January 11, 2003 GMT
Delhi - Preparation

Delhi is my first experience of India, and it doesn't seem to be as overpowering as it had been billed to be. Yes, it's chaotic, packed, polluted, noisy and squalid, but in none of these more so than in some other third world cities. There are just more cows.

Still, the combination brings a great vibrancy to the place, where life in its rawest form is played out on the streets, which for me is the great attraction of visiting the developing world.

The pollution is definitely bad. Smog hangs over the city permanently; in the afternoon, the wide Yamuna river and its cultivated flood plain, which separate the body of the city from its new satellite areas, can be almost completely obscured by the haze. The sun is reduced to a pale orange disc, a poor excuse for a star - think of Monet's sunset over a polluted Thames, only more so. Attempts are being made to improve matters, with some vehicles having been converted to run on compressed natural gas, but there's a very long way to go. The hope must be that California's latest clean-fuel technology will trickle down to places such as this as soon as possible, since the benefits to the health of the population here would surely be huge. Efforts towards environmental friendliness take other forms - the city of full of signs exhorting us to 'say no to plastic bags'. In fact, signs are used for all sorts of messages; it's useful to be reminded if you're a sufferer that 'leprosy is curable'.

I spent a couple of days chasing around the city, to the Indian centre for international this, and the Hindi institute of that, looking for someone to teach me a bit of Hindi. Finally I found a teacher with a PhD in Hindi and linguistics, who's giving me private lessions. My Hindi is coming on a treat. A typical morning exchange goes like this:

Me (in fluent Hindi): Good morning, my friend. Do you serve filter coffee?

Waiter: Omelette?

Maybe need to work on pronunciation. The teacher lives over the river, in a spot she considers quite central, but already well beyond where tourists would seek to venture. Returning from there in the evening to the city centre, my bus is almost empty while those heading out to the suburbs and the slums are packed. I haven't yet determined just how far the city extends. The 2001 census results show that India's population has topped one billion, a phenomenal twenty-one percent increase in a decade. Delhi's contribution is just shy of ten million, of which a fifth are reported to live in slums. Interestingly, the ratio of females to males for those aged under six is 0.927, which rather indicates that they're willing to go to some lengths to end up with a healthy dose of sons, and I don't think we're talking sperm selection here. Maybe Indians are like alligators, and when it's warm they just produce boys. Or is that crocodiles?

I haven't made a great deal of progress in sorting out my travel plans. It's still doubtful that an Iranian visa, for my planned overland route, will be easy to obtain since they seem to playing the waiting game with an application made recently by Bernard, another British guy here. In the meantime, I've been perusing the motorbike bazaar in Karol Bargh, which is quite a sight to behold. Bernard picked up his restored 1966 Enfield there today and gave me a lift back - unfortunately we failed to think of the obvious and promptly ran out of petrol, even though it can't be more than a couple of kilometres! Perhaps not the best omen.

The Jami Mosque - top work from the Moghuls

The Jami Mosque - top work from the Moghuls

A stray girder on the mosque steps

A stray girder on the mosque steps

The rest of my time is spent sight-seeing (full marks to Mogul architecture), poring over my language books, enjoying the cafe culture of the backpacker ghetto and sampling some of the fantastic food. Tastes great but everything I eat brings me out in a sweat, so I think it will take a while before I dig in to the plate of fresh green chillies that are found on every table. I have to fend off the pleas for food of Stumpy, the hotel's three-legged cat (I suspect its mother bit off the fourth at birth to make its begging more effective). The place I'm staying suits me well - simple but functional, with the unheard-of luxury of an en suite bathroom, and all for two pounds a night. It's enlivened by my daily game with the staff, whereby my aim is to switch the immersion heater on for long enough to build up enough hot water for a shower, and theirs is to switch it off again. They usually win.

Learning the words for fruit and veg

Learning the words for fruit and veg

Altogether, I'm enjoying Delhi. How can one fail to like a place where red at the pedestrian light says not 'Don't walk' but 'Relax'. Signs by traffic lights explain the meaning of red, amber and green as stop, look and go. The Hindi for 'traffic light' translates as 'red lamp', which is fitting since the local approach is to ignore amber and green altogether. Red therefore serves as an all-purpose 'slow down, glance and go anyway'. This week it's road safety week, which I guess is someone's idea of a joke.

My aim for the coming week is to see one in particular of the latest Bollywood offerings showing in cinemas, the wonderfully entitled 'Jism - the Dark Side of Desire'. I'm still finding it hard to get out of bed in the mornings - after a week, the excuse of the time difference is beginning to wear a bit thin, so I plead that the cold of a January Delhi morning is just too uninviting. Besides, it is a holiday.

Posted by James Whyte at 01:39 PM GMT
January 27, 2003 GMT

I come to you from the Yak Cyber Cafe in Kathmandu. I hadn't planned to come back to Nepal, having spent a couple of months here previously, but it's no great hardship since it is such a pleasant country.

The eternal visa search has brought Bernard and me here. Somebody must have had a change of heart in Tehran, since Iranian visas suddenly became possible and I now probably have two on the way, from two separate lines of attack! Pakistan was the next stumbling block. Despite our entreaties to their embassies in Delhi and London, they wouldn't play ball, so our efforts ground to a halt. We darkly suspect, though, that other European nationalities were being granted them in Delhi. Anyway, the word was that Kathmandu was the place to come, and so it seems. We wondered nervously what we would be asked as we waited to be interviewed at the embassy today, but in the event it was straightforward and our visas are currently being issued, albeit at the rather extortionate rate of 96 dollars. They claim that that's what Britain charges Pakistanis for a visa, so I suppose it's fair enough.

Nepal has suffered in the six years since I was here. Maoist rebels have been mounting an increasing campaign against the police and military. Yesterday they assassinated the chief of armed police and his wife and (ineffective) bodyguard, on the street here in Kathmandu. A state of emergency was declared in late 2001 but the terrorism has continued and there is talk of civil war. To add to the troubles, a few months before that, the crown prince shot dead the king and eight other members of the royal family. The suspension of ordinary government brings with it the usual curtailment of press freedom and civil liberties, not to mention a catastrophic drop in tourism, so the situation all round is not a happy one - particularly tragic for a people so warm and cheerful despite their poverty.

We came from Delhi by a direct route, consisting of a fifteen hour train and about the same by road, travelling north through the attractive rural plains of northern Uttar Pradesh - as flat as East Anglia only far prettier. Up we went into the forested foothills of the Himalayas that rise so precipitously from the green rivers that trace through their valleys. On my previous visit, I spent the final week in Kathmandu being ill, so for a bit of continuity I erupted from both ends within a couple of hours of arriving. After a feverish night, I don't feel too bad today but we've both come down with colds.

Bar the strong police and army presence, the place seems much the same, but the process of gradual development is clear. Kathmandu is yet more geared up for the tourist, putting it way ahead of Delhi, and the increased prevalence of western clothing (particularly amongst young women, not that I'm looking, of course) is noticeable. One thing that amuses me about Nepal is that it sets its time to be GMT plus 5h45min, as opposed to the 5h30min of India, which borders it to the east, west and south. I guess they're making a point.

All being well with the visa, we shall head back towards India tomorrow, with a trip to Varanasi on the cards before returning to Delhi for bike preparation and more paperwork. There are still administrative hurdles to overcome but with luck everything should be in place in a month. Let's hope the regional situation doesn't deteriorate too much by then.

P.S. This entry (being finished in Bharatpur, nearer Nepal's border with India) had to be left in a hurry, since the place was closing due to an 8pm curfew. 'Very volatile area' apparently.

Posted by James Whyte at 01:13 PM GMT

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