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India - First encounter
Sunday, 11 February 2007
Going to India – something we have long looked out for. We’ve heard a lot about India from other travellers – good and bad experiences. One thing’s for sure – India must have a LOT  of people, each and every traveller from India has mentioned this explicitly. With Pakistan and Nepal (1998) as context we’re curious and somewhat anxious how we will experience India. We’re not crowd maniacs and both appreciate a ‘bit of air’ between people. Anyhow India happened quicker than we expected – we left Islamabad on the 25th, the next day we already sat in the garden of Ms Bandari’s Guesthouse. The superb M2 motorway with overnight parking and the road to the Indian border was uneventful. We drove the canal bank road through Lahore a long drive on a straight road. But look carefully to find this road separated by a canal – it’s sign posted rather miniscule by “Wagah border”.

The last few Km’s of road in Pakistan towards the border wasn’t really a postcard picture. It’s bad, dirty and under construction. If this is the first of Pakistan you see, it’s not reflecting anything of Pakistan at all. The country deserves a LOT better, but who cares? The majority of people come to India or Pakistan by air.

At the border - the Pakistan side was as expected – within a few minutes we where presented by the one-liners “Shampoo?”, “Change money?” by immigration and the “whiskey in the fridge?” by customs. So we changed a bit of money, left our Shampoo but had nothing to offer on the last question. Custom inspection was rather light, a few doors open and questions and that was it. One hour max – pretty quick to our standards.

We skipped the border ceremony for later and drove into India where people already where waiting on the tribunes for the border ceremony. Must be strange to see foreigners drive through with a truck – white dog inside.
The Indian border was more work and time. Immigration procedures where quick, customs was a long procession of forms – stamps – signing and of course the chassis and engine number inspection followed by a 4 man inspection of the inside of our home.
In all it was about 2,5 hours – and this on India’s independence day – we where the only ones there crossing the border.

The road to Amritsar was like wading upstream in extreme suicidal traffic – the independence day ceremony must be something special. It must be totally worth risking your life for this. Naturally we had our usual ‘end of the day – near dark – took the wrong turn in mega dense traffic’ exercise. Just to make our arrival in Amritsar a little bit more special. We arrived in the dark -  asking directions many times. This way we came a few 100 meters closer to Ms Bandari’s guesthouse each time we asked. We nearly seen the golden temple by truck. Ain’t that a relaxed truck ride in the dark! Cool!
And yes, even with GPS coordinates of the place it’s still a nice puzzle to solve after a border crossing day like this.

Ms Bandari’s guesthouse is a gem – a lot of history can be found at this place – it’s a bit away from the centre but still not too far. We found it worth the money with fast internet at hand. The golden temple experience is quite something. We did it on a Sunday which is a guarantee for extremely dense crowds. Getting inside means shoes off and head covered. The experience of walking barefoot in huge crowds….ok, lets skip this subject. The temple itself is quite a sight. Seeing people practice their religion (Sikhism) with such devotion and passion is something we’ve not seen before. Also the Sikh museum gives a good impression of the intensity of Sikh religion.
And well yes, we agree after seeing Amritsar only – this city has a LOT of people. This is Sikh land but we can safely assume the crowd density here will be fairly matched in other Indian cities. To compensate for the crowds we stayed a few days longer at Ms Bandari’s guesthouse. In this time we planned a little ahead and decided to make a Rajasthan tour for a few weeks. Afterall it’s the biggest section in the Lonely Planet – a lot to see in state with lowest population density in India.

First we headed for Bikaner. Basically a 2 day drive with an overnight stop at a petrol station. Surprisingly not that too much hassle – no knock on door crowds all evening & night. The Reliance petrol station are actually quite good – a lot of clean and quiet space with a small lawn of green grass for Indra.

The first 150 Km’s came about as the same suicidal traffic we have seen from the Amritsar border. Somehow it’s the average driving style here – forget driving rules – learn street survival. Knowing this it must be quite a ‘white knuckle’ ride when taking the local bus in India. Moreover you’re financing the most extreme traffic violator and kamikaze pilot of India – the Indian local bus driver. (The Pakistani bus driver is about the same but does his job in less dense traffic) So just sit back and ‘enjoy’ the splendid driving. After all you want value for money and you get no less. You can see others on the road trying to safe their lives – in most cases avoiding a clean frontal kiss with the Indian bus. We wonder what would happen if you pay your devoted Indian bus driver ‘something’ extra. Will it add to your safety or your timely arrival at your destination?
Anyhow, nuff said about this, it’s pretty bad already seeing this happen with the lives of the passengers and surrounding traffic on the scale.

Bikaner is the first desert town we stopped for a day at the RTDC Hotel Dhola Maru. Enough space including hot shower and electricity (except for a few hours a day) for 150 Rs / day. We also tried the Vino Paying guesthouse but there’s basically space for 2 passenger cars or a small camper in the yard. Parking outside is what was suggested but we don’t recommend doing this. It’s a crowded neighbourhood so forget quiet nights on the streets. Don’t go there if your truck is over 3m40 high – you’ll find yourself destroying the overhead electric wiring. Not a good start visiting the neighbourhood.

The Bikaner fort is worth a visit. It’s a guided tour though but not too much hassle in getting into your wallet. The Maharadja’s lived in style, quite amazing a lot of European influence all over. It must have to their liking because as we could see it, shiploads of 1900’s style goods have been imported from the UK / Europe. Many of the B & W pictures on the walls shows the contrast of the Maharadja’s wealth. Locals seem desperately poor looking at people of extreme fortune passing by in the streets on Elephants.  Somehow we couldn’t get rid of the question what has changed in this region since then? The poverty is still here but the extraordinary wealth has vanished. Still there is big contrast visible between ‘the have and the have nots’ on an average stroll through town.

Next is Jaisalmer, a 300 Km ride on good asphalt road through desert land. Amazingly life is all around – there wasn’t a single stretch where we saw no people, no cars or trucks. This road also gets a lot of tourists – many white faces behind the windows of (not local) tourist busses. Here we see reasonably good bus driving -  somehow the meaning of safety has gotten through, maybe with the arrival of more money spend on a fare. With the tourists the road has gotten more restaurants – hotels all in pretty good shape.

Arrival in Jaisalmer happened in a small crowd of men running behind us – faintly hearing the word stop – stop - stooooop. Being used to this behaviour from Pakistan we simply moved on. If it’s important we get stopped anyway. Later we found out it was an attempt to collect the Jaisalmer tourist tax. About 10 rs / person at the time of writing. We stayed at RTDC Moomal Hotel. Again a good place for parking – although the Indian Airforce lads nearby get a bit loud testing jet engines. 150 rs for electricity, water and a hot shower.

Jaisalmer basically has 6 months of tourism a year. From September to March it’s the season with quite a lot of tourists visiting this town for it’s fort and the surrounding desert. Outside season it’s so hot most places close down and people spend their days inside. We got about 30 degrees during the day with 2 days of 20 degrees with rain.
Visiting the Fort is worth the experience although it’s a tourist place – the hassle is very light. Somehow we got the impression people know not to hassle visitors to hard. But maybe the season was good already – no need to squeeze the remaining visitors too hard?

Anyhow a walk through the fort shows local town life mixed with tourist shops.
This place is about the 3rd stop for package tourists coming from Dehli, we saw lots of typical tourists – CLEAN brand new unwrinkled clothes - walking around with some sort of continuous ‘awe’ on their face sometimes mixed with disgust and a little anxiety.
Yes, its not particular clean here – although local government makes an effort to remove waste. Cows have unlimited freedom so watch their rear end – cause they just as well shit in your bag as on the streets. It’s sometimes a bit funny to find yourself among locals and cows walking the streets as a day to day habit.

So after 2 weeks – our first encounter with India is good. It’s different from Pakistan but also has a few similarities. Basically the absence of Islamic influence shows a different world to us. We see women in the streets, some even talking to us! After 3 months of Pakistan this is weird experience – as it’s not allowed somehow.

Life seems more free here – but what is freedom? We saw a lot of poor men, women, children – grid locked into poverty – but somehow there’s more freedom in doing things differently. More variety, a bit more space to manoeuvre. Although Islamic habits like washing hand and feet 5 times a day in these regions is a real good thing.

Time will show if our opinion so far changes. We expect it will – India is a big country with a lot of people. The latter is true without a shred of doubt. But more is certainly not better – not for us anyhow – and maybe for the future of India also.

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