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Into India

Since Lumbini was a long, dusty, potholed, 22km from Bhairawa/Sunauli and the Indian border, I arranged for the same young man in the same white jeep to drive me. Not only did he get me to the border, he organized a jeep for the trip to the railhead at Gorakhpur, and escorted me to Nepali immigration – three men in mufti sitting round a dusty table. I switched cars, switched countries, and immediately hit a traffic jam. After we extricated ourselves, the new driver escorted me to Indian immigration – another set of men round another dusty table, but the formalities were equally quick. I had a ticket for a 15:05 train, and had no worries about making it when we got under way at 10:30. Lonely Planet said that the bus took three hours, but since my driver, pushing the limits of my tolerance for speed, took nearly two hours to reach the outskirts of Gorakhpur, and then a full 30 minutes to crawl through the bazaar, I rather doubt it.

Distance lends enchantment to the view… You remember the pleasure and forget the pain… Cliches are cliches because they’re true. December 2001, after ten weeks in India, traveling mostly by rail and rickshaw, I couldn’t wait to leave. Now I was going back, remembering just the incredible diversity, the vibrant colors and tastes, the magnificent forts and palaces and temples, and the long, long history. Almost immediately, everything I hate most about India brought me back to the reality that all is not good any more than all is bad. The ridiculously chaotic traffic, with constant honking and no lane discipline. The dirt and trash in the streets, with the fragmentary sidewalks used as public urinals. The ugly concrete buildings with hole in the wall shops. Dubious sanitation. Gorakhpur epitomized all that is bad about India. At least, I figured, things would get better from there.

Symbol of the Nawabs of Oudh, who ruled Lucknow before the British

Among the things I had forgotten was just how dirty the stations could be – the platforms at Gorakhpur had no seats, and weren’t places where you’d want to put your luggage. However, when I found the cloakroom (left luggage office) closed, I remembered that there should be a waiting room. The Ladies Room was closed, the AC room was closed, but the air-cooled room was open, and I took the one empty chair. I had a long wait. At first my train showed on the monitors as “RT” – presumably short for “right time”. At 15:00, with a totally different train standing at its designated platform the message changed to “45 mins late”. It finally left, from another platform altogether, at 16:25.

Although called an express, it wasn’t a premier train, and the rolling stock seemed old and tired. Darkness set in early, and I spent most of the five hour trip listening to my iPod. Since I arrived after dark I had arranged to be collected by my hotel – a pleasant but regrettably expensive practice – and spotted my driver just as the first taxi tout showed up. I had had surprising difficulty booking a hotel in Lucknow, hardly prime tourist territory, and had wound up at La Place Samovar, which, like the train, seemed old and tired. It did have a still-open restaurant, although the food wasn’t great.

The Residency, Lucknow

Why Lucknow, you might reasonably ask. Besides being the first sizable town with an airport in either direction from Gorakhpur, it was the scene of a historic siege during the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence, and also boasted a couple of significant Mughal buildings. I started my exploration at the Residency, where large numbers of British civilians, along with British and Indian soldiers, were besieged for a total of 148 days (the first relief column was unable to end the siege). The compound turned out to be much bigger than I had imagined, really a self-contained village in its heyday, and also much more atmospheric than I had expected. Multiple bullet holes still marked the roofless buildings, graceful arches still hinted at their past lives when the Resident would have received guests for dinner and dancing and diplomacy, and the whole quiet, misty, tree-shaded area had an air of gentle melancholy.

The Residency

Bullet holes still visible

Things weren’t a whole lot livelier at the Imambaras, mausoleums built as a form of famine relief in the 1780s. The interiors were dark and dusty, hardly worth the hassle of taking my boots off, and I chose to skip the labyrinthine stairs and corridors on the second floor of Bara Imambara on the grounds of incipient claustrophobia (and bad feet). I lunched very well and very cheaply at Tunday Kebabi on spicy mutton patties. Then I disappointed my driver by refusing his suggestion that we visit the Chikan Chowk (embroidery market). I had hired him for four hours, and after taking 30 minutes to negotiate the truly atrocious traffic jam near the hotel, we arrived back exactly on time. The traffic jam was possibly caused by the road works resulting from the installation of water pipes, and possibly not.

Bara Imambara

Chota Imambara

I spent the rest of the day catching up on the net, and the next morning catching up with the news. Back in 2001, Bihar state had been so dangerous that my train from Kolkata to Varanasi had carried armed guards. The chief minister who had just been resoundingly re-elected had so improved things that it was now safe for the inhabitants to go out at night. Less happily, I also read about death in Cambodia, at a river festival I had enjoyed attending back in 2004, about trouble in Korea, about plans to limit immigration to the UK, and finally about some authority or other wanting to take cellphones away from Indian girls. (Something to do with love matches, I believe.)

Then, just as I was about to leave to catch my flight to Hyderabad, my netbook’s keyboard locked up. Locked up so completely, in fact, that I couldn’t turn if off. Since the battery was sealed I couldn’t turn it off by removing power either. The battery was fully charged, and would last a good six hours… I thanked my lucky stars I was flying in India and not the USA, where the TSA would have had several fits, and hoped it wouldn’t overheat on the journey.

The mosque at Chota Imambara

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