Mind you, ambulance we still managed to sneak in a quick August night away to visit the Fringe in Edinburgh, where we enjoyed – again – the magnificent Tubular Bells for Two, followed by the well-acted, gripping but incomprehensible Titanic Orchestra. Penned by a Bulgarian playwright, it starred John Hannah who admitted in an interview, which we read after we’d bought the tickets, that he didn’t understand what it was all about. We agree!!
We also took a couple of days off in October to enjoy a ride on a Steam Hauled train on the new Borders Railway, to see the excellent stage version of the renowned Shawshank Redemption and to experience Stomp - another tick on John’s Bucket List, but certainly not on Irene’s!!
The month end saw our Charity End of Term Party, which was a roaring success, attended by Her Majesty the Queen, The First Minister (me), a Schoolteacher (Irene), a Jailbird with her partner, The Joker and by not one, but two, Captains of the Titanic!!
November – India, by rail.
November saw us boarding our Emirates flight, this time Kolkata-bound. We flew, got a free upgrade to Business Class for the second leg, we landed, Explore’s driver met us and took us safely to our hotel where, later that day, we met the rest of the party who were to become our new best friends over the next two weeks.
Our itinerary took in many of the major sights of northern India, scant few of which I had visited on a previous occasion, many of which were on my Bucket List – Irene’s too, as she’d not visited the country before. India is a land of great contrasts, the grandeur and opulence of the likes of the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple and the Viceregal Lodge juxtaposed with the abject poverty, the ever-present lack of cleanliness & tidiness and the sheer mass of humankind, many of whom we found to be very friendly, warm and welcoming, despite the inevitable language barrier. (Touts and Monument Guides are specifically excluded from that statement; they are a different life form entirely but still an integral part of the experience!!)
The utter vibrancy of life, the bedlam of the streets and traffic, haggling for everything, with a smile on your face of course, (Irene became the undisputed Queen of negotiation for the group), the noise, the smells, sweet and otherwise, the inner peace of worshippers, the politeness of staff in restaurants, hotels, on the trains and in the shops – all are essential ingredients in the complete assault on the senses that is India.
Back to our trip, though and the welcome meeting where Mayank, our guide, introduced himself, laid out the plans for the next few days and gave us a few wise words about how the machinery of India ticks in its own peculiar way – valuable advice indeed, which we called to mind on a number of occasions, then walked us off to a nearby restaurant for our inaugural curry.
Some words of advice here are in order, my friends. We stuck to vegetarian food throughout our trip, we avoided salads and fruit which might have been washed, we didn’t drink anything that wasn’t opened in front of us or anything that had ice in it. Result? We enjoyed some really terrific food and we didn’t get Delhi Belly!!
We chose our Explore trip not only because it ticked a lot of boxes, but also because the vast majority of travel was by train. Most of our places were in 3rd Class Aircon, you find what has been allocated to you by looking at a computer printout which is glued to the side of your carriage!!
A great advantage of travelling this way is that you are not hermetically sealed tourists, looking out on India from the seat of a coach. You are out there, in amongst it, full on. That said, we always felt very comfortable walking the streets, meeting folk, smiling, speaking with people, especially schoolkids, who wanted to practice their English. We were also frequently asked to pose for photos or the now inevitable selfies, something which served as a constant reminder that we were guests in somebody else’s country and, as such, for many Indians, were an oddity.
Kolkata had much to commend it – St John’s Church and the white marble Victoria Memorial, the magnificent mayhem of the flower market and the Kumartuli clay modellers village where, year round, using wood, straw, cane and clay, families manufacture idols, large & small for the numerous annual festivals.
For me, though, the surprise highlight was our visit to Mother Teresa’s House. Small, plain and simple, it is still home to members of her religious order as well as being the place she lived and died and is now laid to rest. It was a very brave step that she was called to make, leaving the known surroundings of her order to begin her ministry on the streets. She and her followers have undoubtedly helped the lives of many, many people – the sobering thought, though, is that she hardly scratched the surface. A very moving and thought provoking visit.
On to Bodh Gaya, a mecca of pilgrimage for adherents of the Buddhist faith. Here we saw the location of the tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment some 2600 years ago. The tree is not the original one but this magnificent specimen is a direct descendant, grown from carefully taken cuttings. Entering the complex, all the ladies are offered flowers with which you offer up a thought at whichever shrine you wish. Next stop, Sarnath, just a few miles away, is a sacred, ancient, very large temple complex one of the four holiest Buddhist sites on earth. Centred around the impressive Ashoka Pillar, this is where Buddha started to spread the word, preaching his first sermon.
Our hotel here, was one of our simpler abodes and a little bit of room planning would not have gone amiss. We had to balance our kettle on top of the wastepaper bin, on top of the cabinet so that the lead would reach the socket!! Health & safety? What’s that?
Thence to Varansi and the Holy Ganges, both steeped in the lore and traditions of Hinduism. To witness the evening Aarti Ceremonies, we were transported from our hotel to the ghats by cycle rickshaw, our unfortunate wallah having to work really quite hard, especially on the uphill bits.
The spectacular Aarti Ceremonies are extremely popular both with devoted Hindus and with tourists. Viewed from our row boat out on the river, they are a veritable feast of music, fire, movement and song. A short distance downstream are the world famous Burning Ghats where over 100 cremations are carried our daily by members of the Untouchable or Dalit Caste. Each cremation involves 320 kg of wood, all of which is brought in by boat – a big job.
By complete contrast, our early reveille next morning was rewarded with the peace, and serenity of a return visit to the river, where Pilgrims practice the Puja Ceremony at sunrise. Returning to shore, it was off on a walking tour of the narrow alleyways of old Varanasi, stepping aside to make way for the cows, stepping round the stacks of ghat timber and stepping over the numerous cow pats lying in wait to soil your shoes!!
The thrills of an overnight train awaited to whisk us from Varansi to our next destination – Agra. Yours truly managed a good night’s sleep, thanks to my earplugs. Indian rail travellers are not renowned for going about their business quietly, even in the middle of the night!! Irene was the lucky one, she got a bottom bunk while I had to post myself into my middle-bunk slot.
Our dawn arrival at Agra, our early check in and brekkie at the hotel, preceded our trip out to one of my favourite places, the city of Fatephur Sikri, founded in 1569 but abandoned 16 years later due to a lack of water, but still in incredible condition. You’d have thought that the viziers advising Akbar the Great might have thought about that a bit better!! To me, Fatephur Sikri is one of the world’s greatest Follies, a wonderful construction which serves no purpose.
Up early again the next day to visit the incomparable Taj Mahal at dawn. There are simply no words that I can conjure up to describe this edifice, rightly one of the wonders of the world. Its magnificence brings out different emotions in everyone and, put simply, it is so much better in real life than any photo can convey.
Taking a break from the train and still marvelling at the Taj, a 4 hour bus ride up India’s newest highway delivered us to Delhi, having passed by one of the massive new techno cities that are being built to keep pace with India’s rapidly growing economy. The Indian Driving Test, such as it is (you can buy one for not many rupees) patently obviously doesn’t equip your average Tata Nano driver to take on a dual carriageway – the joys of Indian driving are a wonder to behold – anywhere and everwhere.
New Delhi is a colonial masterpiece, principally created by Lutyens in the 1930’s, heyday of the British Raj. The contrast with the narrow alleyways, bustling markets of Chadni Chowk, the wonderful (and safe) goodies on Food Street and the birdsnests of suicidal electrical wiring of Old Delhi, brook no description from me.
Highlights of our time in the Capital included India Gate, The Indian Parliament Buildings, the 600 years old Humayun’s Tomb, the imposing Red Fort and the stunningly impressive 73 metre Qutub Minar which heralded the demise of the Hindu kings and the arrival of Muslim sultans. Old Delhi also houses the largest mosque in India, the swansong of Emperor Shah Jahan, he of Taj Mahal fame. Crafted in sandstone & marble, its courtyard can hold over 25,000 worshippers!!! It also holds a special place in all our hearts as it was the only place where we, boys and girls alike, were all required to cover up in garments which closely resembled cast-off NHS hospital gowns.
Back on to the rails this time in the excellent, modern Shabtadi Express, it was off to Kolka where we changed trains for the iconic Toy Train trip up to the hill station of Shimla, via an incredible 103 tunnels! I had long wanted to go to Shimla ever since I saw a photo of it in a Kuoni brochure, many, many years ago. No other hill station, Darjeeling, McLeod or Ooty would do it for me so this bit of the trip was a dream come true. Even better, the weather was our friend, we had two glorious days of blue skies and sunshine to explore the somewhat surreal Mock-Tudor architecture, the truly splendid Viceregal Lodge, Christ Church, Scandal Point, Ghandi’s Statue, and, of course, the narrow lanes of the bazaar. (Three beautiful wool shawls duly haggled for and purchased by Mrs E.)
Shimla is unlike anywhere else we visited. Some years ago, the city fathers passed a law banning plastic bags, smoking in public, spitting on the streets and dropping litter. Result – a city which is neat and clean and tidy. Mr Modhi, take note. It can be done.
Now, if anyone sees fit to complain about the service our guests enjoy here at Crubenbeg, I shall be more than happy to regale them with tales of “Lurch” and his old retainer companions at our hotel in Shimla. It was so very bad it was almost hilarious! What is more, the Prince who owns the hotel and his family still occupy the entire first floor – I can only assume that they’re looked after better than we were. Fawlty Towers doesn’t even come close!!
Grey skies, high winds and torrential rain greeted us as we awoke on our last morning in Shimla. No matter, it was a travelling day, firstly by taxi to Ambala where we caught the train to our final destination, Amritsar.
Standing at the end of the carriage, as I had become wont to do, I was engaged in conversation by any number of fellow travellers, including a Sikh Railway Police Inspector who had enlighteningly liberal views of religion and a young businessman travelling back to his home in Amritsar. Our train came to a standstill not far outside Amritsar Station, whereupon, my new friend, stuck his head out of the door, took a look at the nearby streets, declared that he actually lived not very far away and proceeded to call for his youngster and his wife and their luggage.
Down onto the tracks went he, asking me to pass down his child and then the bags. Naturally, I did not assist his good lady as she descended the steps; that would have been unseemly and improper. Skipping over the tracks, they vanished into the night, genuinely homeward bound, I assume!!
Having failed his auditions at our hotel in Shimla, Basil Fawlty duly reappeared as our restaurant manager in our Amritsar hotel. A veritable hoot he was too. He spoke in a delightfully loud voice, in the very highest Indian English, all the while masterminding the chaos that was the dining room. Such joy, I have to say. The food was spot on though, so no quibbles at all.
As to the Golden Temple, the highlight of any visit to Amritsar? Well, like the Taj, it is simply so much better than any movie or photo. The sun shone, the water in the tank reflected the deep blue of the sky and the golden walls of the shrine literally glowed. Despite the tens of thousands of people, I so enjoyed the serenity of this Sikh Shrine, scene of a major atrocity just a few short years ago. Everyone goes barefoot and everyone, not just the ladies, is required to cover their heads. Very humorous headgear is, of course, available to purchase, but we were both prepared, me with my own buff, Irene with her scarf. Don’t we look cool?
A little known fact about the temple, is that it also serves free meals to some 30,000 people on an normal day, 100,00 mouths on festival days!! This is all accomplished by an army of volunteers, who marshal the queues, seat the diners, lay out the Thalis, serve the curry, chapatti and sweet dish of the day, gather up the dishes, send them down the “dishwasher line”, wipe ‘em dry-ish, stack ‘em in massive cages and move them round to start again.
Behind the scenes another army is chopping the chillies, onions, and veg, cooking the curry in vast cauldrons in a large kitchen, kneading the dough, rolling it into golf balls and chucking them over to the chapatti rollers. Irene was amongst our number (females only, of course) who were invited to join a team of the local ladies and try their hand at Chapati Rolling. Irene ruled the roost, quickly rolling out 10 chapatis in double quick time, much to the amazement and delight of the regular team members. I gather, from the chatter which ensued, that they tried to offer her a job, so good was she. She politely declined, claiming that she couldn’t cope with the pay rise.
After a quick freshen up back at the hotel, it was off to Wagah Wagah, the border with Pakistan for the daily Closing Ceremony. As much a spectacle for the tourists (on the Indian side, at least), this long-standing ceremony is superb. There is a special part of the concrete step seating for “Foreigners” so that is where we went after not one, but three searches by armed guards. Irene & I managed to get ourselves wedged right at the top, tucked in behind a very serious looking, armed soldier who was OK so long as we didn’t get in his line of fire. As if we would? We had a great view of this superb bit of street theatre, something which I saw on a Michael Palin programme years ago and vowed to attend.
The control of the Border is a serious business, however, and before the Ceremony started, very heavily armed, sinister looking soldiers, from both sides, marched their way to the gates and stared at each other throughout. No messing with them, I can tell you.
This kicking, strutting and preening ritual brought down the curtain on our excellent trip. A fitting end to what had been a great experience. Yours truly was asked to say a few words at our final dinner that evening, a privilege indeed. I firstly thanked everyone else in the group for their companionship over the past 13 days and for putting up with me, something which makes life so much easier for Irene. Then, very sincerely, I thanked Mayank, our Tour Guide who was nothing short of superb. Without fear of contradiction, I can say that our delightful companions and Mayank added a very thick layer of icing to an already truly splendid cake.
We flew back to Delhi the next morning, bidding a fond farewell to our friends who were travelling with the Explore group. We’d booked to stay a night at the Radisson Blu near the airport, where we received a very cheap upgrade to a Business Class room, flowers and a cake, all to celebrate our Anniversary. Thank you Radisson. Thank you, too, to all the Emirates staff who took charge of our cake, storing it in the fridge on each plane on our way back. We got it home intact and still fresh, and thoroughly enjoyed sharing it with visitors over the next day or two.
Our year didn’t end there, though. The weekend after we got home, it was back down to Glasgow to see Simply Red, one of Irene’s favourites. I must say that was a bit surprised that the concert was taking place at all, because, just a couple of years ago, I bought us tickets to see them on their Farewell Tour. Mick Hucknall resurrected? Ah, the world of the rock star. Great concert, though, of that there was no doubt.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading my jottings. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we did researching the trips and writing about them, just for you, of course.
To view more of our photos, please visit the Gallery.