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  • hardie karges 12:47 pm on January 28, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    #Lahore #Pakistan, Part III: Swimming to Afghanistan 

    Best Ice Cream in Lahore

    Best Ice Cream in Lahore

    After a day or two, Lahore is fairly predictable, with old city and historic sights and shopping—for others.  The food is less attractive than India’s rampant vegetarian options, but good enough. At least there are some broad avenues to walk if and when I want them.  There’s only one real problem—no women.  It’s not that I’m looking to get laid.  I just want to look at something in my field of vision besides a bunch of old men with beards or young men without. Old men with bean bellies selling fresh-cut flowers?  Gross!

    I’d say the ratio of men to women on the street is about 100:1, and I’m probably being generous.  It’s not that there are none, mind you, or that the ones there are all burkha’d to the max.  They just aren’t there, for the most part (and the ones there are not driving motorbikes, either).  I don’t know why women have to be kept behind closed doors, and I don’t know why some men—and apparently an entire religion—feel threatened by female empowerment.

    Women are really pretty nice people once you get to know them.  Some of my best friends are women (sshhh! Don’t tell).  True, if they got too much power, then they might just ditch us males totally, keeping only a few for breeding purposes, but they wouldn’t do that, would they?  And admittedly ‘female empowerment’ in the Thai fashion is not optimal, either, and probably where ‘free women’ get their bad rep, but still…  There is entirely too much testosterone here in one place, with no outlet. (More …)

     
  • hardie karges 12:38 pm on January 27, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    #Lahore #Pakistan: Part II, Not-so-Mellow Drama and Backpack Flashbacks 

    Old Lahore #1

    Old Lahore #1

    My first day’s not-so-mellow drama in Lahore is far from over after the runaround from the border.  Despite the fact that I’m feeling a bit peaked, I agree to go to the ‘Sufi dancing’, hosted by one of the hostel’s hangers-on; let’s call him Hassan, Hassan-i-Sabbah, nickname Cheb, yeah.  Now I was expecting some sort of sit-down concert setting.  But what we got was far different: a crowded side room at a Sufi mosque.

    The ‘sit-down’ was cross-legged with people stepping on me and over me for hours.  But the drumming was good, and so was the dance, the goal being trance, apparently.  Critics would probably say they’re just getting dizzy, disoriented and exhausted.  But I suppose that’s a release in itself.  The lights go out soon enough, as they do all the time with the rolling blackouts which are commonplace in Pakistan.  That’s one way to avoid increased electricity bills, I guess.

    Then at one point Hassan excuses himself to go the toilet—for an hour.  This is after asking me if I wanted some hashish, which is being fired up in abundance, along with tobacco cigarettes and incense, enough smoke to float a Goodyear blimp.  As the place grows more and more crowded, I start growing a little uneasy.  I have no control over any of this. (More …)

     
  • hardie karges 1:23 pm on January 25, 2014 Permalink | Reply
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    #Lahore #Pakistan: Part I, Crossing Borders 

    Mall Road, Lahore, Pakistan

    Mall Road, Lahore, Pakistan

    The line that divides India and Pakistan is one of the world’s most definitive borders, visible from space, and cross-able at only one point, and even then with no special ease—no international buses or trains do the route and flights cost out the yin-yang. You have to take taxis, cheap enough to the border itself for the special daily closings, but not intended for actual crossings. Only limited amounts of freight cross, too, the majority going by sea, between two countries with miles of contiguous border.

    The reasons for this go beyond the scope of this write, but the relationship is not always cozy, to say the least. But already in Amritsar on the Indian side the region is starting to feel a bit different, a bit more like what Uzbekistan felt like, though I dream of those broad avenues right now, and don’t expect Pakistan to be much better on that account. It’s over-crowded, too, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon. That’s where I’ll soon be, two taxi rides away. There are just a few pesky details.

    Post Office in Lahore, Pakistan

    Post Office in Lahore, Pakistan

    It is an axiom of independent travel that you break your big bills whenever and wherever you can, especially if you’re using ATM’s. That’s the way they work, and you can’t really ask for small change. It’s much more convenient to do it before you really need them. Another less savory aspect of the game is dealing with skanky bills, those limp mangy ones that you really don’t even want to touch, much less put in your pocket. In India they have refined this to a high art. Bills are used until they’re almost—almost—falling apart. The minute they get even a small tear, though, no one will take them. And God forbid you try to mend one with tape. Now it’s marked for life.

    Everybody gets stuck with them, though, of course. That’s another high art. You slough them off on to unsuspecting victims: kids, old people, beggars—and foreigners, of course. People you’ll never see again are prime marks. Night time is the right time. On my last day in India I’ve still got one, and relatively big, almost a dollar US. I’ve given up looking for suckers and I really don’t want to hold it for two-three months, or even two-three days. So when my taxi driver to the border asks for a tip—you guessed it. Now I’m good.

    This is one of the most sterile borders I’ve ever seen. Many are an absolute cacophony of sights and sounds, and an entrepot for trading and smuggling: not here. So few people cross this border that it’s no wonder that the two sides have diverged so fully. The two peoples are genetically virtually identical, linguistically the same, but thousands of miles apart culturally. If Pakistan takes its cues from Islam and Arabia, then India takes its cues from… itself, and its past.

    Lahore Backpackers Hostel, Pakistan

    Lahore Backpackers Hostel, Pakistan

    There are few touts in Pakistan, just the sun-glass sellers and the few tuk-tuk drivers who speak enough English to be a nuisance. I wish my driver from the border had spoken more. We had problems right from the start, he finally conveying to me that his tuk-tuk can’t enter the urban zone, probably because it’s a two-stroke smogger, probably doing double service as a mosquito fogger. So he drops me off at the edge of town, and puts me on another tuk-tuk to Mall Road, my destination.

    The new tuk-tuk just drops me off, too, at the intersection of Mall Road, far out of the center. But I don’t have a map, so I don’t know any of that. The next time I travel, I will have GPS, confirmed. So a new tuk-tuk driver picks me up, doesn’t speak a word of English, and the comedy only thickens. We get stopped by cops—twice—the second of which takes a thumbprint of me since I don’t have a cell-phone (!?), all to take me to a mall, that I don’t want to go to.

     IMG_0580

    “I’m just a tourist! I want to find my room!” Showing a print-out of my hostel reservation does no good. Finally—finally—I find a driver who speaks some English. He knows what I want, more or less. But he can’t find it right away, either. After another half-dozen false endings, I finally see a sign for my hostel. “Stop! Stop here! Thank God! Allahu akhbar!” Lesson: take the more expensive taxi from the border to town.

    And the Mall Road area where my hostel is located is not bad, definitely an improvement over most of India. This is as good as the best I saw in Delhi and the worst I’ve seen here so far is far better than the worst I saw there. I feel as though the bacteria are at bay here, no small consideration with a lingering sore throat. That’s a good time to indulge in some cough syrup, but they won’t sell you the good stuff over the counter. To rub salt in the wound, it’s alcohol-free; just my luck: Muslim cough syrup.

    The food in Pakistan is very different from India, though much of that is available, too. In addition, there are kebabs, shashlik, shawarma, etc., the standard Muslim fare from Morocco to here. Strangely there are few curries, their natural birthright and definitely considered ‘Muslim food’ in SE Asia. Such is the DNA of cuisine. Then there are tons of nuts, which I don’t remember seeing in India at all, and of course: dates, straight from Arabia no doubt. They DO have French fries, though. I’m good.

    (to be continued)

     
  • hardie karges 3:51 am on January 24, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Amritsar, , , , ,   

    India the Mother: Passing through Amritsar, looking for Kulcha 

     

    Sikh Gold Temple in Amritsar, India

    Sikh Gold Temple in Amritsar, India

    The train ride from Delhi to Amritsar is like a dream, due to the difference between cheap ‘sleeper-class’ and ‘2nd class sleeper’, though I won’t comment on the semantics. I only know it cost 3-4 times as much. I guess the previous was ‘rack rate’, like being placed on a rack, in a freezer, and slowly frozen to death. This was much nicer, windows that actually shut tight, complete with heat, and sheet.

     

    The weather outside is certainly no nicer. For not only have I been coming steadily westward from Kolkata, but steadily northward also, daytime temps tolerable at 15C/59F, but no spring picnic. I bet it’s cold in Kabul, too. That’s where I’m supposed to be in about a week or two. I know exactly what the temps are in February at 35N latitude at 6000 feet elevation.

     

    The big deal in Amritsar is the Golden Temple, the holiest of Sikh shrines, and the one that cost former President Indira Gandhi her life, when she ordered it stormed to seize so-called separatists holed up there. Her Sikh bodyguards didn’t forgive her that transgression. Other than that, there isn’t much to do here, just wander another Indian town dreary and dingy, especially when it’s raining.

      (More …)

     
  • hardie karges 3:23 am on January 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bckpackers, , , , , ,   

    India the Matrix: Passing through Delhi, looking for coffee 

    Train station, India

    Train station, India

    The bus from Bikaner drops us off in Delhi, in the dark, on the side of the road, next to the pissing wall, right in the middle of a huge mud-puddle, and with little pomp or ceremony otherwise. At least the train usually takes you to a station somewhere. It’s 6 a.m., and that means it’s still dark in Delhi, in January. But that’s the trade-off, I guess: bus for train, comfort for convenience.

    The bus was certainly more comfortable. I had my own single sleeper. The other side of the bus has doubles, so I guess you and your’n could double-clutch in sync with the bus if you felt so inclined, tres kinky. No one would ever know, what with the bumping and grinding from the bus already. India is not known for its smooth roads.

      (More …)

     
  • hardie karges 12:23 pm on January 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: backoacjers, Bikaner, , , , , Rasthan   

    #Bikaner #Rajasthan #India : Camels and Corn, Babes and Beards… 

    Rajasthan beauties at Bikaner's camel festival

    Rajasthan beauties at Bikaner’s camel festival

    Bikaner is not on most people’s tourist itineraries, backpacker or package tour, and that’s a shame, because it has some things that are in short supply on the road—human warmth and friendliness, for one… uh, two. Now that may sound corny, but it’s currency when you’re a long way from home, with no direction clearly shown. Apart from that, it’s just another dusty Rajasthan desert city, with more camels than cows, and more goats than sows, forbidden in Islam, of course, of which there are quite a few here, like all good ‘stans.

    But once a year the place comes alive with its eponymous camel festival, and that’s when the locals get to strut their stuff—the women, the men, and the camels, too. For the women that means donning the glittering nose rings, ankle bracelets and red robes for which they are famous, and the men let their beards fly to the wind, which must surely otherwise be bound by turbans and tradition. Here and now it becomes a cause celebre, and best of all: you’re invited.

    Rajasthan's manliest at Bikaner's camel festival

    Rajasthan’s manliest at Bikaner’s camel festival

    If tourists are sometimes shuttled and shuffled around at a speed that would seem to make enjoyment difficult, here they’re encouraged to join in on the ceremonies, especially feats of strength like tug-of-war (which the foreigners are bound to lose). Then there are the beauty pageants for the local women, something similar for the local men (featuring significant beardliness), and the ever-present spectacle of the camels themselves. Night time features a cultural show of dancing and music which is well worth the effort. Did I mention that the whole shebang is free? That includes entry to the town’s fort.

    If interaction with the locals is the holy grail of independent travel, then this is about as good as it gets; no wonder, either, since they had a big hand in creating the event some 20-odd years ago. But it’s not just that nor the tugs-of-war. About every five to ten minutes, some local will come up to you and ask: 1) Where are you from? 2) What’s your name? 3) How do you like Bikaner? Like I say, it’s all corny, but generally sincere and genuine. I’ve heard about those kinds of queries long ago from 60’s-era travelers, but never experienced it—really, anywhere—myself. It’s sweet, if silly.

    Backdtage at the Bikaner camel festival

    Backdtage at the Bikaner camel festival

    The only problem in being off the tourist circuit is that some things almost taken for granted elsewhere—like WiFi—fall short. “What do you mean ‘technical problem’?” I bellowed. “That ‘technical problem’ is called ‘paying your bill’ and don’t insult my intelligence by telling me it’ll take 2-3 days to fix, exactly the length of my stay. I’m a travel writer, and I’ll skewer you.” I’ve never said anything like that before. So he gave me a pre-paid dongle for my USB port, problem solved, best Internet I’ve had all trip. So much for the soft touch. Don’t mess with my WiFi, dude.

    Unfortunately the last day of the three-day affair is held out in the desert, and this could be the best part, featuring the camels themselves, of course, in their native habitat. But alas and alack, that’s 27mi/45km away, and I ain’t got no ride. It’d probably be over by the time I got there anyway (pardon me while I riff on Townes’ ‘Marie’). Or I’d probably miss my night bus if I risked it, or the taxi would charge me twice the rate to come back, being captive and all. Oh, well, maybe next time.

    Camel high-fashion in Bikaner, India

    Camel high-fashion in Bikaner, India

    But the strangest part of the trip was my hotel itself. After the WiFi hassle, the room was still cramped and iceberg-like, and I’m not talking lettuce (I prefer red-leaf BTW). The windows were only translucent, so I couldn’t even see the pigeons flocking on the other side. This is the most upscale hotel of my entire trip, and the results were worst, though the Cable TV was nice (if no substitute for WiFi).

    Then on checkout I returned the dongle and asked for the bill (Indian room bills are usually done at the end of the stay). “No bill.” Not for the dongle, I know. “I mean for the room.” “No bill.” So I assume I must have prepaid it on Priceline, which works with Agoda and Booking.com and others, so confusing sometimes, as to which one works which way.

    This confusion has already happened—both ways—twice before on this trip. But if they say it’s paid, then I don’t argue. Thing is: I can’t find the payment anywhere. I think they comped me. Being an a**hole really works. Now I know. So let me tell you about this great hotel where I stayed…

     
  • hardie karges 2:08 pm on January 15, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Jodhpuyr   

    Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India: Almost Blue 

    Jodhpur, India: Blue City

    Jodhpur, India: Blue City

    At the Rajasthan state line, there are changes that must simply come with the state’s identity: camels appear as if on cue.  Here you’re just as likely to hear as greeting an “as salaamu aleikum” as you are a “namaste,” i.e. Urdu not Hindi.  Here you’ll likely see a woman or two in a burkha if you look hard enough.  There are lots of women in Rajasthan’s favorite color red, many of them driving motorbikes.

    Best of all, though, is the blue sky, and the sunshine, and the reduction of fog/smog/smoke/dust clouding the skies elsewhere.  It’s not true desert yet, but it’s getting there, more Sahel than Sahara, more Texas than Arizona.  Clothes dry overnight. I like Jodhpur (pronounced ‘Joad-pur’, aka ‘the blue city’), probably the first city in India I’ve truly liked.  Unlike Jaipur’s mock-up ‘pink city’, here the accommodations are right in the heart of the city and the thick of the action—the clock-tower market area.  I think I’ll stay a few days.

      (More …)

     
  • hardie karges 3:11 am on January 13, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Jaipur   

    Got Kolkata, Been to Benares, Vied for Agra, Jaded Pink in Jaipur… 

    Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, India

    Hawa Mahal, Jaipur, India

    My train from Varanasi to Agra left three hours late, so by the time it arrived it was eight hours late, of course, thus throwing my whole schedule for the day off.  What was intended to be a brief stopover in Agra for the Taj and maybe the Red Fort became an overnight fast crash and an early morning tour of the world-famous masjid and mausoleum.  The only problem is that it delayed my arrival in Jaipur by a full day, confusing my hotel booking.  Such are the trials and tribs of travel.

    So I enlisted a fellow traveler named Yoshi—from Japan, of course—to help mitigate my lodging conundrums on what was admittedly a bit pricey to begin with… $15 a night, yeow!  With him sharing and the hotel finally not charging for the unclaimed night, I came out okay.  I think that’s only because I didn’t protest when they initially indicated I’d have to pay all three nights as booked. I just shrugged—and sulked—Indian-like, rather than protest American-like.  They caved. Score one for the soft touch.

      (More …)

     
  • hardie karges 3:56 pm on January 10, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Agra, , Taj mahal   

    From the Big Bang to the Taj Mahal 

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    Taj Mahal in fog at sunrise…

    The fact that the Big Band has slowed down and cooled off enough that you can actually touch the frequencies is a source of endless fascination for me. It didn’t have to be this way, after all—unless you believe in intelligent design—especially not in some multi-planet array splayed out like harp-strings on a gold frame, delicately tuned to produce the sweetest of harmonies. And if that’s not incredible enough, then the rise of biological life from that primordial pop and fizz is a pretty strong second act.

     

    From there the plot only thickens. If the evolution of bacteria from blue-green algae is not so incredible, then the ascent/descent of homo sapiens sapiens certainly is. Then what? India’s place in space and time is about as unlikely as anything else in the universe, and more unlikely than most. This is chaos at its finest, proceeding from point to point with no center, much less any central plan, just like biological evolution itself. And just look what it gets you.

    (More …)

     
  • hardie karges 2:52 am on January 10, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: ghats, , , Varanasi   

    Benares/Vanaras/Varanasi: Sacred Cows, Sacred Water 

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    Benares/Varanasi, City of the holy Ganges

    If Goa is too groovy and Rishikesh too guru-y, then Vanaras (locally no one says “Varanasi”) may be just the place for a person wanting the authentic Indian experience. It’s got everything: all the filth and chaos that India in general is known for, a decent batch of tourist sights and sites, plus a healthy dose of the religious experience that still attracts many psychic adventurers.

     

    That includes a healthy dose of ashrams and spiritual centers, Indian music recital halls, a plethora of temples, and of course the famous ghats down by the water which are special places of bathing, worship… and cremation. Cremation is actually one of the main causes of pollution in the river Ganges, which is revered as the source of life for many Indians, and a place to die for many more. (More …)

     
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