Chennai, Tuticorin, Fort Cochin, Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Amritsar & Wagah Tues. 21 December 2011- Fri. 13 January 2012.
So, not quite believing that we'd finally left SL so suddenly we arrived at Chennai airport. Our goal was to get to Penny's place in Fort Cochin by Xmas, which required getting transport to Tuticorin overnight to arrive Thursday morning so that we had a hope in hell of getting the car out before the weekend (and Xmas) shutdown. First little issue was that the ATMs in the airport wouldn't work -we weren't alone in this some poor girl from the UK was in floods of tears as her card wouldn't work so she was unable to book her ongoing connection into Goa to meet her friends. We took a taxi to another ATM ..but still no joy ..eventually we switched to use our Visa card which we usually avoid as the charges for withdrawing cash are high - but thankfully it worked so we were not penniless!
We headed to try and book our train ticket only to find it was booked out …not surprising really we had tried to book it from SL but there was no facility to pay using a foreign card so we lucked out. As always happens in India we were approached by a "Mr. Fixit" and for once we used him! This gentleman was actually an airport employee and he busied himself finding us a night bus to Tuticorin (Tuti) with 2 free seats -actually as Tuti is very Christian this was a bit tough as the hordes were heading home for Xmas so we were glad of his help. He even deposited us at 9pm at the bus stop -no doubt we paid a bit extra for the tickets& taxi a well as his fees but we were just relieved to get on the bus safely! Our SIM cards for our Indian mobiles had been barred as they'd not been used for 5 months so annoyingly we couldn't ring the shipping agents in Tuti to say we were on the way and by the time we tracked down a pay phone the business was closed..ah well, at least we were on our way!
Our bus was described as a "Luxury Sleeper" ..I guess it could have been worse but it really wasn't that luxurious and sleep eluded me..I'm just too tall to sleep in these reclining seats ..I need to stretch out properly! So it was a fairly restless night over the 8 hour journey with my one solidish sleep predictably broken by our one toilet stop (grotty!)
We nearly had a minor disaster as we reached Tuti an hour before schedule at 5am, and very nearly missed our stop. This would have been a problem as we'd have probably spent a day getting back ..the bus driver swore at us as he deposited us ..presumably for not being ready and thus delaying him, but you'd think they'd have been a sort of "we are about to arrive in Tuticorin' type of announcement to give us a heads up! Never mind, half asleep we scrambled off.
Tuti at that hour was no fun, it was still dark and everything was shut so we took a tuk tuk to the Poppy Hotel -which seemed to be the most upmarket option -where we had Club Sandwiches for last nights dinner/breakfast and both fell asleep for a couple of hours on the comfy sofa!
Once we awoke still feeling a bit bleary we headed to our shipping agents. They were still not open so we left our bags and headed off to sort out our telephones. Our old number ..now barred ..couldn't be revived but we were given new ones. Actually we just kept everything crossed as we know from last time in Chandigarh that getting a SIM in India is now far more complicated than it was and a mere hotel address isn't enough you need a "proper" Indian address. We managed in Chandigarh only because the Dhandes stood surety for us, but here we were a bit concerned but we were given 2 numbers with no problems. Update: As I write this 8th January -the powers that be have caught up with Ann and she has been barred …Andrew for some reason has slipped through the system so we'll limp on with just one number as we only have 5 more days in the country. Things like this are so much harder in India than SL!
So…back to the shipping agents. I write this a few weeks on and with the benefit of hindsight I think a lot of the problems we faced were miscommunication. In short we had a spat with the agents when nothing seemed to be happening ..and they tried to charge us way in excess of what we expected. We went to the port alone and the authorities helped us ..and in the end all was well. We'd had to give an address in India whilst in SL and whilst we protested at the time that it didn't make sense we gave Penny's, and information that was sent there never reached us until much later, which was the cause of much of the confusion. All in all as ever it wasn't easy and we spent 2 full days at the port but finally at 7pm on Friday 23rd December the car was liberated …just in time before the Xmas shut down. The cost of shipping back (not including flights) was double that of going on the ferry! Couldn't be helped I guess.
That evening we were too tired to drive so we went back to the cheap Hotel ( Sugam) where we'd spent the previous night. Tuti as mentioned is very Christian so the Xmas spirit was in full swing. We went for a quiet dinner before bed and got caught up in the filming of what was presumably a Xmas ad for the restaurant ..Santas kept shaking hands with us as we tried to eat our dinner …last thing either of us felt like after the last 2 days doing battle at the ports ..hopefully no one we know will ever see it!
Next morning -Xmas Eve- we were up early to drive to Pennys in Fort Cochin Kerala, the first of quite a few marathon drives we were to do in the next couple of weeks. There was a big dispute going on between Tamil Nadu (where we were) and the neighbouring state of Kerala -something about who should pay the costs for repairs to a dam. As this had caused major blockades on the border so we were advised to go south and hug the coast rather than across by the more direct route.
This seemed to work as when we crossed into Kerala there were no blockades etc..though it was quite a drive. We stopped off at Varkhala for a late lunch and to say hi to our friend who runs the Loknath bookshop there …and I did a major book swap. It seemed incredible how crowded it was ..we were last here (over 2 years ago!!) in low season and it was empty. Now it was busy with Europeans, though the locals we spoke to said that business was down, citing a) the increased competition from neighbouring Sri Lanka now that war there is over, and b) the global recession, as reasons.
Once again in Kerala we noticed all the lovely advertising posters for jewelry shops ..a big thing here and part of your wedding dowry. In a country where white skin a "wheaten complexion" is much prized it was funny to see how touched up some of the gorgeous girls in the adverts looked ..not just pale they were ghost-like…then in the UK we have fake tan and sunbeds…go figure!!!
On we drove through the palm trees and crowded narrow roads of Kerala. Again it felt very Xmasy in this state decorated churches everywhere. Finally we arrived at Mad Dogs Trust by 7pm to a warm welcome from Penny, Norman (a friend from France via the UK who is currently visiting) and numerous street dogs….Merry Xmas!!!
We had a great Xmas with Penny. As mentioned before Penny is a fellow overlander who drove her Landrover over from the UK, with her husband Brian and 3 dalmation dogs.
Sadly both Brian and one of the dogs have since passed away but Penny, Wooster and Monty (dogs) remain in Fort Cochin to run Mad Dog's trust an animal charity which helps sick street animals in Cochin. You can see more about the great work she does on her website www.maddogstrust.com
Penny has recently opened a shop in central Cochin and we spent Xmas day there before heading out by ferry to the Gateway Hotel (part of the Taj group) at Ernakulam for a delicious Xmas dinner. We had a really enjoyable couple of days with Penny, Norman and the team and were sad we couldn't stay longer… and that we didn't take more pictures, not sure why maybe we were having too much fun to remember to take the camera out.
Kerala being very Christian it was nice to see all the decorations, especially the large tree on the open ground opposite Penny's house. We did a trip into town to pick up a sack of dog food for Penny and the pet shop owner gifted us with a book "The Story of Jesus" which is now in our bookshelves! We might dispose of it before it gets us into trouble on our travels -they have zero tolerance for Christian missionaries in some parts of the world!
Penny's team is an eclectic bunch..from Serge the young gay (very camp) trainee vet, his friend Sharon a transvestite to Mr. Ray the old gardener. I asked Mr. Ray how he came to work for Penny "God sent me to do my duty" he told me. Actually Penny says she found him to act as an interpreter for the vets. As Malayam the language of Kerala is notoriously hard to learn the idea was that Mr. Ray would interpret what the customers (animal owners) said into English for the vets, not all of whom were from Kerala. This lead to some surreal conversations e.g.)
Vet "Mr. Ray ask how long the cat has been off its food."
Mr. Ray (after long exchange with client in Malayam) "His mother no longer stays in Mumbai as she doesn't like the climate."
After several days of this the vets asked forcibly that Mr. Ray be removed and as Penny didn't have the heart to sack him, he now serves Penny (and presumably God) by removing dog poo from the garden and watering the grass. All important work which he does very well!
Whilst there we attempted to help Penny with a problem with her carnet and thus paid a visit to customs. Poor Penny thought she was doing the right thing when she saved on courier costs by taking her carnet directly to the UK for renewal on a visit there. Unfortunately by the time it reached there it was just out of date which caused all sorts of problems. Hopefully she is now sorted out and awaiting a new Carnet from the UK.
As an aside the rules surrounding the Carnet are diverse and a bit complex e.g.) in India the car can only be in the country for 180 days of the Carnet year as opposed to the calendar year. Apparently some poor souls have had their vehicles impounded for falling foul of this one, yet nowhere is it in writing and you're never told of the rule. By luck more than judgment we dodged this one as we got new carnets twice when out of India -once in Nepal once in SL. A few other diverse rules which no one really knows about apparently exist to trip you up…mercifully on the whole the authorities here are equally in the dark!
Finally on Wednesday 28th December, after a few days rest and much laughter we bid goodbye to Penny, Norman et al and caught the ferry from Cochin. We stopped for breakfast at Cherai beach -opposite the Toddy parlour -a little early for that! This beach is a popular alternative to Kerala being a lot less touristic..which sounds a bit of a contradiction in terms! We got a picture of the traditional Chinese style fishing nets which are everywhere along this coast, which we hadn't got around to in Cochin.
As we journeyed north the next day or so we saw numerous pilgrims, all in black with bundles on their heads, mostly barefoot which was pretty hard going on the hot roads. Apparently according to a man we asked they were all heading to the Sabarimala Temple in the Pathananthitta district. Not sure where that is but if they were really all heading for the same place some of them had a hell of a way to go..they were pretty spread out!
So…..driving driving and more driving! Poor Andrew ..I did offer to take a turn but he seems to prefer doing it all himself to letting me have a go…wonder why???
That first night we made it to Calicut..actually we pushed to get there as we knew a good camp spot ..or so we thought. When we stayed there before (admittedly over 2 years ago) we had camped in the spacious garden of the Beach Hotel, so we were relieved to pull up there as the sun set. Last time the manager had not only let us camp, but called the local press for a photo shoot in the garden. This time there was a new manager, and he was immovable. No we couldn't park. This was pretty bad news after a big day and made us think back to SL and how easy it had been getting camp spots. Next we tried the posh Gateway Hotel (as mentioned before these hotels are a wing of the Taj group) and the manager made us very welcome and let us camp. Whew! Thanks so much we really appreciated it.
We enjoyed a great dinner, and when we returned to the car we had a very posh neighbour a new Lamborghini. Actually funny thing was that it was ignored whilst next-door a group of guys were lining up to have their pictures taken leaning up against our old car!!
Next morning in order to get out we had to negotiate a curtain which had been hung over the doorway as decoration after we'd parked. One of the hotel workers got on our roof with a broom so we could drive under without bringing the whole lot down! Thanks very much to all at the Taj/Gateway Calicut and not at all to the Beach Hotel!!!
On we headed ..passing the French port of Pondicherry on the way ..a former Portuguese colony this is a much smaller version of the one on the east coast though the police men have the same cool hats!
That night we pulled up at Malpe a small coastal fishing town overlooking nearby St. Mary's Island ..which was very busy with India holiday makers. The one resort Paradise Isle Beach Resort again said we couldn't camp inside despite having heaps of room …mean beggars! So..we parked just out the front! Whilst it was very busy with traffic to the nearby temple, thankfully they were nearly all day trippers and once the coaches had gone we were left in peace. Good restaurant too…we had to eat there despite being given the brush off, as it was the only place in town ! We were back on the road early next day.
On Friday 30th December we reached our new year's destination of Goa. Again, like Kerala we've only visited this area in the low season and so it was interesting to see it so much more busy -and beautifully hot and sunny not blowing a gale like when we were last there. We were heading for the overlander hangout of Agonda beach -the weather was so foul when we were last there we hadn't even bothered looking for it.
First though we visited Margao and more particularly the Toyota workshop on the highway near to it. Despite having had it replaced in SL (and it subsequently never having worked better) we had developed a problem with our alternator so the batteries weren't charging properly. We were keen to get this sorted out prior to crossing into Pakistan, so headed straight to the workshop. Sadly they were unable to help us as they didn't have the right parts for an old car like ours, but they made an appointment with us for the Toyota service centre in Mumbai for Tuesday 3rd January, where we resolved to head on the 2nd January. With our tight time schedule we need car problems just now like we need a hole in the head but it can't be helped!
Afterwards we went and had a look at Margao -heading once again to a Vodafone store! Honestly during our time in India we seem to have spent a crazy amount of time in Vodafone, this time sorting out our worldwide calling, so we can call overseas at a cheaper rate. Vodafone is no doubt a great service if you stay put in one place, but if like us you're on the move it's crap..every time you change state it all goes bad. An added complication is that if you get your SIM card in Tamil Nadu as we did, the help line people only speak Tamil which means no one else in India can understand them! As the exasperated Vodafone guy in Kerala said "these people aren't really Indian!" Anyway we got sorted finally so we could make lots of calls to Australia and the UK as we brought the new year in!
Margao itself was a pleasant little town, with some interesting old houses and churches and a fantastic restaurant. Dating from 1950 Longuinhos specialized in Goan food and absolutely delicious it was. Goan food is very Portuguese in origin -we had spicy sausage, and egg tarts ..lovely! The Chef/Proprietor actually publishes a recipe book, but sadly he was out of stock at the time of our visit. Goa is also the only place in India to have Motorbike taxis we found out ..not for the faint hearted I'd have thought with Indian road conditions!
We drove to Agonda via the back roads which was lucky as we saw another bit of Goan culture. Everywhere in the little villages we passed through the kids stopped the car to collect money for stuffed dummies they had made ..very like the English penny (or rupee) for the guy. Eventually someone explained the "Old Man" represents the old year and a bonfire is built and on the stroke of midnight he is thrown on it ..thus the new year is born. Not sure if it's a Portuguese custom or it originated here but very interesting. We donated all our change!
So..we hit beautiful Agonda Beach for an all too brief stay at the overlanders' nirvana. We'd heard that this beach was a centre for a great many overlanders -mainly German- who drive down for Xmas and New Year parties. We've enclosed websites of those overlanders that have them on our contacts' page. It was really nice to catch up with other overlanders and as most of them have come from the way we were heading we could pick their brains.
One bit of scary news was re: the Iranian visas -I had thought that getting the code meant I was safe, but the overall thinking seems to be that it may still be a struggle to get the visa-you will get it in the end but it may take time.
The process seems to lack consistency i.e.) one Austrian lady we met picked hers up in Delhi in a day..yet another lady also Austrian had to wait 5 weeks in Austria!! Interestingly we recently heard from our agency www.iranianvisa.com that 4 other clients of theirs had had trouble getting visas in Colombo, and that the Iranian Embassy there have now actually said officially that they will not be issuing any more visas until further notice. This supports my view that from the first time we went in they were never really interested in to helping us. Fingers toes and everything crossed that our visas come through in Lahore! NB: Update 18th January, 2012 ...and they did! Picked up our visas today. Easy process 3 day turn around as blood test required. Whew!!!!!
The other interesting information gleaned on the overlander grapevine was that, whilst still a bit pricey , everyone else seemed to get far better quotes for driving through China i.e.) around 5,000 USD not 16,000 which was our cheapest quote!!! All a bit academic now as we're not going but very odd. When we immediately said no to these quotes as it was way too pricey you'd think they'd have come back with a better offer??
Anyway great to meet all these guys and see so many vehicles ..some very impressive. Sorry if we miss anyone but nice to meet you to:
Mark & Rachel (UK), Manuel & Sandra (Austria) Wolfgang & Verena (in a BiG Unimog with Apollo their BIG dog!)also Austrian, Roman from Switzerland in a 75 Series Toyota, Christina from Germany in a landrover a courageous lady travelling alone, Armin from Germany also in a Defender Landrover, also travelling solo and a few others from Germany, Holland and Switzerland ..sorry we didn't get all your details, but it was great to meet you all.
Finally special mention to Herman & Candelaria Zapp from Argentina, and their 4 kids travelling in a 1928 American Rolls Royce. All the kids -aged between 3 & 9- were born "on the road" -the youngest Wallaby (!!!) in Australia -Newport Beach to be exact. Details of their trips are on www.argentinaalaska.com and you can Google their book "Spark Your Dream" which is available via Amazon. Jaw dropping!
We had a very good if drunken new year's beach party …finally making it to bed at 5am. Great way to bring the year in! After a day's recovery we set the alarm for 5am for the 2nd January to get on the road early. Best laid plans and all that …as we'd parked in the shade to ensure a lie in our alternator problem stuffed us up and we couldn't start…thus we had to sit waiting for a jump start..which Manuel kindly provided!
Stopping only to buy a bottle (plastic-the last glass one broke!) of fresh honey we left Goa and headed north toward Mumbai.
The journey was long, but quite scenic in parts, winding up hills and passing by very sweet smelling Sugar Cane plants -and a lot of trucks piled high with cane.
As we left Goa we were stopped at a road block by a policeman who tried to get 1,000 rupees "Tourist Tax" out of us. When we refused he told Andrew to get out of the car with his paperwork. As his leg with its snapped tendon gets sore Andrew has invested in a stick, so he made a big deal of climbing down with the stick ..which won the sympathy of the more senior policemen who told the one who'd stopped us off for disturbing a disabled ,man and so we escaped the "Tourist Tax" !!
As we drove on the problem with our alternator and thus our battery charging got worse and worse …and eventually our lights wouldn't work nor would our horn as the battery power was too low. We pulled into a garage to try and find an auto electrician. As has often happened many people rallied to help us and we were soon escorted to a nearby garage, where we camped and charged the batteries overnight so that they weren't flat. As time was so short we were determined to make it to our appointment at Mumbai Toyota the next day. So a far less pleasant camp spot than the night before ..on the edge of an industrial estate in a little town called Karad!
The garage guys came in at 4am to reload our batteries which they'd charged overnight …and by 4.30am we were on the road again…still in the pitch dark. It was getting cooler as we drove north especially in the early morning.
Hitting Mumbai we were worried we'd get very lost but luckily we entered the city from the right side for where we were headed and Mumbai turned out to be very easy for directions ..you were never too far from an English speaker. Anyway we made it to Toyota's workshop by 10am …not bad considering!
We spent the day around Toyota …going out for a delicious Dosai for lunch -enjoying the Southern Indian food once more! Andrew crashed out asleep all afternoon and I dozed in the waiting room! I really like Mumbai -it's got a real energy about it -but sadly we were in a rush so once more we spent just one night here camped in a workshop (Toyota's this time) and get up very early to head on.
Next stretch of the drive north through Maharashtra took us past some good 'truck art' shops ..they specialize in it here.
We stopped and bought some new pom poms ..the old ones look a bit tired after 2 years!
We drove on through Gujarat (very industrial) and on towards Rajasthan. Just before we crossed the border we were stopped by a car.Mr. Patel is the trustee of the Sahyog Kushtha Yagna Trust -run from an Ashram at Rajendranagar just off the Himatnagar-Udaipur Highway, and he was on the way there with his grandson and friends . This charity was founded in 1988 by Mr. Suresh Soni whom we also met. It principally helps lepers, their children and mentally handicapped people. Leprosy is a huge stigma here, and whilst on the whole it isn't an infectious disease these people are often cast out by their families who don't understand this, and they and their children are forced to live by begging alone. The Ashram provides comfortable homes for these people, as well as schools and hostels for their children. Similarly mentally handicapped people, another group who often live as outcasts due to widespread fear and misunderstanding of their condition are helped here.
Mr. Patel works as a volunteer for the Ashram as do many others. The "cured" lepers are trained to help care for the mentally ill. We took a tour of the Ashram and were impressed by how happy the children -mentally handicapped and not - seemed and how fond all the inmates ( over 1,000 in total) seemed to be of Mr. Patel and the other helpers. The Ashram welcomes visitors or volunteers interested in their work ..see more of the good works completed here on their site www.sahyogtrust.org.in It's really humbling how much time and effort some people do give for the benefit of others.
We said goodbye and journeyed on into Rajasthan where soon we decided to camp about 30km short of Udaipur at the RTDC at Gavri. We were the only diners and it was a bit clapped out looking, we could hear the rats behind the walls in the restaurant which is always a bad sign-but it was great to have a quiet camp spot. Definitely a lot more chilly now -we'd left the steaminess of Mumbai behind and it was now " jumper weather" for the first time in ages.
The rest of the drive onto Delhi passed in a blur of highways and toll booths. We always try and argue that we should be exempt from tolls being a foreign car and much of the time we get away with it. Actually I'd say we escaped paying 60% of the time, toll keepers being divided between those who gave us tea took our picture and waved us through, to those who insisted we paid!
We saw a group of Hijras at one of the tolls. As mentioned before this caste of transvestites and eunuchs make a living as entertainers and by collecting money …I think the idea is if you don't give a donation they can put curse on men making them impotent! They certainly seemed to be getting money! We made a donation in exchange for a picture and all of them came to have a look at us …all very friendly.
The rest of the trip passed uneventfully -the last stretch into Delhi being a nightmare due to roadworks and taking us 3 hours to go 30km! Eventually we hit town and at midnight drew up in Okhla industrial estate to once again park at a garage! We had had a bit of a problem with the glow plugs since the alternator was fixed …we seem to be having a bit of a bad run!...and Andrew is ever vigilant about fixing any car problems immediately -you have to with a 27 year old car!
Andrew had rung ahead to our contact Virender at Lakozy Toyota so the security men -sitting warming themselves around the fire when we rolled up -weren't as shocked by us as they might have been! Another very good night's sleep, in a garage forecourt!
It took most of the next day to sort the problem out, it was a bit of a mystery ..the issue only arose after the alternator was fixed in Mumbai but seemed to have no connection to it…anyway by the end we were all fixed, and very generously Virender refused payment. Thanks so much to him and the team for all their help whilst we were in India -we'll miss them!
Finally we headed out (through the heavy traffic and rain) to Manja ka Tilla the Tibetan area and Wongdhen House which has long been our home from home in Delhi. It was really nice to see everyone again and they gave us a warm welcome. The only sad thing was that Little Dog ..the dog we'd called the vets for and given medicine to on our last time in Delhi had passed away. We were sad but not really surprised..all the tablets we gave him seemed to have no effect…maybe he had throat cancer?? Anyway a Tibetan man took him in and nursed him at the end so at least he didn't die alone.
Next morning -Saturday 7th January -we headed into town to the HSBC bank, the main reason we were in Delhi. In Iran there are no ATMs which accept foreign cards so you have to go in with cash ..in either USD or Euros which you change. Our feeling was that this might not be easy to organize in Pakistan so we thought we'd sort it before crossing the border. So…I rang my bank to tell them what was happening so they didn't have a heart attack and cancel my card, and off we headed. Once in the bank we queued up, explained what we wanted, and stood around whilst it all happened ..until the end of the process when the money was given to us…….a huge pile of Indian Rupees!!! As you can't take Indian money out of India this was not what we wanted! We explained the mistake and the Manager was called. Bad news!!!! Whilst it is ok to exchange any currency into Indian rupees here in India, it is actually illegal to exchange it back!!! WTF!!!!!! The bank manager rang Thomas Cook a major money changer here and they also told him they couldn't help us do this.
The one exception we were told was at the airport but you need an air ticket as proof you are flying out and this isn't possible at a land border. Panic!! We rang the Australian Embassy here in Delhi and they were helpful agreeing to provide us with a letter of support for the airport..but as it was a legal matter they couldn't (understandably) help us do anything which would break local law. What to do??!!!
By this time the bank was about to close ..the Manger agreed to reverse the transaction ..but it had to be done at once. We couldn't take the money away and then get it reversed when the bank was next open, so we had no choice but to reverse it and re-credit the money into my credit card - my bank must think I'm nuts!
After leaving the bank we went to several money changers …who at once said that of course they'd change rupees for USD. When we told them what the bank had said the response was "yes of course it's not legal but that rule's stupid ..it wouldn't work." So there you go, should have kept the money out…we'll have to go and do it again on Monday!
We've been so stressed by things out of our control these last couple of weeks starting with the cancelled ferry, the shipping, my Iranian visa …that when we finally cross into Pakistan and the deadline is over we'll probably collapse into a heap!!!
After our fruitless morning in the bank we spent a more pleasant afternoon looking around the shops in Connaught Place(CP) -and I bought a few "cover all " clothes for Pakistan and Iran. It's pretty cold here..nowhere near as cold as the UK in winter but pretty bad on the homeless people and the tribes of street kids with no shoes and there have been quite a few deaths on the street due to the low temperatures this winter. This is pretty awful we'd forgotten how bad the poverty was here compared with Sri Lanka. There were a few young kids around CP who looked high on glue too ..a new and depressing development, we saw a lot of this in Kathmandu but this is the first in India.
We had dinner at the very classic 1940s restaurant "United Coffee House" -a stylish place a bit pricey for us but with amazing curries -before heading back to "Little Tibet"
It's next morning as I type this (Sunday 8th January 2012) and I am busy in our favourite café in Majnu ka Tilla updating this site, whilst Andrew has headed off to see a motor show which I felt able to live without! Tomorrow we head back to get our Iranian cash (better luck this time!) and then head to Chandigarh to pick up the boxes we are shipping to the UK. Then it's on to Ludhiana to get the shipping organized. We also hope to fit in a visit to the Golden Temple at Amritsar, before we finally leave India for the final time this trip to enter Pakistan by Friday the 13th January. Very excited about this now!
Update: Monday 9th to Friday 13 January, 2012.
So ..the last week in India passed pretty quickly. We went back to the HSBC on the morning of Monday the 9th January took out some Indian rupees as before and then converted it to $ USD 10 minutes later at a nearby money changer with no problems. Actually our friend Penny in Fort Cochin, Kerala went to her local bank and asked and they had no issue with converting her money into $USD immediately. The "local law "the bank manager had referred to seemed to refer to Delhi rather than India..would have saved us some stress if we'd known that! Never mind all's well that ends well ..we now have our money to put away for Iran. Changing Indian in to Pakistan rupees isn't possible herein Delhi though -I guess not too much demand -apparently it's easy enough to do at Amritsar and the border itself so we'll tackle it then.
That morning we headed on again to Chandigarh. The Dhandes were away sadly so we didn't get to see them - sensible people they were escaping the winter chill and enjoying a break to Australia to catch up with the family. Their neighbour Prince who had kindly minded our stuff gave us a warm welcome and a bed for the night for which we were very grateful. It's now pretty chilly and we need to "re-group" a bit by yanking out the old duvets from under the car and making the bed winter-proof again ..crazily it's just a couple of weeks since we were sweating it out in tropical temperatures!
Actually the climate in Chandigarh is quite pleasant at the moment -very chilly at night but bright and sunny by day -and we spent a pleasant day re-organizing the car. We also saw little Ashu and Poona his mother who works for the Dhandes for the final time. Ashu's really grown since we first met him over 2 years ago, and he loved playing in the car. He's a great kid not sure when we'll see him again?? Whilst packing the car we got serenaded by performers ..who entertained us whether we wanted it our not whilst we packed! This all reminded us of Nimar and Reet's wedding, when these guys were never far away from the festivities!
Prince helped us find a truck to move the boxes and the next morning we were on the move again at 7.30am ..following the truck through the fog towards the dry port at Ludhiana. We stopped for breakfast at a truck stop on the way..and got a lot of curious stares! We (and our car) are a change from the usual clientele!
Finally we arrived, unloaded the boxes and waited for Vishal our shipping agent to arrive. Somehow anything to do with shipping seems to take way longer than it should and we were around the port and Vishal's office all day.
Apparently we'd made his job difficult by not filling in the correct paperwork…it would've been a help if we'd been told of this before! Anyway it was a nightmare last May to track down a shipping company that'd help us ship our 7 boxes of excess weight to the UK ..so big thanks to Vishal and all at Safeocean E Logistics for coming to our rescue! See their site www.soe.in Extra big thanks also go to our Shipping Agents at the other end FCC or Felixstow Clearance Company and particularly the Director William Goodwin who offered us 6 months storage free when the boxes hit the UK. A huge help! See their site www.fxtcc.co.uk
We finally waved goodbye to Vishal and drove on towards Amritsar as darkness fell. Amritsar is a large city so we decided to try and find a good place to park on the outside. Indian Oil had a large dark parking area full of trucks that were obviously staying the night..but they refused point blank to let us park ..miserable devils! They actually suggested we park out on the road in front of them where it'd have been really dangerous. Thankfully though we didn't leave our Indian camping experiences on a sour note, as we asked next at Castle Toyota and the night security men couldn't have been nicer, opening up the gates and the bathroom for us ..and even bringing us a warm brew in the morning! Thanks guys we really appreciated it.
Next morning we were up early to see our final "must see" attraction in India-the Golden Temple. We'd actually delayed visiting this last summer as it was too hot and whilst it was pretty chilly that morning (especially on all the marble which was freezing!) we felt we'd timed it right. We drove (by cycle rickshaw no room for our car here ) through the twisty lanes of the atmospheric old city before our first view of the temple.
The temple is Sikhism's most holy shrine and a truly amazing sight ..up there alongside the Taj Mahal for sheer "wow" factor.
Dating from 1764 the temple has a chequered history coming under attack before and after this date but still it stands ..casting its reflection majestically over the surrounding holy pool.
We walked all around the Parkarma or marble pathway where photos are permitted and into the central temple (Hari Mandir Sahib) with the golden dome where they aren't. The central dome represents an inverted lotus flower and contains an alleged 750kg of pure gold. The Sikh's holy book is carried into this temple every day and returned at night with a great deal of ceremony..and all day holy men chant from it which is broadcast around the entire temple complex.
There is inlaid pietra dura -or marble inlay work just like the Taj Mahal all around the marble walls of the temple.
All in all it really is incredibly impressive and worth a visit. We were disappointed that we hadn't enough time to stay the night in the pilgrims' hostel -which we had meant to do-ah well another time. Mind you they allegedly only have cold showers..so maybe save that for the heat of the summer!
Next we had a quick look at the Jallianwala Bagh aka the Garden of the Martyrs. This is where in 1919 an officer of the British army General Dwyer gunned down almost 2,000 people without warning when they were holding a peaceful protest.
This action..depicted in the Gandhi movie - really added fuel to the fire of the Indian nationalism movement. The bullet holes are still clearly visible and there is an attractive garden with an eternal flame to commemorate these people, as well as a gallery of information about the nationalist movement. Heads down in here for us Brits!!
After this we headed out the 30km to the border to see the closing ceremony. This is an incredible spectacle which takes place every day on the Attari/Wagah border as it has done since partician in 1948.
There were huge crowds gathering in the hours up to the opening of the gate and touts selling videos, flags, beer , snacks ,..you name it!
There were huge queues to go in as security is very tight so we all had to be searched first, but we managed to leapfrog these to score the best seats in the house thanks to Andrew's tendon! As it's still giving him pain he has taken to using his stick to take the weight off it as he gets around and we were spotted and whizzed right to the front to the VIP or more accurately "Wheelchair" section so we got a great view of the whole ceremony!
It's pretty full on…before it starts anyone gets the chance to run up and down carrying the Indian flag.
Then the soldiers in their amazing finery come on and there follows half an hour or so of stomping, marching and scowling across the border before the flags are lowered. They even have people working the crowd to scream for their side. Very interesting and a cross between being moving and funny really!
That night we headed back for a final night in Amritsar at Castle Toyota as we were picking up our oil from Mobil the next day, from somewhere in the city but were still trying to work out where.
Our fault really we were in such a rush that we hadn't organized it and Sandeep and Wasim the marketing guys at Mobil whom we usually deal with were both on holiday. We're really due an oil change so we were really pleased to track Wasim down to Manali and get him to authorize us getting the oil we needed.
So..at an organized rendezvous we drove out and waited about half way to the border and before long Tushar from Ess-N-Ess Marketing, the local distributor of Mobil Oil arrived to provide us with 12 litres of 0W40 oil. Thanks to Sandeep, Wasim and Tushar all of whom came to our aid whilst on holiday!
We're so pleased to have the oil on board for when we hit the minus temperatures as we climb into the mountains of Pakistan..but first we have to cross the border! On our picture we hold our Hema map of India -looking a bit battered by now-and marked to show the 90,000km we've travelled here..all with the help of Mobil 1 oil! See www.mobiloil.com & www.exxonmobil.com
So, oil in place in the nick of time on we headed back towards the border. There was a kite festival on that day in India and as we headed out we saw dozens of kites being made, indeed Tushar had been kind enough to gift Andrew one.
We were worried it'd get damaged in the car so we gave it to a very grateful kid we passed.
We also saw a few "Pig Meat" shops and took a picture as we thought with the next few countries on our list (Pakistan, Iran, Turkey) being strictly Muslim this'd be the last one we'd see for some time! Didn't look very appetizing actually!
When we pulled up at Customs we had a nice surprise as Manuel and Sandra from Austria whom we'd met in Goa (see above) were by coincidence crossing through the border on the same day-Friday 13th! Going through immigration and customs was actually quite easy if a bit long winded and form orientated ..and it was made more pleasant by a constant supply of sweets and hot peanuts from the customs officials -another part of the festival.
There was a fascinating lady with us in customs ..from Germany she was 74 years old and travelling alone with a huge back pack ..which was almost a big as her. She was heading out to the NW areas of Pakistan ..she'd visited Pakistan and Iran numerous times and was full of useful information. I had assumed that she'd be staying that night -as we were - to see the closing ceremony from the "other" Pakistan side but she vanished on a bus and we never saw here again ..shame I wanted to get a picture. One of those interesting characters you meet "on the road."
So…finally after 5 visas, 6 visits and in total over 3 years' time spent there we said a final sad goodbye to India (for this trip anyway) and crossed the border to arrive in Wagah Pakistan.