It is fair to say that Indian roads are a little different from those in Australia (and many other Western countries). Sometimes it seems the only similarity here is that Indians also drive on the left.* So the last 4 weeks of travelling around Rajasthan, Delhi, Agra and now Dharamsala have been an educational experience, teaching me the hierarchy of the road. Once you learn that cows reign supreme, everything else makes a little more sense.
Given I have been recalcitrant in updating significant people in my life (hi Mum!) about what Angie and I got up to in our travels, I thought I would prepare a list of some of the stand-out driving/travelling experiences we had.
*In theory, Indians also drive on the left. In practice, most of the time cars I have been in have driven up the middle of the white line, allowing for easy swerving to miss cows, herds of goats, oncoming motorbikes or places where the road is no more.
Arrival by prepaid Ambassador taxi at the Imperial Hotel, Delhi
Bleary-eyed off our 19 hour flight from Australia, Angie and I stumbled out of Delhi airport at 5am local time and organised our cab with some trepidation. The hotel had quoted us 5000 Rupees to send an airport pick-up (about $100AU), but the prepaid cab we arranged only cost us 350Rs (or about $7). Thrillingly it was one of the iconic Ambassador black cabs, decked out with garlands of flowers around the rearview mirror and pictures of a guru. All was going swimmingly until he driver mysteriously stopped at an underpass, shouted, “1 minute” through the window, and then proceeded to wander off and chat with some other drivers for about 10 minutes. Jetlagged and puzzled, but too weary to be overly worried, we sat in the back and happily all worked out fine. The driver was waiting to use the airpump for the tyres. Before too long we were arriving at the gorgeous Imperial Hotel, which is like a minature art gallery, and ready to start our trip…
Elephant Ride up to the Amber Fort, Jaipur
Dutiful tourists, we queued for about half an hour in the baking sun to get to ride our very own elephant up to one of the most famous forts in Rajasthan, the Amber fort near Jaipur. The guidebook warned us that the elephants may not be well treated – although the locals and the elephants themselves appeared in good health. Those maharajas certainly knew what they were doing when choosing their rides. Arriving at the special elephant gate of the fort was truly a majestic experience. The elephant handler tried to enhance it for us by having me try on his turban (it looked pretty special), and then demanding a large tip.
Drive between Udaipur and Jaipur, via Kumblgarh and Ranakpur and the Aravelli Ranges
We had reasonably low expectations about the Kumblgarh Fort when we left the beautiful lake city of Udaipur. It felt as if we had already seen a hundred forts, all claiming to be the biggest, the most impenetrable, the best preserved. I know it sounds terribly blase, but we felt a teensy bit like travelling around Rajasthan was the “ABF” – another bloody fort – tour, instead of the ABC tour of Europe. But the drive in our luxury Tata 4wd with rear-controlled AC (bonus) grew more and more fascinating as we wove our way through the increasingly lush countryside in the Aravelli Ranges. It was all so green and idyllic, the monsoon had been kind There were plenty of contended cows looking regally about, constantly surprised goats, waterwheels, agricultural terraces, lakes filled with birds. We climbed and climbed in the car, until we were confronted with an enormous wall. It looked so solid and stretched so far. It was like each part of the wall was a circular mini-castle. We wandered around inside the fort and walked up to the abandoned palace, in the blinding sun, very much wishing for our elephant! After about two hours of rambling around the ruined fort, which a sign inside informed us is attached to the second longest wall after the Great Wall of China, we took refuge in the car.
We were revived by driving past even more spectacular scenery, twisty, turny roads and then the stunningly intricate Ranakpur Jain temple. All in marble, white, the temple seems to appear from nowhere. Over 500 years old, the quality of stone carving was staggering. The temple is still used for worshipping by Jain adherents, and you could feel the “living” nature of the place within the building. An old monk showed us around, and then left us to admire the carving and the serenity.
Back in the car, we had 3 solid hours of driving to arrive in Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second largest city. We arrived in the dark via the famous (but why?) clocktower, only to hit chaotic, narrow streets Fighting the urge to beg our seemingly 18 year old, 5ft 6 in skinny driver to “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE US” we said goodbye, jumped in a tuk-tuk and made for our insalubrious guesthouse.
Autorickshaw (tuktuk) around the old town of Jodhpur
We travelled in autorickshaws in several places, but the most memorable so far was riding around the streets of the Blue City. Tuk-tuks are a really cheap way to get around (and in the old city of Jodhpur, the only option given cars are too wide), as long as you don’t mind traffic fumes, dust, sewage miasma wafting past you or (in Delhi) the small hands of streetkids imploring you for “kana” (food) or rupeess.
Truly, those tuk-tuks are probably the closest think to a spaceship that I will ever experience. It would not have surprised me if ET had crossed our path in the drive – everything else seemed to – on a road that was the perfect width for two people walking side by side. I was afraid to even grip onto the side of the vehicle, afraid that any extruding fingers may have been lopped off by a passing motorbike, cow, street vendor, etc. The driver was our spaceship captain, unravelling the labyrinthine streets and delivering us to our destination, past market stalls which had probably been selling rope, or brooms, or candles, for generations. The old city felt so vibrant, pulsating, lived in. It felt like not much had changed in 300 years. It made me feel that my place in history was minimal and I was insignificant. I was not sorry to wave it goodbye.
Walking in Dharamsala
Now that I am in Upper Dharamsala (McLeod-Ganj) I get around on my own two feet Each day I walk downhill from my guesthouse (up near the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts) and into the four-street town, passing maroon-robed nuns and monks, refugee Tibetans who have resettled here at the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile, locals, the occasional car or motorbike and, horrifyingly at mid-morning and dusk, hordes of red-bummed monkeys. The road is steep enough that when walking home I get sweaty and well out of breath. Prayer flags flutter in the pine trees and at each turn of the road a different mountain scene presents itself, sometimes pristine treed slopes, sometimes houses stacked one on top of the other.
It is relaxing to be amongst the gentle Tibetan people and more chilled out local Himalayans – there is hardly any hassling here of me as a Westerner. It is also a little strange, sometimes I feel like I see a lot more Tibetans than Indians in a day. I wonder how the locals feel about it. But I suppose I am only walking around a very small pocket of a very big country.
There is solace in directing my own movements for a while, choosing where to place my feet and feeling each step. Even if my feet most often take me down to get a very nice espresso.