Agra: Egrets and Eejits


We found our coach to Agra, although not before unintentionally filling one of our final India-bingo slots. While C went to look for the petrol station that was to be our bus stop, I spotted three lads riding an elephant down the motorway. With tuk-tuks and vans swarming around them, they ambled over behind me to their own refuelling stop, a patch of grass.

IMG-20180110-WA0000 (2)

After being politely informed by a very nice hotel two minutes from the Taj that in fact we were not booked in with them, but with another hotel by the same name, and then after a bit of a hunt to find this less prestigious address, we got there. Then we went back out for a wander. The street sellers were the most annoying we’d encountered, but we were also getting very good at ignoring them. We took a side road down past the Taj Mahal on a whim, arriving at the river behind it just as the sun began to set. It turned out to be one of the all-time great spontaneous detours. We ignored a big threatening looking gate to get down to the bit of temple and waste-land by the river, and then talked to a boat man who at any other time we probably would have ignored.

By the shores of the Yamuna rubbish is enmired in sludge, glum egrets perch on coiled barbed wire, pink and orange petals stick to the mud and float out into the still water, swallows in their thousands are reflected like insects in the river, the sun is setting behind the Taj Mahal. We wander over to a man bailing his boat, agree on a price and hop in. It’s made of metal lined with wood, he steers with a long bamboo pole, a wee shrine at the stern, a dubious packet of bread at the bow. There’s no one else on the river. The Taj Mahal is magic reflected. It feels good to be on the water. The boatman points down the river ‘Delhi that way. This good?’ A flock of egrets take off, a fish rises, a puppy prances along the shore, three peahens scuttle by, oystercatcher-like-birds wade in the water. It’s calm, and quiet. Relief. We have seen it! We have seen the Taj Mahal from a wee boat in the middle of the river at sunset. I mean hell, can it get much better than this?!

We sit on the steps to the wee shrine as bells ring, chanting to Ram comes in bursts. An agile brown puppy leps up the steps and eats a bone under a bicycle, a monkey flees with a chapati in its mouth, a lady all in shawls goes down to the river and feeds the dogs and the birds, another monkey wipes seeds into little piles then bends down and nibbles up the lot.

After this, blissed out, we wandered into an excellent dhaba (Hindi for, roughly, “greasy spoon”). Only a few hundred metres from the Taj, this place had a sort of invisibility cloak by lacking any garish lighting, English writing or aggressive touts, and only Indian people sitting at its terrace. The food was incredibly cheap and incredibly good, and the people incredibly friendly. The whole evening showed that, even at one of the most popular, touristy attractions in the world, with a bit of pluck and a bit of luck you can have a genuinely great time. Up early tomorrow to go inside the Taj itself!


Well, the pluck-luck combination paid off again today! In the end we dismissed the plan to get up early and queue for several hours. Instead, we slept in and then went for brunch, eventually arriving at the gate around 11am. There was barely a queue! The poor Germans we met in Amritsar advised us to arrive before 6 and queue for five or six hours as they had. Even then, they said, it had been too smoggy to see much and the main mausoleum had been closed. We spent 15 minutes queuing and then were in, it was a warm, sunny day, busy but not stupidly so, access all areas. We even managed to surreptitiously pirate a tour guide’s spiel by tactically choosing the right bench. So we spent a lovely few hours there marvelling – it’s absolutely beautiful, but there isn’t a whole lot more you can say about it!

It’s busy, everyone is in their finery, sparkly hats and floppy hats and big heels, pressed trousers and silk dresses glittering with sequins and golden thread. I wait for T to get through security, and chat to an Australian lady who camped through India in ’78, ‘there was none of this then, well I don’t remember it, I only remember the Taj.’ She tells me her two sons are currently doing a rickshaw race for charity, and accidentally scuffed some paint off a lorry, the driver of which then slapped them around the head and demanded $1,000, they gave him Rs2,000 and fled. ‘But if you’re ever bored, google rickshaw race, it’s crazy!’ And with that she left with her husband Pat.

“I aways say, it’s the most beautiful building in the world. Our poet Tagore he called it ‘a teardrop on the cheek of eternity.’ It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal (the other two wives only political marriages, no children) after she died giving birth to their 14th child. (8 died very young, 6 survived) From the behind, from the river, it’s 91 metres high, and I am telling you it took 20,000 men 20 years to complete. It is made of white and yellow marble, from near Jaipur. After Shah Jahan died in captivity, this was in Agra Fort, his body was floated down the Yamuna river and buried next to his wife.” A guide pauses for breath, his group look dazed “I always tell people, I say, it’s very easy, you see, it is a building of love, he really loved her, yes arranged marriage, but 95% of arranged marriages they work out, love marriages only 25%. Nowadays the towers are closed, this is because in 1996 two young couple from Chennai went up to the top and throw themselves right into the river. You see?” He pauses again “The outside it is decorated with floral patterns and different sacred scripts from the Quran, it is identical on all the sides, but different script.’

It is mesmerising, from every angle, perfect whichever way you look. Its symmetry is calming; domes, riddled with geometrical stars, curving inwards and outwards, lotus and jasmine flowers clamber up its walls in great sweeping arches of semi-precious stones, a crescent moon sacred in both Islam and Hinduism perched on the roof. It is perfect as a whole, and each tiny detail is wholly perfect.

At sunset we walk amongst dusty dunes, body swerving amorous couples. We see peacocks courting and the Taj Mahal over a sea of trees and a hoopoe scrambling in the dirt.


The Taj Mahal is closed on a Friday. The incessant shopkeepers and tuk-tuk men read newspapers by the side of the street. It’s quiet. Lines of dogs stretched out, sleeping in the sun. We walk down a road for the craic. Through a wee village where a toddler in dirty pants holds a massive knife in front of his face, two tiny baby goats nibble by the side of the road, everybody stares and shouts ‘hello!’ ‘Where are you going?’ ‘We’re walking, just walking’ This is strange, but accepted.

On a bit and two men on a motorbike pull over, the motorbike man weaves slowly next to us. He decides ‘Scotland’ means ‘England’ and seems happy with that. We visit a Ram temple with him, but cannae go in because of the dreaded shoes, he insists on some selfies. Then he points down a wee lane – ‘this river, this back Taj Mahal, this photo, photo!’ Up the lane is a little village, the man tries to get his wife to take pictures with us, but she is fully veiled and not inclined and neither are we. Wee boys half dressed scamper after us, a very pregnant goat munches next to a man selling puris. A young girl in pigtails is making earrings with her Granny. Down a sandy path and we are at the Yamuna and the Taj is reflected in the still water and it’s still beautiful. Suddenly, something hits me on the neck, it’s just a bit of a stick, but I don’t know who has thrown it, and there’s a big group of men and boys walking towards us down the river, the motorbike man shouts at someone, but I don’t wait to see and we walk quickly back up the path, past the smiling pigtail girl and her Granny and the wee boys washing and the goat still munching, past the great turf-like mounds of cow pats drying, and thatched roofs. In the next village we are accosted by wee boys and bigger boys again, one comes up to me and says ‘nice boobs’. I tell him to ‘fuck off’ and he does. Everywhere men stare and women don’t. Every day I try not to be prejudiced against Indian men, but every day my prejudices are affirmed.

Fed up of being on edge and on guard all the time, we plodded back down to the relative peace and safety of the river bank from the first evening. We sat there for over an hour, barely talking or moving, calming down and observing the behaviour and rhythms of the animals – shoogles for supremacy among the rubbish-dump dogs, monkeys and cows, both passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive; cyclones of birds over the river; groups of buffalo and goats gently grazing on the far side. Finally it was time to go – packing up the bags again, stuffing everything into a tiny tuk-tuk, and waiting once more for an overnight train to take us to a new part of the country.


In Sickness and in Health

Just a wee note to apologise for the long silence. Due to combination of walking for weeks in the mountains and lying in bed with various minor ailments we haven’t had the chance to write a proper update in a while. We’ll be back on it soon; in the meantime here’s some photos of the Himalaya!





A Close Shave in Delhi


First train to Delhi cancelled. Second train delayed by nine hours. We pile into the unreserved carriage. People sit on the luggage racks above us, in the aisle, on each other, anywhere. The lady next to us gives us some peanuts. The man from Bombay opposite says in Gujarat they only eat salads and that’s why they are so pale, in Chennai they eat lots of masala and that’s why they are called ‘black diamonds’ (or does he say ‘demons’?). He laughs uproariously and tells us he has just returned from Russia where he was commissioning a gold mine. He says Russian girls are very beautiful and Indian wives are becoming more demanding.

At every stop chai lads pace up and down the train rumbling ‘chai chai chai’ ‘pane a bottle pane a bottle’ ‘puri puri puri’ ‘samose samose samose’. We get what turns out to be a deep fried sandwich and a wee paper poke of spiced peanuts with raw onion and lime.

Two bodachs sit beside us, one wrapped in a massive shawl, the other in an orange turban with a massive spear. The spear man has wild eyes, and stares at me fiercely. I stare back. A girl in an orange jumper and green dress comes onto the train and pushes people sitting in the aisle out of the way so she can do a handstand. A pregnant lady all in red smiles at her. As we get closer to Delhi more and more people pile on. The Bombay man sees us watching the incoming crowds, shouts ‘India is the second biggest population in the world!’ and laughs heartily again.

Out the window I see giant puddles of water and rubbish, street pigs with ravens on their backs, cricket games, fires, a huge Nestle factory, dirty egrets, a man walking amongst yellow mustard seed fields, cows on the railway tracks. There is a latent smell of pee everywhere.

The train pulls into Delhi. A kind Sikh man plonks my rucksack onto my back and to shouts of ‘cello cello cello’ we are out!

Motorway elephant and palm squirrels – wildlife of Delhi


A long, long walk through Delhi today. Choosing one of the biggest cities in the world to indulge the flaneur’s urge might not be the best idea, but we saw some amazing places. First to Connaught Place, the central spot of New Delhi, its wide shopping arcades crammed with brand names, hawkers and wealthy tourists – and we even spotted a Marks and Sparks. Then, more authentically, to our first Baoli, or step-well, a deep chasm cut into the earth hundreds of years ago until they hit ground water, then elaborately decorated with natural motifs and religious icons. They are dramatically beautiful, inverted buildings, and sure to provide a cool place to shelter from the heat of the day if you can find one!

After this we visited Jantar Mantar, another impressive piece of building which would be baffling if you weren’t told what it was. To walk around it feels a little like being in a surrealist painting or MC Escher print – staircases lead to the sky and then stop dead; shadows overlap as they fall through the latticed bars of a circular tower with no door but hundreds of windows. In fact, before modern mechanical instruments were invented, this was a state of the art observatory, designed and built with painstaking precision to measure and calculate the positions, paths, sizes and speeds of stars and planets.

From here we walked past the massive, sprawling Indian parliament and associated ministries, and then along a huge boulevard to the India Gate, which I assume must have been named after the Indian restaurant round the corner from my grandparents’ house. This section of the walk was uncannily like walking along the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, right down to the eternal flame and armed guards around the monument.

So far, my walking masterplan had been a success, but hubris got the better of me; I didn’t know when to stop, and it became a case of walking too long in the sun, rather than flying too close to it. The next destination was the marble shrine to Hazrat Nizamuddin, a Sufi saint. From the map it looked like it was just down one straight road, but this turned out to be several miles long and a busy dual carriageway with only intermittent pavement and no safe way to cross. The shrine is full of the perfume of flowers, elegant decoration and holy chanting, but by the time we got there we were dusty and knackered, and C was rightly unimpressed at the exclusion of women from the innermost shrine. We left quickly and dispirited, hardly even buoyed by the now-familiar relief of finding your shoes still where you left them. To top it all off, in my desire for a bit of comfort, I neglected to haggle for the tuk-tuk we took to Lodhi Gardens, after we had agreed we would ‘play the game’ a bit better.

The gardens cheered us up right away though, starting with the street food at the entrance. We arrived at the perfect time, just as the sun started to go down, and wandered contentedly around the intricately adorned tombs and peaceful open spaces there. Tired but satisfied, we headed for home.

I am swept off the metro in a crowd of leather clad Delhi-men, there are no women, they have a separate carriage because it’s not deemed safe for them to travel in the same carriage as men. After being elbowed and trod on I fight my way back onto the train and proclaim ‘This country sucks!’ A man overhears me, raises his eyebrows and shrugs with a small smile. But, in some ways, it does. This is not a good country for women. A country where women have been burnt for not paying their dowries, a country where women are habitually abused at home, a country with traditions of sati and purdah, a country where female foetuses are so often aborted that the population is thrown out of shape. It’s a misogynist’s dream of a country, where men can do what they like and even when they do something wrong it’s a woman’s fault.



Sad news received from home this morning – my Nonno (Italian for granddad) passed away in the early hours at his nursing home in Alloa. On top of this, other illnesses in the family mean the funeral arrangements will take some time and everyone’s stuck in limbo – all very cruel and difficult. I am thankful that C and I had a good last visit with him before setting off, sharing memories from his time in India 70 years before. As we wondered what to do next, starting to think over some hard questions that would be with us for the next few weeks, we ordered breakfast to the room, and what arrived — three plain butter toasties, one jam one and three cups of tea — while functional as a breakfast, was confusingly distant from what we thought we had asked for.

Thrown into slow perseverance and acts of continuing. T very sad. He is going home for the funeral, not sure if we should both go, and if we do, would we come back? Or should I stay here and wait for him to return?

We go to the National Museum and see old games of Jain snakes and ladders set out in squares of nine by nine with ivory playing pieces, where the snakes represent vices like anger and lust and the ladders are virtues like gratitude and humility. The aim is to reach the moon, representing the upper realms of enlightenment and moksha, freedom from the cycle of suffering.

We learn that painters used to feed sunflowers to cows to make their dung yellow which was then used as pigment (like Chef’s Table’s Dan Barker feeding chickens red peppers to get eggs with red yolks!).

We see the relics of Lord Buddha and I rejoice in learning about the wonderful Sharan Rani, a world famous Indian musician who dedicated her private collection of Indian classical instruments to the museum. There are gopichands, ektaras, and teentaras (meaning one-string and three-string), rudra veenas, a rare right-handed-swirl conch shell, massive flutes, wee flutes, flutes with elephant heads, snake charmers’s flutes, Bengali bagpipes, bone trumpets, inlaid sitars, gottuvadyams, rababs, sarangis with hundreds of strings, dilrubas with harmonic strings, tanpuras, ouds with comic faces, sarods with glass and metal finger boards, banjos that look like typewriters, drums of all dimensions.

We see demon masks, and ducks adorned with jewels; we see betel boxes, and boxes for bees, boxes for tiffin and boxes for pendants and bangles; we see head hunters’ hats adorned with the hair of hunted heads, and shadow puppets of Rama and Sita. We see early Buddhas and old Buddhas and Buddhas still to come, Buddhas in thangkas and gold and wood and stone, Buddhas that look Roman (2nd C A.D) and sit under trees and smile and frown.

Before heading home, we found an authentic Italian restaurant, honouring nonno through going for a good meal out — which he said was his second favourite thing to do –toasting him with a pizza and a big glass of red wine.



After being deflected by locked gates, adamant men and falling trees we make it into the Jain Bird Hospital at Chandhi Chowk. ‘Only vegetarian birds are admitted, although birds of prey can be treated as outpatients.’ It’s a no shoes scenario. We walk down a narrow marble corridor lined with wee cages on the right and big open air cages on the left. A group of green parakeets rummage slowly around a huge tray of carrots and lettuces. A man squeezes past us with a box of small grey chicks, and even smaller light brown ones. Some pigeons scamper around while others huddle away, their necks bent, their eyes staring wildly upwards, their tail feathers wrangled out of shape.  A lone turkey struts along a window ledge. A huge white cockerel pecks, a cage of budgies chirp in blue and green and yellow and white, intermingled are wee brown birds, one with hardly any feathers. A pigeon with his wing in a sling, a tiny parakeet bare but for his wings, another pigeon pacing on the operating table, and, as we leave, a small parakeet covered in sores and hardly any feathers shivers in a cardboard box, newly arrived.

Then we struggle through the spice market, huge sacks of nobbledy dusty yellow turmeric roots, long long quills of cinnamon, bags of rose petals, and chilis, and star anise, and sneezing men carrying massive bags on their heads.

On our way home this evening we spotted a barber, and having been meaning to get a shave, I popped in. The shave went according to plan, and we had agreed on 100 rupees – but afterwards the guy asked if I wanted a face wash. I honestly answered “not really”, and when he insisted I asked if it would cost extra, which he waved away nonchalantly. I naively thought it might just be a quick application of aftershave, but after 15 minutes and the third coat-and-rinse, I was getting very suspicious. By the time I thought to speak up, another 15 minutes later, I had on a clay mask which refused to dry, even after he turned on the fan and wafted a magazine over me. I was getting impatient, and when he washed off the clay and started to suggest hair oil and head massage I stood up and called it to a halt. He scribbled on a bit of paper and showed me a figure around 1000 rupees, inevitably leading to aggrieved voices on both sides. C appeared from her patient kerbside wait, and with a bit of stern help from her we put 200 in his hand and marched away – nobody followed us, so he must have felt he got a fair deal out of it in the end.

The Golden City

In early January 2018 we visited Amritsar, the Golden City.

We came to Amritsar on our first Indian train – it lived up to expectations by being 4 hours late, but otherwise was not quite as crazy as we had expected it might be. No chickens or goats, and at least a perch for everybody. I found myself reading about a Pakistani painter and his experience of the partition of India, in an article including reproductions of his nude paintings alongside sensitive political ideas. I tactfully angled it away from the gigantic, serious Sikh men sitting next to me. As soon as we stepped off the train a man with a huge sword hanging from his belt started talking to me in Punjabi; I nodded along. The station hall was thronged with men swaddled in identical grey-brown wraps, turbans and big beards. Outside it was so foggy that we had no idea where we were, and we followed up our first Indian train with our first tuk-tuk. Our aged driver brought along a young navigator-cum-interpreter, but neither was sure where we were going, and the ride through the night-time mist was both thrilling and terrifying. They dropped us vaguely near our airbnb, and we wandered our way through the streets, guided on the phone by the host. When we found the house, everything suddenly changed for the better – a bed, a real home, and fresh hot food ordered specially from the man’s restaurant round the corner.

On the approach to the golden temple the scene became very different from anything we had seen in India so far: marble everywhere, wide pavements, elaborate beautiful buildings, matching signs on shops. It seemed like a sort of Indian Champs-Elysees. When neither of us could figure it out after a few attempts, a kindly woman stepped in to tie a head covering on over my curls. The ubiquitous guards armed with spears were too smart for our queue-jumping plan – even in your bag, no shoes are allowed into the complex.

The dirtiest and cleanest my feet have ever been! Inside is a secret world. Drums and chanting seem to come out of the marble, in nooks and crannies everywhere people are reciting, men stand by the side of the pool undressing before plunging in for a holy dook. Sikh guards armed with enormous spears, curved swords and axes walk amongst the tourists. Orange heads bob everywhere; praying, bowing, eating, taking selfies. The marble floors are cold and strangely sticky, the brown rope rugs harsh on the feet.

Inside the complex was strikingly beautiful. The temple itself was not as big as I had expected, but intricate and resplendent. The floor all around the holy lake is made up of panels of geometrically patterned marble floor, never repeating a design. More gorgeous marble on the walls: simple black line patterns bordering elegant and vibrant fruits and animals.

The holy lake reflects the shining temple from anywhere you stand. After walking slowly all the way around, soaking it in, we joined the queue to enter the temple itself – a solid crowd pacing slowly across the bridge towards the gilded doors. Once inside the lavish space we discovered that the music constantly playing outside was being broadcast live from the temple – gold plated drums and harmonium accompanied by chanting. As people shuffled through they threw offerings into the centre of the room, where men used their swords to rake it into piles and stuff these into large metal boxes.

A lady prays hard, hands folded, pushing into my back. A world of gold; gold hammered onto marble with gold rivets, fans painted gold, gold wiring, gold handrails, gold shimmering everywhere reflected above and around us, eyes glittering gold. It is beyond decadent, completely over the top, and astonishingly beautiful. From an upstairs window we look out across the ‘pool of nectar’, below people sit cross legged, praying. A woman holds a sleeping toddler, who wearing an elaborate red turban. Inlayed into the marble are birds and deer and oranges and mangoes being sliced with knives, surrounded flowers, vines and tiny mirrors.

In the Langar hall there are men for everything. Men to give you a plate, men to give you a spoon, men to give you a bowl. Men to point you, men to offer you a bit of rug next to them, men to bring you dhal and sweet rice, men to throw you chapattis. The room is huge and it’s packed. They feed 100,000 people a day here, it’s open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. In long rows people sit cross legged, as men with buckets of dhal and rice pudding pace the lines. The man next to T points; ‘This is your wife? We are wearing our fake wedding rings, so we nod. Any children, we shake our heads, he looks disappointed ‘not yet!’. I copy the women opposite me, trying to improve my dhal hand eating technique. Outside a man pours us chai from a huge metal tank and we sip away. The man from inside joins us, and so does another who demonstrate through hand gestures that his wife has passed away, he is fifty-eight and he has a son who is married.

Later we climbed Baba Atal, a nine-storey tower with views across the historic city, and—after a solitary climb through the deserted building—a sudden room full of chanting worshippers on the top floor.


‘Excuse me, Mam!’ ‘Yes?’ This is the tallest building in Amristar, you must go up!’ So, we climb Baba Atal covered in pigeon shit with beautiful views down on a reflected Amritsar. A green parakeet lands on top of a giant spear, a man below feeds the pigeons, a women in a red sari walks quickly across the geometric mosaics of the floor, an older lady stoops into the muggy brown pool and pours water on her head, giant carp flicker about her feet.

At Jallianwalla Bagh, a harrowing memorial to those massacred by British forces in 1919, and an important stimulus in India’s struggle towards independence, we are still asked for selfies.

In 1919 the British army under Colonel Dyer (himself under the Lieutenant-General of Punjab O’Dwyer) opened fire on a gathering of civilians in a laneway in Amritsar, killing nearly 400 men and boys, and one baby a few weeks old. Another 1,200 were injured. People tried to escape by scaling the walls on either side of the lane, or by throwing themselves down a well. A tall boy in glasses is enraged, ‘why didn’t they do something?’ O’ Dwyer was assassinated by Udham Singh in 1940. Udham Singh was sentenced to death and hung.

Men trying to sell us small bejewelled waistcoats, trips to Pakistan, rooms, fidget spinners, glow sticks and ice-creams. One man shouts; ‘parrot, parrot, parrot, parrot’ incessantly. He has a niche market, selling small plastic green parrots in small plastic cages!

The golden temple reflected and sparkling at night is the most magical thing I have ever seen.

Almost back home for the night, we came across a long line of beer bars, trendy American-style places, heavy on the pro-beer rhetoric. We enjoyed our first beer for two months in almost-convincing surroundings, the only differences being that they were oblivious to the real meaning of the word ‘pint’, and there were a couple of lizards lazily crawling over the brick walls.




Jaipur Literature Festival: From Charlotte Square to Diggi Palace

We intended to rise early and make our way to the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival in plenty of time to register, find our way around, maybe get a coffee and have our pick of seats for the start of the talks. We didn’t manage it, exhausted from overnight travel and lingering illness, and grateful for the joy of a proper bed and a kitchen we could use to make our own food. This was probably more in keeping with the bohemian spirit of the event in any case, and set a pattern for the week — sleep through the first talk of the day, make some porridge, hop in a tuk-tuk, turn up mid-morning, pick up a cappuccino and make it just in time for the first thing you really want to see. The atmosphere was very much like Charlotte Square during August at the Edinburgh Book Festival; even more packed, and much warmer, but with the same big tent bookshop, refreshment stalls, book signing queues, and lanyard oneupmanship. The festival is co-organised by North Berwick’s very own William Dalrymple, who, after writing a number of insightful books about India, has earned the life of a literary maharaja here. Over the course of the festival we saw an incredible range of excellent talks from faces weel-kent and less so, and when Willie himself appeared at the very end to announce some of the highlights of next year’s programme we immediately began to wonder if we could possibly make it back to Jaipur for next January.


The Daily Tuk-Tuk

We begin with an auspicious recitation from the Rigvedas and ‘Eating God’, a collection of Bhakti poetry. The Bhakti poets were on such intimate terms with their God that they could laugh at him, insult him, make love to him, eat him. The editor, Arundhathi Subramaniam, herself a poet, says she draws strength from this poetry as it went against social norms, questioning everything, something vital for India’s women today. Gender roles are reversed, gods become human and humans are divine, love is fluid. This poetry of seekers explores eroticism, longing, yearning, rage, loneliness and divinity, and is especially strong in the female voice:

Better than meeting

and mating all the time

is the pleasure of mating once

after being far apart.

Also prevalent is the idea of the body as a temple, as something divine in all its forms. 

…If menstrual blood makes me impure,

Tell me who was not born of that blood.

This blood of mine fertilises the world.…

Later in the day we see Rupi Kaur, who came to Instagram and Facebook fame as a poet and artist when Instagram repeatedly removed pictures of her showing menstrual blood. Her debut collection of poetry, ‘milk and honey’, was America’s top selling book of fiction in 2017, and she is a big deal in India. They love her. The audience — mainly young Indian women — are ecstatic, as she performs pieces from her first book and her second collection ‘the sun and her flowers’.

it is a blessing

to be the color of earth

do you know how often

flowers confuse me for home

Her poetry talks of race, immigration, womanhood, bodies, sexuality, sexual violence, rape and love. It is simple, to the point, floral, sometimes hard-hitting, hardly ever deep.

how is it so easy for you

to be kind to people he asked

milk and honey dripped

from my lips as i answered

cause people have not

been kind to me

It’s not, I don’t think, very good. But maybe that’s not the point. 

Due to the controversy surrounding the film Padmavaat a scheduled event is cancelled and replaced with India’s favourite Delhi girl Mallika Dua. The audience are wild and she is funny and smart. She is known for her witty posts on Snapchat and Instagram and discusses the hardships of finding an apartment where your landlady will let you bring home your boyfriend, being a modern Indian woman, drinking sparkling wine and why she isn’t married.

Women, violence against women, women in science, women in positions of power, women and the law, women and art, women and poetry, young women, tribal women, Indian women, women writers… the festival is alive with these ideas, and yet the queues to get into the festival are predominantly made up of men.

One idea that is not widely stressed is that of women and class or caste. There are very few women (I think) of lower class at the festival. The whiter your skin the more likely you are to be on a stage, taking about your work. Sujatha Gidla, the Dalit author of ‘Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India’, alone seems to represent India’s Untouchables. An international socialist, she speaks out against Gandhi, against capitalism, and talks about how Untouchables still live in segregated villages with little access to education. She looks uncomfortable.

Mamang Dai, a poet from a tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, discusses the ideas of women and work and Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist working on dark matter, talks of all the women scientists who were left unrecognised while their male counterparts were awarded Nobel prizes. Angela Saini points out that the prevailing ideas in our patriarchal society influence science funding. She cites an important study on male and female brains, which supposedly proved a biological difference between genders but was in fact fundamentally flawed. We treat children differently from the day they are born: boys get trucks, girls are given dolls, she stresses. A wee girl next to us sits on her daddy’s knee, playing with a worn-out barbie. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the head of a bio-technical firm, emphasises the necessity for women to be in positions of power in science.


One of the venues – just like Edinburgh

As seemed appropriate to our current adventures, we attended a few sessions related to travelling. In fact, before one of these sessions I bumped into Hugh Thomson, a travel writer who had been one of the guest speakers on the Moniack Mhor travel writing course I discussed in the previous post. One theme that emerged from the various speakers’ remarks was the idea of ‘same same but different’ – that as much as you experience and learn about new cultures, landscapes, stories and traditions in travelling, you also discover how similar the dynamics and needs that underpin societies are. Redmond O’Hanlon appeared to be a boisterous Victorian explorer, and gave a stirring reading of a Congolese guide’s furious condemnation of Western and Christian hypocrisy in viewing their beliefs as perfectly reasonable but tribal Africans’ as barbarous and ridiculous. William Dalrymple echoed this idea of misplaced religious certainty in the words of a Greek-Orthodox-monk-cum-conspiracy-theorist he had met in the Holy Land. Hugh Thomson told a familiar story of government incompetence and heavy-handedness in the reasons why his expedition to Nanda Devi was such a rare opportunity, and why his book on the subject was only now coming out in India.

Pico Iyer spoke passionately about how moving to a simple Japanese apartment after his Californian house burned down had allowed him to adopt a quieter and more contented lifestyle, where distraction-free mornings and evenings stretched out languidly for his enjoyment. (He also spoke about how his friendship with the Dalai Lama since infancy had affected his thinking – a prominent theme of the week was just how privileged and unbelievable the lives of many of these authors were.) On the last day William Dalrymple, Nicholas Shakespeare and Redmond O’Hanlon — all of whom knew the man personally — give an affectionate and ribald tribute to Bruce Chatwin, whose notorious name cropped up repeatedly during my travel writing course. For many years shunted from the canon amid accusations of embellishment and inaccuracy, they want to rehabilitate him and reassert the cult status he once held, and while I sympathised, they sadly didn’t hold the festival rapt – the only question at the end came from a confused lady looking for the following session about elephants.

In a strange twist of reality we find ourselves sitting on the ‘Bank of Baroda Front Lawn’ listening to Adam Nicolson talk about puffins. It’s surreal. Nicolson does his utmost to engage the audience in a topic which is, understandably, pretty obscure to them. He talks with aristocratic passion about the fate of seabirds, which are in rapid decline. He draws the audience in with cute pictures of puffins, fulmars in flight, bird skeletons filled with plastic, and statistics showing the ratio of bird brain size to bird monogamy. He reminisces about childhoods in the Shiants (which his father bought) and emphasises that these beautiful creatures should be saved for their own intrinsic worth and not just because they are a vital part of the earth’s eco-system, keeping the oceans alive and fertile.

In a discussion of nature writing Alexandra Harris talks of her fascination with weather, Adam Nicolson aptly regurgitates his passion for seabirds and Hugh Thomson recollects walking through England. They posit that the recent explosion of nature writing in the UK, sparked by Robert MacFarlane’s work, is due to the nation’s detachment from and destruction of the natural world.

This idea is further dealt with in speedy and heart-breaking depth by Victor Mallet, who travelled the length of the Ganges from source to mouth. ‘It is still a living river’ — he emphasises the note of hope — ‘we can still save it.’ He talks about the constant pollution pouring into the river; raw sewage, chemicals, fertilisers, rubbish. People see a distinction between the river as a spiritual entity which they worship, and a physical entity for which they have little regard. They don’t connect the spiritual and the physical and they should. He discusses the political systems and corruption which mean that, despite many grand plans to clean the river, none have come to fruition. He talks about seeing river dolphins, India’s responsibility for the creation of super-bugs and mass pilgrimages of over 70 million people. He speaks of the political nature of silt on the border between India and Bangladesh and of great stretches of river where no water runs at all for weeks at a time. But he is hopeful. ‘You don’t actually have to clean a river. You just have to stop putting rubbish into it and it will clean itself.’


Alka and Dinesh, our hosts in Jaipur

Another topic which popped up again and again throughout the festival was the current state of India. This was no surprise – the subject has been on the minds of many people we’ve met around the country. One will tell you with pride that India will soon have the highest population in the world, while another will lament the lingering power of old conservative men, and a third will stress the revolutionary modernity they see as sweeping the nation. Cleanliness is a major preoccupation, with some hailing the progress that has been made while others lament the litter and pollution that affect large parts of the country. One thing that has become very clear is that India is a vast country not only in terms of area and population, but in many other ways – culture, landscape, climate, religion, language, education, wealth, age, gender, caste, class and many other factors are spread across a huge spectrum and make it impossible to talk consistently for the country as a whole. India is acutely aware of its international reputation in terms of efficiency, corruption, cleanliness etc., and major efforts are being made in difficult circumstances to modernise and improve the lives of its citizens; at the same time, India is rightfully proud of its unique cultures and traditions – one speaker spoke of being the oldest extant civilisation on earth – and resists the idea that progress necessarily means Westernisation.

The most prominent current such campaign is Swachh Bharat, meaning ‘Clean India’, a nationwide drive to dispose of waste responsibly and encourage sanitary personal hygiene habits. At the talk I attended on this subject, everyone agreed on the principle, but nobody could agree on the causes of or best solutions to the issue. Education, caste, overpopulation, corruption, legislation and comparison to other countries were all fervently supported or attacked, with no clear outcome – seemingly a microcosm of the situation across the country. More specific areas of conservation and culture were discussed in talks on saving the Ganges and India’s neglected stepwells, incredible structures which we’ve seen a few of, and the same conflicts arose again and again. Many better-off Indians already live a life of comfortable modernity, and one talk I saw on ‘Youth and the Age of Anxiety’, featuring an ex-heroin addict turned writer and a child psychologist, made me feel that the lifestyle and concerns of middle-class people across the world are in many ways more similar to each other than to their own poorer compatriots, as did hearing the internet comedy sensation Mallika Dua, or watching the crowds of young Indians attending the event. Finally, we attempted to attend one session on English-language elitism and the public use of Hindi, but had to leave when it turned out the whole thing was in Hindi and we wouldn’t understand it – absolutely a fair cop!

Zakir Hussain, I mean how many times have people heard him, and still they want more! It helps that he is so handsome. Well he is!’ I smile. I don’t want to tell her I have neither heard or heard of him. He is India’s most famous tabla player, and according to the professor next to me ‘the world’s greatest percussionist.’ He played with the greats — Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis — and talks about growing up in a multi-religious India. Getting up at 3am to study tabla with his father, learning of the spirits and myths that make music, going to the mosque for prayers at 6am, and an hour later trotting over to the Catholic school. There was no contradiction in all of this, it was just part of life, he says. When he was a baby and brought home from the hospital his father whispered tabla rhythms in his ear, instead of a prayer.

Of course, there were also a few talks which dealt more directly with literary matters, and we enjoyed a few of these. On the first afternoon we went to see Tom Stoppard being interviewed on the front lawn, as you do. The questioning wasn’t up to much, but he drawled on amusingly about writing and the difficulty of letting a play which you have perfected in your mind be interpreted differently by actors and directors. A big panel discussion on ‘The Art of the Novel’ included Amy Tan, Michael Ondaatje, Helen Fielding, Joshua Ferris and Chika Unigwe, and was encouraging if daunting on the subject of bringing something so substantial into existence. Another panel on book adaptations followed up on many of the same ideas with many of the same people – Stoppard, Tan and Ondaatje all appeared again, alongside Nicholas Shakespeare and Mira Nair. They spoke about the challenges and rewards of making your written work into a film or play – among the happy few who ever manage to complete a novel, these were the further lucky few whose novel is then picked up by Hollywood!

One of the last talks we saw was an eclectic but engaging ‘Between Genres’ event – four books and authors who were worthy of a showcasing, but lacked any obvious thread to tie their work together. Nupur Paiva, a child psychologist, spoke eloquently on families and relationships in modern India, with a real understanding of what children need from their parents – primarily honesty and support. Sujatha Gidla talked about the rare experience of coming from a Dalit family and yet gaining a university education and moving to work in the USA, the disadvantages in contacts and resources she had experienced as a result of her caste, and her powerful convictions about workers’ unity, Marxism and the injustice of the caste system. Lathika George told a romantic but important tale of the ups and downs of the lives of rural farmers across India, and Humphrey Hawksley, the only fiction writer on the panel, linked all these threads – family, class and the land – in promoting his latest future-counterfactual novel, about Inuit people living on an island disputed between America and Russia.


It’s a hard old literary life

The Closing Debate on the last afternoon of the festival is packed. The topic: #MeToo: Do men still have it too easy? One of the founders of the #MeToo movement, Ruchira Gupta, starts the debate. She is fierce and inspiring and eloquent. ‘Do men still have it too easy?’ she asks. ‘I can’t believe we are even asking this question. Men DO still have it too easy.’ Women, from the moment they are born, if they are even born, face harassment, sexual violence and inequality. She cites cases in India where women were raped while bystanders did nothing, raped when they were already dead, she talks of honour killings, sex trafficking, and emphasises a case where a judge found a man convicted of rape not guilty because the woman had protested with ‘a feeble no’. ‘A feeble no’, he said, ‘is a yes.’ 

‘Do you consider women to be human beings? If you do, you are a feminist’ concludes Bee Rowlatt. Pinky Anand talks about the power of law and its place in protecting women. Sandip Roy says most men are not criminals, most men are not rapists, but that this is a movement which must involve all of us, and being a passive bystander also makes you guilty. Manu Joseph causes controversy when he says he feels uncomfortable in the new world order where everything is P.C. and you can no longer tell a woman she is attractive. But he faces an inevitable backlash.

Vinod Dua, a well-known journalist and Mallika Dua’s father, stresses that, until these ideas filter through from the class of English-speaking intellectuals to the Hindi-speaking working class, until there are co-educational schools, they cannot become reality.

These are the ideals and ideas of the future.

Back to the Very Beginning

Right now we’ve been in India for well over two months, and it can be hard to remember that not so long ago we had no plans to go travelling, and no idea of the places we would end up seeing. I wrote about how we came to the decision to go last spring, when C encouraged me to apply for the Mairi Hedderwick Travel Writing Bursary at Moniack Mhor. Moniack Mhor is Scotland’s creative writing centre, a beautiful, tranquil spot tucked away on a hillside a few miles outside Inverness, where writers’ retreats and specialised creative writing courses are held throughout the year. We had looked through their brochure with envy and awe in the past, marvelling at the scenery, the writers who came to teach the courses, and the promises of all-inclusive Highland hospitality. So this bursary sounded like a wonderful chance to attend a course there, and to prepare for writing about the adventures to come.

Just looking at the headings on the application form was daunting: ‘please tell us a bit about your proposed work or work in progress’, ‘what is your previous literary experience/publication history’ – that sort of very reasonable question. I put off filling in the form for a few weeks, but one Sunday afternoon I grabbed the bull by the horns, completed it and sent it away. I didn’t hold out much hope, as we didn’t have much of a proposal, let alone a work in progress – but I wrote an honest account of our lives in Edinburgh, how we’d come to the decision to go travelling, and what our plans and hopes were for the journey. So, to give an idea of how we got started on all this, here is that section of my application:

In early January of this year, my partner and I met for a pint after work. Our local overlooks the River Forth, with beautiful views across to Fife, the place I grew up; to Inchcolm Island, where she has worked for the past two summers; up to the bridges at South Queensferry, and out to the North Sea. It is particularly beautiful at sunset, but, on this midwinter’s evening it was already pitch black outside at barely 5pm. Thankfully, a roaring fire provided a passable substitute in warmth and fascination. I felt tamely content to be back at work, dutiful and secure in a dour, resolute, Scottish kind of a way.

A couple of weeks previously, just before Christmas, we had had a serious discussion about what it meant to be happy, what we needed to be happy. I thought I had come out of it well, settled some matters in a way which, while unexciting, seemed sensible and secure. Catriona had been agitating for some time for a big plunge, a shake-up of our routine lives, but I had made my point well – I thought – that making rash decisions, destabilising your hard-won perch, taking for granted the comfort and small joys of the life you have put together was potentially very foolish and was anyway no guarantee of supercharged happiness, increased consciousness, connection to the mother earth et cetera. She had smiled acquiescently as I implored ‘what about Edinburgh?’, suggesting that after ten years there was still as much to discover and enjoy here from the comfort of a small flat and salary as there would be in the whole showy world out there. The question was settled for a generation.

Two hours and three pints after meeting in the pub, we had sketched out a plan to travel the world on a handful of paper napkins, with the distended outlines of continents crossed with curved arrows, and large numbers such as “3000” and “5000” scribbled in columns in corners. A sudden and abundant rejection of previous adventure austerity. By the time we wandered home, I was thoroughly convinced – this was our one big chance, and it was time to seize it.


And it worked! A month or two later, as we were at C’s parents’ house in Ireland, loading the car for a holiday in Connemara — which is a travel experience to write about another time — I got a call from Moniack to say I had been awarded the place. So at the end of September I took a week off work and travelled up north to learn all about travel writing. This was an amazing opportunity, and I am grateful to the Moniack staff for selecting me, and to Mairi Hedderwick for her generosity in funding my place. Her beautiful writing and illustrations have been a source of delight my whole life, but I never imagined I would be sending her thank-you postcards from the Himalayas! Following the course, and just as we were getting ready to leave, I was asked to write a piece for the Moniack Mhor blog about my time there; the link to this is below.



Photos from my time at Moniack Mhor



We leave the nunnery early. It’s dark. The Christmas tree glitters, the lights above us twinkle. I hold Dolker’s hands without saying much in case I cry again. The wee nuns walk with us to the gate and Small Ladon and I sing ‘You are my sunshine’ for the last time. I give Big Ladon back her om pendant. She smiles, her eyes unblinking. I hug them all, T shakes their hands. I can only leave now by some will outside of my own. My heart is breaking.

We climb onto the bus for Chamba and bump along the road for approx 90 miles, 6 hours, for £2.50 each. Men are lathered in soap washing by the side of the road, a tiny girl grins as she steals rice from a pot, a dead cow lies in the road amidst a crowd of onlookers, a dead monkey lies alone, a huge bridge, cracked in two, lies in the river. Shops selling only coconuts and rope. Same same but different haystacks, taller, with wee woven bobbles on the top, sometimes hung from trees, like great straw sculptures all across the valley. The Pir Panjals appear and disappear, we’re on the other side of the mountains.

Arriving in Chamba, we climbed a very steep hill towards the guesthouse, sweating with the strain of carrying our big bags properly for the first time since arriving at the nunnery. Luckily the guesthouse was easy to find, and after haggling 100Rs off the price we settled in. A distant, empty feeling hung around us as we dumped our stuff and opened the curtains and shutters of our first room together since our travels began, tired and missing our familiar nunery home and new friends there. Although we began sitting up in bed, we slouched lower and lower, before dozing off in the hazy afternoon sun.

We woke while it was still bright outside, and decided we should do something before the day was gone. We left the room behind — suddenly everything was our responsibility again, suddenly we had to hide our valuables, check our pockets, lock and test the door — and went for a stroll around the centre of Chamba. It’s a lovely, quiet little town, friendly and not too busy, at least by Indian standards – just the baseline level of noise and chaos. We wandered into an ancient Hindu temple complex, Laxmi Narayan, where idols hid in every niche, daubed in oil and orange pigment. The minor anxiety of leaving one’s shoes behind in a public place, a vulnerability compounded by then having to walk around barefoot, has become an everyday experience on this trip. After regaining our shoes — never lost a pair yet, although we’ve met people who have — we walked through crowded, narrow market alleys, and around a wide, empty village green, surely a British remnant, which no-one was able to get into due to barbed wire covering every entrance. They had held fast to the ‘keep off the grass’. A jolly samosa-maker made us a bargain of some delicious fried treats, which we ate at the barbed edge of the park before heading in for our first night alone.

That night, to soothe (or maybe irritate) our nunnery-homesickness, we watched a film the Brazilian cook had given us, named ‘Himalaya, a Path to the Sky’. (Not easily available online, but get in touch if you really want a copy!) The film follows a young Buddhist monk from Zanskar, the region of Jammu & Kashmir where our little nun friends come from. The film, only 10 years old, showed a mesmerising and incredible lifestyle of prayer, debate, resourcefulness and hardship, all through the cheeky and intelligent perspective of this small boy, the hope and pride of his family. Zanskar is fascinating, with influences from India, Tibet, Pakistan and China, from Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism, all coming together in one small, harsh, sparsely-populated, high-altitude desert. It is more-or-less inaccessible at this time of year, but if we ever come back here again, and even if it’s only to see how our little nuns are, it will be top of our list.


The next day started slowly, C quiet with missing the nunnery, and both of us adjusting to the loss of our previous routine, which generally involved working all morning. We spent hours reading on the terrace outside our room, before eventually heading out when hunger got too much and leftover Christmas stollen was becoming sickly. We strolled back around the forbidden green, but the first place we hoped to get lunch was currently a building site, and the next was non-existent. Our best bet looked to be a large, State-Government-endorsed hotel, but behind the heavy doors and dusty brass and marble foyer, there was nobody there. Picking our way down to a seemingly abandoned dining hall, we eventually spotted a man in a tracksuit and asked him if lunch was available. “Yes, of course” he replied, as if it was a stupid question; it turned out that most of the menu was not in fact available. However, what we did manage to order turned out to be delicious and welcome.

In search of Chamunda Devi temple we stroll into a man’s backyard and duck under his washing line to see him shaking his head ‘Where are you going? Follow me!’ So we follow him: ’These stairs, up up, main road, cross cross, more stairs up up!’ Thank you! The rice fields are glowing green and and a rope bridge twinkles in the sun. A huge Indian flag flutters over the town below, towards the mountains the river swirls turquoise. We make it to the temple. Two sets of two men stare at us. We sit in the shade of the huge Bodhi tree. A lion in a red and golden cloak, thousands of bells, a beautiful wooden carved ceiling with winged faces and gods and goddesses on horses. Obligatory selfie with random Indian man. A stony imprint of two feet adorned with trishula and flowers.

We find the Presbyterian Church of Scotland adorned with Christmas lights. But it’s locked. A neatly dressed man who could have been a minister walks by. ‘Excuse me!’ I ask, ‘what time is the Church open?’ He points down a tiny laneway opposite, ‘go straight straight down there, could be that father can give you the key.’ We knock on the open door and shout ‘hello’, and a man half dressed in a grey tunic comes to the door ‘Hanjee?’ ‘We were wondering about visiting the Church?’ We ask. He smiles, his eyes are wide. ‘You will have to wait. I will ask the priest’ he says, taking out his phone, ‘but it may take some time.’ ‘We could come back tomorrow’ we say. ‘Tomorrow?’ He looks astonished. ‘Yes. About ten?’ ‘No, no! Eleven?’ We leave it at that.

In the Buri Singh museum we see old manuscripts and sutras written in mustard oil lamp soot and carved incarnations of Vishnu as a Buddha and the fish matsya. We marvel at beautiful miniature paintings, some domestic, some disturbing, some beautiful. My favourite is of three women. One stands on a swing hanging from a mango tree. Mangos fall all around her as she smokes a hookah. The information board is effusive: “[Miniature painting] is an art of the line and the line is lyrical. It is an art like a song that sings itself.”

That evening it was more street food for dinner: some wonderfully unhealthy triple-deep-fried potato burgers (fry the potato; smash it into a patty and fry that; put it in a roll and fry it again) and a tasty but dodgy roadside fresh lime soda we probably should’ve known better than to have tried. Another turn around the park at dusk, and then home again to play a few tunes on the terrace. A neighbour walked right up to us and invited himself to listen in, then left after two seconds. We played on regardless.


The sun comes up over the Dhauladhars. The river churns white over huge boulders down in the valley, early sunshine glows into the pine trees on the far away ridge, green and golden. My heart is broken. I can hardly speak. We are unmoored and marooned. I miss them.

The priest is a no show, so we walk out the road by the river and hop on the wrong bus, jump off, hop on another and get to a village called Kiani, on the shores of Chamera lake. We follow a wee path past the local vet’s to a towering statue of Hanuman. There are wild witch-hat haystacks everywhere. Locals stare at us from shops selling crisps and rope and buckets. An older man and his wife wave at us from a garden glowing green with onions and palak. The man shouts; ‘sit down, sit down!’ So we go in and sit on his porch, he apologises that he can’t offer us chai, he points at a brown cow next to a white goat; ’Milak finish!’ His wife grins. ‘Where you from?’ ‘Scotland’ we reply. ‘Scotland? Is near Germany?’ ‘Mmmm, kind of.’ ‘Ah, near Greenland?’ ‘Em, in between Germany and Greenland!’ He smiles, he has very few teeth. ‘I am ex-health inspector. Now I am retired, so I am working in garden! Organic gardening you know? I sell these things.’ We go for a tour of the garden, and then walk on, to smaller roads, past a trio of women carry bundles of firewood on their heads. We all nod and smile. Later, sitting on a wall, fortifying ourselves with some bananas and crisps we meet the trio again, one laughs and says ‘cello, cello!’ (come on!) Enough sitting around! We turn at a wee temple and we meet the ex-health inspector on our way back ‘Ah hello again! How many years are you?!’ ‘Twenty nine and twenty five.’ He seems impressed, (are we old, or young?) ‘Ah, I am very proud of you, walking the roads in a foreign country, very proud!’


The next day we were moving on again, to Dalhousie – with a name like that, it had to be good for Hogmanay. We were told to put our big bags on the bus roof rack – a nervy experience both because it involved climbing up a rickety ladder on top of a coach with massive backpack on, and because the whole journey was then spent enduring visions of all our stuff flying off on one of the hairpin mountain bends and tumbling down a cliff. On the way we talked about new year’s resolutions; as well as the perennial “write every day”, an important one for me was to be more open: to chance encounters, unknown circumstances and new people. The bags made it, but when I clambered up to fetch them, the bus began to pull away with me on top; C had to bang on the side and shout at the driver to stop me being carted back to the depot.

We had picked out a cheap and friendly looking guesthouse, and figured that, much as we’d done in Chamba and Mcleod, we would just turn up and ask for a room. However, we were soon scuppered: “no room, no room, all book”. Never mind, we thought, google showed plenty of others around. The next turned out to be an army barracks, with an armed guard who just shook his head at me. Next, C minded the bags while I asked all along a promising street – all completely booked out. We began to notice a lot of flashy, touristy looking people around and it dawned on us that this was a popular New Year’s destination for wealthy Indian people. When the tourist information official couldn’t even get us into the youth hostel, we began to worry.

Of course, this couldn’t be allowed to get in the way of lunch, so we found a dhaba and regrouped. Our next strategy was to split up, taking it in turns to go and ask at hotels (expanding our remit and budget) and guesthouses one street at a time, while the other looked up information on a dying smartphone and attempted to call promising leads. We were frustrated at every turn, clumping into increasingly posh hotels to either be told “no” or that only exorbitantly expensive “Maharaja suites” were available. Finally, after an incredibly anxious couple of hours, I got a guy on the phone from the improbably-named Hotel Gellasenheit, who said he had a room! He wasn’t around, but he said his guy would call me back. I waited and waited by a flickering charging screen until I got the call – we could have a room for two nights, not even at a ridiculous price, and a taxi driver would bring us there. C was still out doing her rounds, phoneless, and I was so excited and relieved that I ran out of the cafe and up and down the street, and wrote “Found!” on my hand.

The hotel turned out to be just a couple of minutes away from the main action of the town, a narrow market street lined with cafes and trinket shops, full of middle-class families and young men up for new year in the snowy highlands – we likened the place to an Indian Aviemore. We walked around in a daze of relief, collected a bunch of snacks to take back to our room, and tucked ourselves away in comfort, planning what to do the next day, the last day of 2017.


We wake early, eat paranthas and hop on the local bus to Alha. It climbs up through Dalhousie Public school, ‘In pursuit of excellence’, echoes of the British era. The Pir Panjals circle the whole horizon to the north. We jump off the bus and start to climb. Snow glistens in the crevices as the sun comes up through the deodars and pines. The air is cold and smells of resin. We come out of the trees onto a ridge and look down onto the wavering lines of terraced fields below and the Dhalaudhars to the south east. The path leads up the entrance of a huge air force station on a hill. ‘Trespassers will be shot’ Feckin great. We skirt around the outside wall of the station, at points the path disintegrates away into nothing and we slither down a dusty cliff before regaining the path.

Then we come to the party mountain! Lines of white taxis block the road. Punjabi music blares. A group of Indian men scream ‘Happy New year’ and jump into a small patch of snow. We eat crisps and watch. The holy mount, Manimahesh Kailash, rises above a red temple. At the top of Dainkund we find a topless man posing for photographs.

On the way down we are overtaken by a man with two rabbits in a basket. We stop to ask a woman selling walnuts if she knows when the next bus will be, she doesn’t understand English, but a group of lads tell us that the bus is stuck in a New Year’s traffic jam and there is little hope of it appearing. We hitchhike but all the cars are packed, and we we’re not sure if Indian folk even know what hitchhiking is as some of them just give us a thumbs up back! We are resigned to walking when a beast of a car pulls over, and the driver motions for us to get in. We squash into the back beside two Indian guys. The guy in the passenger’s seat points to his phone, ‘Haryana song, yes?’ We drive down the hill, speeding round corners, to Punjabi and Haryana tunes and the occasional Justin Bieber; ‘English song, yes!’ The driver strokes his beard, fixes his sunglasses and dances, both hands off the steering wheel. The car swerves, the lads in the back yell and the driver resentfully takes the wheel again. At one point the driver pulls over, ‘Ok, ek minute, one selfie friend ok?’ We shrug and pose for selfies.

As soon as we recognised that we were back in reach of our hotel, we shouted “ok good, stop, thank you!”. The driver hopped out of the car with us for one last selfie; we wriggled away and ducked in the back gate of a churchyard, giving them, the traffic and the crowd the slip. When we emerged from the front gate and looked back, we saw the driver being seized by policemen; a couple of the other lads were engaged in a brawl with a group of locals. We melted into the crowd and quickly trotted back to our room.

There were still several hours until midnight, and we didn’t have much of a plan, beyond a bottle of local apple wine we had found to toast with at the bells. To kill some time, we began watching Sholay, seemingly an absolute classic of Indian cinema, a 3-hour genre-blending melodramatic tragicomic epic. It’s wild, but definitely worth a watch. It took us through to 11pm, and we decided to head back out and join the crowds to ring the new year in.

Except now the streets were empty! With midnight quickly approaching, almost all the shops and cafes were closed, and very few people remained outside. A small group were huddled round a bonfire outside the churchyard gates, there was a healthy quota of policemen, and some groups of drunken, screaming young men – but no happy congregation of revellers ready to count down from 10, share hugs and smiles and think of the year to come. A little disappointed, and not wishing to hang around the drunks and coppers, we walked back the way we had come. On the way, we spotted some steps up to an e*loßmpty roof terrace, with views across the valley and music from mountainside resorts travelling across to us. We waited there, sipping our apple wine, dancing to the music. When the bells came, there was no great change, but we toasted each other, the year gone by and the one to come. We sent messages home, although it was only early evening there, and a few minutes later a few fireworks lit up the valley.

Back in the room we finished our wine and set an alarm for 5.30am, so we could wake up briefly for midnight at home. Just before nodding off, I finally remembered to look up the meaning of that strange name, Hotel Gellasenheit. It is an idea of openness to and acceptance of the world as you find it.


On the bus to Pathankot, from Aviemore to Glenrothes! It’s rammed. At random intervals a huge mustard coloured belly whacks me on the head as its owner bumps along with the bus. The young Indian guy next to us is a tired graphic designer from just outside Delhi. We drive forever in twists and turns downhill. Tiny monkeys scamper out of the way of the swaying bus as we drive past two car crashes and one man yelling. The deodars give way to tall slim silver trees and we enter Punjab.

The sun is setting as we come into Pathankot. It’s grimy and heavily militarised with a great luminous blue river gushing through it. We drive over a dead dog and past men selling oranges and garlic and apples. Men polishing shoes and roasting peanuts. Men in the street. Men sitting, smoking, talking, frying chicken and sweeping paths. Men staring. Men selling socks. Men in rickshaws and tuk-tuks and taxis. Men shouting. Where are all the women?

We wind our way along the dirty road to the guesthouse, past signs advertising ‘Alive Chickens’ and ‘Boneless fish.’ The full moon glows yellow through the dust. We eat a thali, finish Sholay and sleep in a green room.