February 10, 2003 GMT
By bike to Agra

Varanasi is one of those places (like Amsterdam) that is so famed for certain things that people neglect to tell you how attractive it is.

We arrived in the small hours of the morning, and made our way through the maze of alleys of the old city to the river. There the mist concealed the water, swirling through the darkness around the intricate carvings of shrines on the banks. Extraordinarily atmospheric, but what we didn't realise then was that, mixed with the mist, was smoke from corpses burning just a few metres away. Equally impressive was the view when I stumbled blinking into the sunshine on the roof in the morning, with the long curve of the old city's waterfront fading into the distance in both directions. The river is wide, and the far bank undeveloped. Not at all what I was expecting.

The curve of the Ganges at Varanasi

The curve of the Ganges at Varanasi

Bodies, whether or floating or burning, are one source of Varanasi's renown, and another is the filth of the Ganges. We were outside the floating season, but I have to admit to sharing the morbid curiosity at the ghats. It was fascinating to watch the cremation process, with the dipping of the body in the river and the building of the pyre with its little ceremonial nuances. It seems a far more sensible way of dealing with death than the western tendency towards a sterile concealment of cadavers, if you'll forgive the platitude.

The bodies burn in interesting ways, sometimes reducing to just the upper torso, the head and stumps at the shoulders (like a Roman bust), sometimes to a whole charred backbone and skull. Eventually just the skull remains, which is broken with a stick to release the spirit. I was amused by a puppy lying asleep in the ashes near a burning pyre. As Bernard pointed out, it must be heaven for dogs - plenty of bones and sticks.

A Varanasi leap with a baby clinging on

A Varanasi leap with a baby clinging on

Back in Delhi, work started on my 1968 British-built Royal Enfield Bullet, in preparation for its glorious homecoming. It has undergone a complete re-build with all new parts apart from the frame, engine case and crank. Since I'm woefully ignorant of mechanics, it was an education for me to watch it being put together, culminating in a moment of elation when the renovated engine came to life. Everything makes much more sense now apart from the gearbox, whose operation is still mysterious to me despite having inspected its cogs. This sort of work would be prohibitively expensive at home, but in India labour costs perhaps two pounds a day. Think of that the next time you go to the garage at home.

The first kick after an engine re-build

The first kick after an engine re-build

Out on the road, I'm limited to 30mph initially to run in the re-built engine. That's no bad thing, though, while I become accustomed to Indian traffic, and to the confusing reversal of foot pedals relative to modern bikes, and to the inverted (one-up, three-down) gears. To clock up the necessary 300 miles for the first stage of running in, I set off early in the morning on a trip to Agra. The journey was pleasant and less nerve-wracking than expected. The road was a surprisingly good dual carriageway but was enlivened by a significant number of trucks and tractors that think it fair game to drive in the wrong direction down the fast lane.

As it was, the trip passed almost without mishap - at one point, I felt something strange going on around my rear end. For once it wasn't bowel-related... the seat had become unwelded from the frame! This made things a little precarious until I found a man with an oxyacetylene welder. Highlights of the trip were camel-drawn carts (a novelty to me), and a siege of herons overhead (OK, so I had to look up the collective noun). Or was it a mustering of storks?

Today I've been playing tourist in Agra. The Taj Mahal really is extraordinarily beautiful, particularly during the half hour at dawn when I had it to myself. Having gorged myself on the other sites, the aim is to break the journey back with a night in the holy city of Mathura, taking in some other sites along the way.

A dusky Taj

A dusky Taj

Posted by James Whyte at 07:33 PM GMT
February 24, 2003 GMT
Safaris and sadhus

Rishikesh stands on the banks of the Ganges, where the river still has the cleanliness and vigour of a mountain stream. On my drenched arrival, it was a startling turquoise, but it soon became a silty brown after the heavy rains.

In the hills above Rishikesh

In the hills above Rishikesh

As in Varanasi, the Ganges makes Rishikesh a site of Hindu pilgrimage, and its auspicious setting of an impressive valley has no doubt contributed to the profusion of temples and ashrams. It draws not only Hindus but plenty of foreigners in search of the spiritual, so there is more than the usual quota of Westerners bedecked in full sadhu regalia, complete with bare feet, wild hair and staring eyes. The place is filled with people wearing a beatific smile, having found enlightenment (or at least smoked it).

With scant regard for its Hindu roots, a cottage industry of all things alternative has sprung up. In search of a good novel, I found the bookshops stocking little but teachings of the yogis, books on crystals, and such gems as 'The Celestine Prophecy' and 'Emotional Intelligence'. Call me spiritually barren if you will, but I just don't get it. What's more, somehow I don't feel I'm missing out.

As I sat on a delightful terrace in the late afternoon sun, looking across the deep valley, I would gladly have been sipping a beer, were not Rishikesh a declared alcohol-free, vegetarian zone. I could see one rooftop where a group of earnest Westerners, with that studied alternative look to their garb, walked very slowly in pigeon steps for half an hour, presumably as a meditative aid. On another, flexible girls practised their yoga. I can't help feeling that there ought to have been a road-block on the way in, which would have picked me out as an unsuitable addition to the community and sent me packing. Perhaps I'm just bitter that I don't fit in.

On my earlier return from Agra to Delhi, I spent a couple of days having a series of minor bike niggles seen to, and a front disc brake fitted. After experiencing (or rather, not experiencing) the famed weakness of the front drum, it seemed clear that the expense of the new disc kit could be worth it. So far, I'm pleased and can now stop on a moderate hill without rolling backwards. In fact, I almost feel I could join the ancient Ambassador cars that amusingly have 'Keep Distance - Power Brake' (or, just as often, 'Keep Distence - Power Break') emblazoned on their boot, presumably to warn other road users of their awesome stopping power. The bike hasn't fared so well of late - piston troubles already, burning oil like a two-stroke. Must be all those quality Indian parts.

Paperwork arrangements took a near fatal blow, so Bernard and I arranged a rendezvous to take stock at Corbett National Park, a day's ride from Delhi. This is a peaceful haven where Indian/foreigner dual-pricing has reached an art-form, but somehow I don't rail against it as I did in the past. This must be a consequence of now having a budget that puts me mildly above the backpacker breadline. I know my days of true grit are over. This was made clear to me when asked, by a couple of the legions of young South Koreans here, how much I was paying for a room. Admitting to four dollars, there were intakes of breath and an incredulous 'Wow'. Let's face it, I've gone soft.

Taking the ecological travel option

Taking the ecological travel option

Anyway, I digress. Our jeep and driver weren't really so expensive. We spent a night in the reserve - a term taken to heart by the tigers, who showed a good deal of it. Still, our spottings from jeep and elephant included four sorts of deer, boar, wild elephants, some birds (ornithologists despair), crocodiles, allegories and a malapropism or two. A well worthwhile visit, if only for the exhilarating ride through the forest, which is the first fresh thing I've smelled in India, but maybe that's just because I wasn't wearing my biking boots.

Since then, I've been up in Mussourie, a hill station first developed by the British as a relief from the summer heat, and used as their summer capital. The decaying church and lamp-post stumps bear witness to the British presence, but it now caters to Indian tourists, in particular Delhi urbanites. The setting is spectacular, strung out along a high ridge with views far out over the plain to the south, and to the Himalayas to the north.

This was where George Everest (of mountain fame) set up home at the culmination of the Great Arc - an extraordinary trigonometrical survey that, through great hardship and loss of life, triangulated all the way from the southern tip of the country. It allowed accurate mapping of India and, when it reached this point, accurate determination of the heights of the Himalayas, and contemporary praise hailed it as man's greatest scientific achievement. To a large extent, the mapping helped to define India as an entity, in a way that it hadn't existed before in the minds of its people. The headquarters of the survey is still situated in the town below, where apparently they will still correct your pronunciation - George pronounced it Eave-rest.

Sadly, apart from its setting, Mussoorie is pitifully tacky. An air of Blackpool in the clouds, right down to the candyfloss salesmen. It has a similar hunkered down, wintry feel to it at the moment with half the shops closed and the few people wrapped up to defend themselves from the cold that still maintains patches of snow. Compounded by hail and powercuts, it feels like time to get back to Delhi.

Posted by James Whyte at 04:37 PM GMT

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