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India

Be prepared to wait as strict times of opening and rampant bureaucracy of both sides of the border can frustrate even the most hardened and experienced travellers. When leaving India in 1981 the Indian customs officials spent their time humiliating poor Muslim travellers who crossing the border on foot and then after waiting hours  for the paperwork and passports to be checked they waved us through with hardly a glance. However, worse was to come on the Pakistani side! We had followed the German tour company Rotel into the Pakistani customs area and were optimistic about getting away quickly when the Germans completed the customs checks within minutes of arriving.

The source of the Pakistani speed and efficiency seemed to evaporate as our two double-deckers hoved into the compound. We had adopted our normal protocol for border crossings - clean t-shirts and sandals to be worn, beds made, clothes neatly stowed and the kitchen area spotless but this did not appear to impress them. So we waited and waited.

After a considerable time the source of the delay became apparent. Rotel had paid $20 to be able to decamp promptly. I stressed the fact that we were only poor Australians not rich Germans and that such a sum was beyond us. We received no sympathy and we just wallowed longer on the concrete apron as the cool of the morning evaporated.

Initiative was what was required as in all truthfulness we were just poor Australians. In the second bus one of the punters had a Playboy magazine and I pressed it into service with the tantalising entreaty that "I had something better than money".  It worked - I was quickly ushered into the office with the entire cohort of customs officials in tow. As the magazine was passed around the head of the customs sat down in his chair and asked if I wanted a 'smoke' and then began rolling a joint! I quickly refused and headed for the exit with passports in hand.

We reached the boom gates and my bus was allowed out but they stopped the other bus - they wanted another magazine. We drew the line at their rampant greed and after a standoff they too were allowed out.

Golden TempleIndia offers the overland traveller an almost endless array of unique itineraries, though most take the direct route to Nepal. The first stop in India is Amritsar, the centre of the Sikh religion. Even though his holy Sikh shrine suffered a deadly assault following the assassination of Indira Ghandi itís been repaired and is a must visit destination.

We stayed in the grounds of the Amritsar Youth Hostel and during one stay it was also the venue for the North India Dentists' Convention.  I remember being quizzed by one of the delegates as to the age of bus and was blown away by his amazement that any vehicle 25 years old could still be running! 

From here the adventurous can strike northwards to Jammu and then the twisting and climbing drive into Indian-controlled Kashmir.  Our buses were too high for the tunnels and we risked everything by hiring a local bus for the journey.  On my last trip we splurged and hired a series of taxis.  One couldn't be sure what was the wisest choice as on each trip we encountered at least one bus, truck or car that had failed to take a corner with fatal consequences for the occupants.  We felt quite bullet-proof and it's only with the passage of time that I realise that the element of risk was far too great.

Srinigar, the capital, sits in the vale of Kashmir and is one of the most scenic and unique destinations in India. Even in the 1980ís the tensions between the Muslim majority and the Indian administration were evident but today they have all but killed tourism to the region.


Dal Lake in December 1980


Dal Lake in the summer of 1981

We stayed on Habib's oddly named Houseboat Australia.  Habib always made our stay a highlight of the overland experience.  All the overland companies used his boats and he had a very easy manner.  However, not all the residents of Srinigar shared our views.  On one occasion I after riding his motorbike I was waiting outside the post office for him when a group of Muslim youths approached and warned me off associating with him.  Perhaps an early warning of the problems that beset this community today?

The houseboats were unusual with intricate hand-carved Indian motifs on the outside and complemented on the inside by an amazing Victorian chintz-style of furniture.  Each house boat had a bathroom, two bedrooms, and its own lounge room - very spacious and so indulgent by the standards we had come to accept as normal. 

The ubiquitous shikaras plied the lake selling and transporting anything and everything.  You could buy Limca (India's answer to Coco-cola), flowers, hashish and even chocolate biscuits!  We would regularly hire a "party boat" which would slowly punt us around the lake by moonlight whilst we enjoyed a moghul feast, too much booze and hash.

On my second visit we journeyed to the Gulmarg, the Vale of Flowers, in winter.  This winter playground boasted a single rope tow and access to the slopes was made by stout short-legged ponies who were buried up to their flanks in the snow.  The skiing was was most unremarkable but like much of life the journey was spectacular and unforgettable.

No options but to retrace your steps to Jammu from where the route takes you on to Delhi, the capital city of India. The most important advice is to avoid the hot summer months when temperatures regularly hover in the 40ís. The city itself is a rewarding destination in itself but it is also the staging post for travellers heading in all compass points.

Options include the desert state of Rajasthan, or travelling further south to Goa, or alternatively the hill stations of the Himalayas. Simla, the Kulu Valley and Manali are great spots in which to relax.

We stayed in a camp site in Asaf Ali Road a couple of kilometres from Cannaught Circus.  The accommodation for those wanting to get off the bus were a round whitewashed huts with a thatched roof that would have looked more at home on a south seas setting that the hot and dusty plains of northern India.

Those following the main overland route to Kathmandu leave Delhi for Jaipur in Rajasthan. Here the attractions include the famous pink city itself. The intriguing Palace of the Winds from where the concubines of the Maharajah viewed the passing cavalcade of life continues to attract the attention of travellers.


The Taj Mahal is visible from a long way off
 

From here the route takes you eastwards towards Agra and the Taj Mahal, the highlight of any journey to India. The Taj sometimes surprises visitors with its small physical imprint as its image is written so large in our minds. The story behind its construction and the fate of its creator However, take the time to stop short of the city and visit the abandoned remains of the city of Fatephur Sikri. Built by Akbar the Great, Fatephur Sikri, is one of history's great follies as it was abandoned only 18 years after being completed due to a lack of adequate drinking water. However, it provides does provide the visitor with a superb idea of the scope and scale of this wonderful Moghul city.

The overland route continues east towards Varanasi and the sacred Ganges River one of the holiest places for Hindus. Arrange an early morning visit to observe the cremations on the ancient stone ghats. The size and swiftness of the river and the poignant ceremonies being held along its banks can help but effect the traveller deeply.


A cremation Ghat on the Ganges


A palace at Varanasi on the Ganges

typical Indian ingenuity
The stupa at Sarnath where the Buddha received enlightenment.

Not far away is Sarnath another holy city but this city is sacred to Buddhists as it is the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. The stupa that makes the spot is very simple and unadorned in direct counterpoint to the predominant Hindu style. The park land in which it sits is an oasis of calm within the frenetic cauldron of Indian life Ė enjoy the serenity it offers!

Further along the road to the Nepalese border lies Khajuraho. The city is famous for its erotic temples whose explicit carvings and sculptures predate the Karma Sutra. In the 80ís the stateís ganga shops were also an added attraction.

 

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