Travel

Transcendental Happiness and Roundabout Cows: My North Indian Adventure, Part 1

25 hours on the train. That’s how long it took me to get from KOAA station in Calcutta to Lucknow Junction, where I was making the first pit stop of my two week journey into the North of India. It was a bittersweet goodbye, having spent four fantastic weeks in the city completing my internship with The Daily Telegraph, and making some good friends along the way. But the adventure was not over yet, and I boarded the second-class sleeper train that was dropping me off in Lucknow, before I continued onwards to Agra and New Delhi.

I had expected train travel in India to be stressful, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Upon arriving at the station almost three hours early, I found all the information I could have needed clearly signed in English, Hindi and Bengali, with my train arriving in plenty of time. Once I found my seat, I was delighted to discover that, at least for the first part of the trip, I had an entire four-person carriage to myself.

I took off my shoes and sat cross-legged on the bottom bunk, munching on a big can of Pringles and listening to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, while staring out the window at the passing Bengali countryside. The album’s title track offered me up a moment of transcendental happiness when Van sang the words: ‘I’m nothing but a stranger in this world / I got a home on high / So far away / Way up in the heaven…’

I watched farmers herding bulls and goats along shallow seed-ponds and paths cut into the bushes. I saw colourful villages where houses were painted bright pink and yellow, and lakes just beyond the village where people were bathing in the morning sun. And I saw, for the first time in a month, a sky that was actually blue, unlike the sickly grey, translucent smog of Calcutta. It filled me with a sensation of complete and utter freedom.

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This is what ‘complete and utter freedom’ looks like.

“We never got lost, and nobody got maced.”

I know, of course, that it’s easy to idealize rural life when you’re a stranger catching a brief glimpse through a train window. I’m all too aware that poverty is as much a problem in these small villages as it is in Calcutta: the Indian government has failed to deliver on promises it made before the 2014 election about fair rates for farmers, and conditions in many areas are bleak. The unpleasant influence of industrialization, too, is as visible here as it is in the city.

Outside the towns and villages are small-scale factories and steel plants where spires of gas spew out pollution, looking like stubby fag-ends that have been shoved into the earth bottom down. Something about this kind of homemade pollution was more distressing to me than seeing an enormous industrial complex, and I couldn’t help but feel a little pang of guilt on behalf of the planet – the same kind of complicity I felt every time I got stuck in one of Calcutta’s noxious, gas-guzzling traffic jams at 1pm on a weekday.

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The train toilet. NO THANKS

I turned away from the window once my carriage filled up, retreating to my top bunk and getting lost in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, before settling down with a blanket and trying to get some sleep. The train bunks were surprisingly comfortable, although my long legs poked out over the end and kept brushing the heads of people who passed our carriage through the curtain.

In the morning, I had a conversation with a doctor who was also getting off in Lucknow, and was curious to know what I was doing on the train. I ate a very, very spicy breakfast. And then, finally, we arrived. 25 hours is one of the longest single journeys I’ve ever taken – second only to flying from London to Melbourne – but the journey was comfortable every step of the way. If I was expecting something more chaotic, it’s probably only because I watched Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited before travelling to India. But we never got lost, nobody got maced, and we touched down in Lucknow at around 11 O’clock.

The worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in…

The first thing that struck me about Lucknow was bikes. Bikes and cows. On the city’s narrow, dusty roads were roughly sixty percent motorbikes, thirty percent cars and ten percent cows. That figure is no exaggeration: for every ten vehicles I spotted at least one cow, poking around in the dirt or chewing on some stray weeds. At one point, I was flabbergasted to spot five cows sitting right in the middle of a roundabout, while queues of usually impatient taxi drivers slowed to a crawl to accommodate the holy animals.

Unfortunately, ‘holy’ is not the word I would use to describe my hotel room, unless it was in the phrase: ‘holy shit, this is the worst hotel room I’ve ever stayed in’. The Hotel Rana International was a budget venue that looked passable for a couple of nights on bookings.com, but in reality it was a complete dump.

The walls were mouldy white with stains on them and no windows, and the connected bathroom had no ventilation so the room was perpetually muggy and smelled like damp. The shower didn’t work, so I had to clean myself with a measuring jug and a bucket. They didn’t provide toilet paper, or soap. And the TV, when I tried it, made a hilariously broken buzzing noise until I turned it off, at which point it never came back on again.

…And one of the best meals of my life

I was hungry after my long journey, but a quick trip to the local supermarket was a disappointment. ‘Supermarket’ might be a bit too grand a term for a grocery shop the size of my hotel room which didn’t even sell bread – not something I had ever seen before. It meant I had no choice but to live off snacks, and my diet for three days consisted of jam on muffins for breakfast, and oreos with crisps for lunch. In other words – a nice and healthy, balanced diet.

Dastarkhwan the  Mughlai delight. Lalbagh ,Lucknow
A hidden gem.

Thankfully, I was able to have dinner in the restaurant which was twenty seconds away from my hotel’s front entrance. Dastarkhwan Lalbagh was a little hidden gem that served traditional Mughal cuisine, and the food here was the best I had in India, without doubt. It was so good the first night I had to come back the next, and on this occasion ordered a plate of grilled Afghan chicken with zeera rice that was so delicious it made me want to cry. On the side, too, was the most perfectly crispy  ‘Muglai Nan’ topped with pineapple and pomegranate – far and away the best naan bread I’ve ever eaten.

It was enough food to feed three small people, but I sat and chomped my way through the whole thing solo, blissfully ignorant of the locals’ curious stares while I ascended to the astral plane of spice. This meal alone was enough to justify my terrible choice in accommodation – if I hadn’t stayed at the Hotel Rana I definitely wouldn’t have eaten at Dastarkhwan Lalbagh, and I’d have missed out on one of the best meals of my life.

“How the fuck did I get here?”

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The next day, I went for a wander in the streets of Lucknow. On a second impression, I discovered that bikes really were everywhere – some side streets were so narrow they contained almost no cars at all, just wave upon wave of motorbikes and scooters. And when I rounded the corner, I stumbled across an amazing sight.

A road in which both sides of the pavement were lined with hundreds upon hundreds of bikes, both broken down rust-buckets and gleaming new machines alike. Dusty signs hung above repair shops where groups of men sat banging at pieces of metal with hammers, or fiddling with screwdrivers. And store fronts closer to the road made makeshift walls out of tyres, stacked in three metre-high piles, while vendors holding shiny new engines and spare parts shouted prices at passers-by.

As I stood at a four-way intersection, trying to cross a dizzying rush of traffic moving in all directions, I felt infused again with the brilliant madness of India and had a slightly out of body travel moment. I looked around and asked myself: “how the fuck did I get here?”

That evening was my last in Lucknow, and after another trip to Dastarkhwan Lalbagh I waddled back to my hotel, where I made one last little discovery. The stairs leading up from my floor didn’t lead to another set of rooms, but straight out onto the roof of the building. Here, I could stand and watch the cars passing under streetlights, and look out over the distant skyline of Lucknow. It was a peaceful conclusion to my trip through a very chaotic city, even if I did get eaten alive by mosquitos.

The adventure continues!

The next day, I packed my bags and got out of my terrible hotel room as early as I possibly could, catching a taxi to Lucknow station. The next stop on my two-week adventure was Agra, where I was staying in a hostel five minutes away from the Taj Mahal. But if you want to hear about that you’ll have to tune in to the next part of this post, coming in a few days time. Thanks for reading!

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The sun sets over Lucknow Junction.

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