's me and the pilgrims and the priests (and a gaggle of schoolgirls who shriek whenever they see a rat, which means nonstop). The place is hopping -- there are thousands of them EVERYWHERE. It is considered auspicious to let them run over your feet, so I man up and take it. I am doubly blessed by spotting the extra-sacred white rat (some pilgrims spend hours searching for it, and my driver smiles broadly when I show him the picture). Just call me "Mr. Lucky."
Bikaner also boasts an excellent fort that, for five hundred years prior to the construction of the current palace, doubled as residence of the royal family. This was one of the wealthier of the princely states and its maharajahs influential. The fort is not particularly impressive from the outside, but its interiors are sumptuous.
I don't bother visiting the camel farm outside of town. The maharajah gained influence and wealth supplying camels to the British in the Afghan wars, and the Bikaner Camel Corps is famous to this day. The city contains numerous public edifices built in fine Moghul style, but otherwise there isn't anything special to see, which is why most tourists spend one night here and move on. Preferring to travel during the day, I stay a second night.
The train ride to Jodhpur is supposed to take five hours, but we arrive two and a half hours late, effectively killing the day. At least I have an air-conditioned car.
Jodhpur is called "the blue city" for the indigo wash used on many of its houses. The main tourist attraction is the fort perched on a high outcropping above the city.
In its five hundred year history, it has been repeatedly assaulted but never taken. It also housed the palace of the maharaja. Very impressive in all respects, although the dramatic presentation of the guy handing out the audioguides is better than the canned commentary itself. Foreign tourists pay ten times the admission price charged Indians, but for that we get the privilege of a lounge halfway through the tour where you can sit on soft chairs, have a beverage and watch a video. The ostensible topic is the history and role of the fort, but it is mostly a paean to the perfect modern royal family. The current maharajah was crowned in 1952 at the age of four and the family still has plenty of dough. Their new palace is a magnificent pile on the edge of town that also serves as a hotel where rooms have a rack rate starting at $800. (I check on-line: big discounts are available but not big enough for me.)
Jodhpur is a bustling, crowded city, but pretty much a one-sight place. Just as well, because I have a case of Delhi-belly (or, more accurately, Jodhpur-belly). Dunno from what. I retreat to my hotel and think of the weight-loss opportunity.
For those who can't make it to Bikaner, there are rats galore at the Jodhpur train station. As dusk approaches the tracks come alive with swarming rodents. No one pays them any mind.
The train arrives in Delhi on schedule, even though I don't need to be here at 5:30 AM when the taxi mafia is strongest. Laden down with purchases, I am once again a victim.
My plane isn't until late tonight, so I have full day in the city. I don't want to hide in my hotel room all day, which means a full day of unremitting assault. Every taxi, rickshaw, and bicycle rickshaw driver, every tout, beggar, urchin, peddler, merchant, and scam artist wants a piece of me. And that's on top of the noise and smell. Plus, it seems every vehicle wants to run me over. Did I mention that I don't like Delhi?
In the morning I tackle Old Delhi. What's new is the metro system, clean, modern and efficient, uncharacteristic for India. Above ground, the city is still the same trash heap. It's Sunday so most stores are closed and the streets are slightly less congested, but it's as unlovely as last time. I pass by the Red Fort and decide to skip it and avoid being disappointed again. The big mosque is still just that ? big.
The afternoon is for New Delhi. Same problem as last time: many grandiose buildings and monuments built by the British but the air is too filthy for a decent photo. I get as far as the new Bahai temple in the southern part, but for some reason it's closed. Oh well, had the driver told me that in advance, I wouldn't have believed him anyway.
That's it. I'm India-ed out. But I'll be riding up front the whole way home. Woo-hoo!