|A Diary of my overland journey from England to Australia||
By Steven Abrams
16th November 1968
The Indian customs officer had us fill out a form stating what valuables we had and how much money we were carrying. Once the form had been stamped it was returned to us to keep to hand to the customs officer when we would eventually leave India. Its purpose was to be presented at banks or licensed exchange bureau each time we changed money. While at the border Louis and I changed a £2 traveller's cheque between us so that we would have some money to get on with. It was to be the only money we would change officially until we left the country. We had already heard about this customs declaration form and like every other overland traveller, we lost it at the first opportunity.
After the border we started to hitch hike, but the lack of vehicles meant that after waiting a while we still had not got a lift. Eventually we approached a Bedford mini-bus with UNICEF markings that had been parked at the border to ask the driver for a lift. The Indian driver turned out to be a doctor. He was waiting for another doctor to come across the border and when he eventually came through he offered Winnie and us a lift to Ferozapore. The doctor that had come across the border was called Dr. Constable. He was English and had been working as a missionary in India for the last 16 years and was employed as a superintendent of Christian Medical Colleges.
When we arrived at Ferozapore we stopped for a bite to eat. The Indian doctor explained how we should be able to drink the Indian water just so long as it was mains water and not stored water. He also explained that if we found curries to be a bit too hot we could always ask for them to make it with less chilli. We would find however that trying to get an Indian restaurant to make a curry without chilli was to be an impossible task. As for the drinking water, despite his assurances, we still didn't trust it.
Winnie decided to stay in Ferozapore and set off to find somewhere to spend the night. We stayed with the doctors who took us on to Ludhiana where we were dropped us off just outside the town. Before leaving, the doctor arranged for us to get a lift to Chandigarh in a lorry. They suggested that we could stay in a dharamsala where we would get cheap accommodation. The lorry dropped us at the dharamsala but there was no room, so we walked into town to look for somewhere to stay. A rest house down the road was also full, as was a number of other cheaper places we tried. Eventually we found a bed in a rather posh looking Arona hotel. This was very much above our normal standard of accommodation, and so was the price, but it seems that was all that was going to be available in Chandigarh. Eventually for just 4 rupees each (4/- is the abbreviation used throughout India) we managed to get a charpoy without any blankets or bedding, in what seems to have been a meeting room. Having spent so long searching for somewhere to sleep meant that it was well after midnight before we finally got to bed.
No sooner had we got to sleep than we were woken up again by a scraping sound. I shone my torch in the direction of the noise just in time to see a large rat run away from the sudden light. It scampered into a hole in the skirting board, so we jammed a broom handle in the hole to block its escape and went back to sleep again.
The next morning we found a food store cupboard in the room. Although it was locked we found that it would open just enough for us to remove a packed of corn flakes and a bottle of ginger beer which we had for breakfast. On leaving the hotel we complained about the rat and eventually managed to get the bill reduced to just 3 Rupees each. We had a cup of tea in a pavement café which we had with some more of the corn flakes before walking back to the ring road, where we soon managed to get a lift in a lorry that took us to the main exit for the Delhi Road.
Within a few minutes we had managed to get a lift in what appeared to be a twenty year old Morris Oxford car. The car was in fact almost new and was built in India and was called an Ambassador. An Indian company had bought the old assembly plant from Morris in the mid 1950's when the model had reached the end of its English manufacturing life. They were now manufacturing the car in India where it quickly became the most popular model in the country, in fact almost the only model in the country. When I visited India again 29 years later it was still being made in the same shape, though by then it was not as popular and had plenty of other makes as competition.
The driver of the car was obviously fairly well off by Indian standards. He was on his way to Delhi, but being a Sunday he was stopping in Ambala on the way to visit his cricket club and he invited us to join him for lunch. The club was a very posh place and resembled a very well off English village cricket club. The people there spoke "frightfully" posh English, but with an Indian accent and we enjoyed sitting on the lawn and listening to the conversations while our driver plied us with plenty of food and drinks. They even played bingo and we joined on for one of the games, though we didn't win. One of the members we were talking to told us that when the British left in 1947 the thing that concerned him most of all was the fear that he would no longer be able to get toilet paper. He had stockpiled so much that he was still using it 21 years later and would probably have enough to last him for the rest of his life. I hope it was soft toilet paper.
After lunch our driver once again headed off to Delhi. Even though we had eaten at the club, he still stopped shortly after for lunch and bought us both a chicken curry. At about 3 o'clock he stopped again for afternoon tea and cakes. We eventually arrived in Delhi shortly after 5 o'clock and he dropped us near to the Old Delhi railway station.
The first hotel we tried was full, but the owner said we could leave our bags in the luggage room while we looked around for somewhere to stay. There were many hotels in that area and we looked at quite a few before deciding on one called Hotel Meva, which was costing us 4 rupees each per night. In the next room we met a group of Sikhs who were all playing cards. Louis and I got talking to them and Louis noticed that the pack of cards was all marked. If you didn't know you would not have seen it, but the pattern on the back had a clock face design. If you looked closely you could see a small dot pointing to the "hour" representing the value of the card. For example, an ace had the dot at one o'clock, a six at six o'clock and the picture cards were at 11 & 12 o'clock. The King had no dot. When Louis pointed this out to them they all acted quite surprised, though I suspect that one of them must have known and was not letting on.
At midnight we celebrated our arrival in Delhi by having some bread and jam while discussing our route through India. We decided to head down to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, then to Benares (or Varanasi as it is also known) before going up to Nepal when we would discuss the rest of our route. It was almost 2 am before we went to sleep, probably the latest night since we left home. We had made it to Delhi, a distance covered of 7605 miles for less than £20 each. To be precise I had spent £19-41-1 which included £2-12-0 for the cross channel ferry, 10/- for the Iranian visa and about £1 spent on postage. It is 45 days since we left home of which 26 have been travelling days. Our luggage is still intact, the only things I have lost on the journey have been a nail brush and my cap comforter (a sort of woolen hat that can convert into a scarf).
The next morning we decided to finish off the corn flakes we had pilfered in Chandigarh. I went out to find a place that would supply us with cold milk. One restaurant would supply me but I had to put a deposit down on the glasses before he would let me take them to the hotel. On the way back I met Steve, who had shown us the way to the Post Office in Kabul. He was out getting something for his wife who had gone down with hepatitis.
Next stop was the Nepalese Embassy to apply for visas so we could go to Kathmandu. We started to fill in the application forms when Louis discovered that he had left his passport photos back in the hotel. As we needed to supply 3 passport size photos with the application we were not able get our visas that day and so decided to come back again tomorrow.
From there we went to the AA of Northern India to enquire about the London - Sydney road race which was due to pass through in less than two weeks time. I think they thought we were some sort of race official. We were shown into an office and somebody brought in loads of information for us, including a telephone directory size book of the race rules. It made very interesting reading and we managed to find out not only the date when the race was passing and the route, but also the hotel the drivers were staying at in Bombay and the date of the sailing to Australia. We were told to come back again in a day or two and they would have some more information for us.
From there we went back to Amex to find out the times and fares for trains around India. Hitch hiking was all well and good, but in India the traffic moves so slowly in the countryside that it would take forever to cover the large distances involved. For the first time since leaving England we abandoned our prime method of transport and moved onto the public transport system.
In India there were 3 classes of train travel. First class was generally not too bad. Second class was bedlam, but on our budget we had to go for the cheapest and that meant third class which was like a zoo. With our fake student cards we could travel first class for the price of a 2nd class ticket. We could have travelled 2nd class for the price of a 3rd class ticket, but with a 50% discount on the price of 3rd class there was no competition. To get these discounts we had to obtain a student discount permit from the railway offices but first of all we had to get some more local currency.
As we walked around Delhi people offering to change money often approached us. After enquiring from a number of these touts we settled for one chap that was offering 220 rupees for £10 cash. This was the best we could do in Delhi, even though other cities would offer up to 24 to the pound. I did the dealing and Louis watched from a respectable distance. As was customary in such deals, the tout took me down a small alley so nobody could see us. Unbeknown to him, Louis waited at the end of the alley just in case. First of all he tried to trick me by folding one of the notes in half and counting the stack of notes down to the middle. Because one of the notes was folded it got counted twice and the stack looked normal when it was unfolded. Fortunately we had been warned of this trick and when a quick flick through the stack revealed this fraud the tout ran off only to be caught by Louis at the entrance to the alley. After Louis had threatened to kick his spine through his hat, he sheepishly paid us the 10 rupees that he had tried to cheat us out of and then disappeared as quickly as he could run.
Now we had some money we were able to have some lunch in the café at Connought Place. While sitting there we overheard two Indians at the next table who were discussing setting up a new printing business. I joined in the conversation and have no doubt that if I had wanted to stay in India they would have invited me to become a partner as I certainly knew a lot more than them about the print industry.
Later that afternoon we headed back to the hotel and on the way we bought a large bunch of bananas for just a few Piase. Back at the hotel we asked at reception for a waste paper basket for the banana skins, but they refused to give us one. So we just threw all the skins over the balcony and they landed outside the reception, but nobody seemed to care or complain.
Our hotel, which was near the railway station, was in the old part of Delhi. Old Delhi was a complete contrast to New Delhi, which although certainly not anywhere near European standards, was by comparison quite modern. All the foreign Embassies and business offices were in the new part, but the old part was more typically Indian.
We ventured out that evening for a bite to eat, looking in all the different small eating places to see what was on offer and we eventually settled for some chapati and daal. Just like most of the places in the market, the eating place consisted of an open area with a number of stools and tables for people to sit and eat. It had a canvas awning to cover everything if it should have rained; though at that time of year it was not likely to be needed.
I don't know what was in that food, but in the early hours of the morning I had to get up in a hurry to run to the toilet. What I suffered from in Lahore was nothing compared to this and I spent the rest of the night running back and forward, putting a lot of strain on the Delhi sewers. At about 7 am I was violently sick over the balcony. The banana skins had been removed by then, but now there was something else for the office to have to clean up. Whether they complained or not I wouldn't know because I spent most of the rest of the day sleeping. The only time I got up was to run along the landing to the toilet.
Louis spent the day running around collecting the visas for Nepal and Thailand. Although it would be a month or two before we went to Thailand, we had six months to use the visa and the Thai and Nepalese Embassies were close to each other but he had to go back the next day to collect the passports from the Nepalese Embassy. The visas were also cheaper to obtain in India because we could pay in Rupees that had been purchased on the black market and the visas were priced according to the official exchange rate. He also visited the railway station to obtain the necessary certificate so that we could buy tickets at the student discount rate.
By the time he got back to the hotel it was after 7 o'clock. Although I still didn't feel too well I decided to go out. While Louis ate his evening meal, I just sipped a glass of chai (the Hindi word for tea) before heading back to the hotel for an early night. Thankfully that night I was able to sleep without running to the toilet and by the next morning I felt well enough to go sightseeing again. Even so, this was one hell of a case of Delhi belly, and although I felt a lot better, over the next ten days I still occasionally had to make a sudden dive for a toilet.
Back in the land of the living, the first stop was to visit Amex to check our mail. As we walked through the door the clerk looked up and called out that there was no mail for me so I didn't have to join the queue. Louis did have mail, so I still had to wait for him. When we looked in later that afternoon there was one letter for me, but this time he called out to Louis not to join the queue. Three years later when I passed through Delhi on my way home the same clerk remembered who I was and handed me my mail without me having to show him my passport or tell him who I was. I often wonder if he is still there and if I walked in today would he still remember who I was.
In the afternoon we went to visit the Qutb Minar which is about 7 miles south of Delhi. We had to wait a long time for the bus, but it was well worth it. Some people have described the
While taking a photograph of the Qutb Minar I had to change the film in my camera. A young boy seeing me removing the exposed film offered to buy it from me. Needless to say it was not for sale, though I suspect that had he got his hands on it, the film end would have
It was now evening time and we headed back to the hotel. My stomach was not completely better and although I felt better, I had still been almost caught short a number of times. Back at the hotel I took the oportunity to wash and change and also to wash my now quite dirty underpants. Hanging them out afterwards in the dry Indian heat they dried in no time at all. We had decided to head off to Agra on the overnight train and while Louis went out to buy some food to eat on the way, I got busy packing.
We left the hotel at 10 o'clock that night and walked the short distance to the railway station. Using our student concession permit we bought a third class ticket to Agra, Benares, Raxaul and Bombay. Despite the long distance, the ticket cost just 66 rupees and after deducting our student discount we only had to pay 33 rupees each.
The train left at 11 o'clock. We had a compartment all to ourselves and started to spread out. Our luggage on the rack above and a sleeping bag on the bench seat, we settled down for the night. Five minutes later the train pulled in to New Delhi station and all hell broke loose. There seemed to be hundreds of people all fighting to get through the door at the same time, all shouting at the tops of their voices. People were also climbing in through the windows - it was pandemonium. We had to roll up our sleeping bags quickly to avoid them being sat on as the hoards swarmed all over the carriage. Our bags were passed down from the luggage racks and were replaced by people who would sleep up there while we got more and more squashed as ten people crowded onto a bench designed to seat six.
This was our first taste of Indian trains. It did not get better. Had we realised that the luggage rack was a prize to be valued we would not have wasted it by putting our bags up there. In third class carriages in India, seats are for sitting, floors are for luggage and luggage racks are for sleeping on. We later perfected the art of standing the bags at the end of the luggage rack by our heads, while we spread out and slept on what remained. They were usually about 8 feet long, so when we were able to get a luggage rack there was room for us and our bags in comfort.
Urban traffic in India is a miasma of vehicular and non-vehicular traffic. It includes such diverse things as cars, trucks, motor-rickshaws (three-wheeled taxis), cycle-rickshaws, motor scooters, elephants, goats, dogs, children, chickens, bearers, push-carts, camels, buses, etc. These things are all moving. If you want to pass anything, you just have to honk your horn and everyone else will start honking too. If you don't have a horn, then shout. The one who is loudest gets the right-of-way and everybody else moves over to the left (unless they are in a hurry and everyone in India is in a hurry). If the other vehicles and livestock don't yield to the loudest horn, that vehicle with the right-of-way then enters the lane of oncoming traffic and passes those ahead. This is especially so on a busy street at rush hour and can be good fun when you are on the wrong side of the road in a flimsy motor-rickshaw, with a truck bearing down on you.
If moving traffic isn't enough to keep you occupied, you also have a number of stationary targets, (err, obstacles), including cows, beggars, street repair crews, double-parked cars and trucks and elephants. Because the pavements are being used by the shopkeepers to store and display their stock and what space remains is used for parking various motorised and non motorised contraptions, the road is also the main walking area for pedestrians. Whatever else happens, you are always in the right just as long as you don't hit the cows. The cows can be ANYWHERE in the street and often just wander out in front of the traffic without any warning, almost as if they are challenging you to 'run-me-over-if-you-dare'. It is not uncommon to find them sitting in the middle of the road while all the traffic just flows around them. Other animals or people are not so lucky.
A taxi ride in India can at the same time be one of the most thrilling and terrifying rides of your life. At least twice per minute you will be convinced that you are staring death in the face. Your driver has just pulled out into the oncoming traffic at the same time as a vehicle going the other way has just done the same thus blocking off your escape route. At the last moment everything seems to move out of the way and it is time to head for the next crisis. Drivers seem to know their clearance to within half of a coat of paint and anybody considering starting a dodgem car ride in India would be doomed to financial failure, as people would find it too much like real life to be bothered to go on them.
After a short ride the rickshaw approached the Taj Mahal. It can be seen from a long way off and I have to say it was a breathtaking sight. There are many guidebooks that will
From the hotel we went to the post office to send some letters. Louis always wrote long letters and needed to find out how many sheets of airmail paper he could get in an envelope for the minimum air mail price. He put an envelope with eight sheets of paper on the post office's scales to check the weight. It was just over the minimum limit and so he removed one of the sheets and put the remainder back on the scales. It now weighed more. Nothing we could say could convince the clerk that the scales were wrong. He maintained that seven sheets were
Before heading back to the station we went to the Post Office to mail our letters. Louis had written somebody a six-page letter and when it was weighed it was within the minimum limit. After sticking on the stamps the clerk weighed the envelope again and found that it was now over the limit and more postage was required. I cannot possibly write down what Louis' reply was, but suffice to say it was not complimentary to the Indian postal service. After weighing the letter another few times, each time indicating a different weight, we eventually managed to get it to produce a favourable result and the clerk accepted it and cancelled the stamps with a smile.
Our train out was not until 9.30 p.m. and so we took a slow walk back to the station, stopping for a meal on the way. By the time we got back to the station it was only 8.30 and we still had plenty of time to collect our bags from the left luggage and find the platform that our train was due to depart from. The train arrived on time and there was the usual mad rush to get on and find a seat. Only the last two carriages were going to Allahabad and they were packed out. We would not have even been able to find any floor space to put our bags down so we decided to move to one of the other carriages where we stayed for the short journey to Tundlah Junction, when we were able to switch trains to the North India Express. Despite the usual mad rush to get on, we were able to get seats in a sleeping compartment. Although all the sleepers were occupied, by the next morning we had both managed to get into ones that were vacated when the occupants got off.
As the train trundled on through Utarr Pradesh I spent a great part of the night on the toilet and so I decided to go on a strict diet to get rid of this tummy bug once and for all. I wasn't too sure what I should or shouldn't eat and so I restricted myself to eating just chapati and drinking chai. Apart from all the visits to the toilet during the night, I managed to sleep well. It was early in the afternoon when both Louis and I had to be woken up by other passengers to tell us that the train was arriving at Benares.
As the train pulled into the station we noticed 3 of the Sundowners on the platform. We called out to them and they came over to our carriage. They were also heading to Kathmandu and we were able to give them our sleeper places to use for their onward journey. They would only be on the train as far as Patna, but at the slow speed that Indian trains run, it would still probably take them at least six hours. The Sundowner busses were carrying on to Calcutta, but they had decided to break away to go up to Nepal. One of the girls was a nurse and she was able to give me some good advice about what foods would be best to eat while I had stomach trouble. Aparently one thing that was good to eat in India was a kind of yoghurt called lasi. Even though I could not stand the tast of yoghurt I decided that I would try anything to get better. We said our goodbyes and when the train pulled out of the station we went to the left luggage office to put our bags in for the day.
Once our "river cruise" was over my first and most urgent priority was to find a toilet - quickly. I was lucky enough to find a small shop that had a toilet and would allow me to use it. We then
After we had eaten we went back to the station where we were able to get a good place on the train. We managed to get two luggage racks and settled down for a good night's sleep - or so we thought. When the trains pulled out the door of the carriage swung open and try as we might it just would not stay closed. Despite the draught from the open door we were still able to get a good sleep that night and arrived in Gorakhpur at 8.30 the next morning fully refreshed.
Before leaving the station at Gorakhpur we managed to have a good wash from a tap on the platform. In full view of everybody we both stripped down to our underpants washed and changed our clothes. The best part of it was that nobody gave us a second look, nor did anybody seem to care that two English boys were almost naked in public. (This would have been unheard of when Britain ruled India). Once we had dressed again we checked our bags into the left luggage office and headed off to have a walk around the town.
Our train connection was not until the evening so we had a lot of time to kill and there was not a lot to see or do in Gorakhpur. After spending a few hours walking around the town, I bought an English language newspaper and headed off to spend a few hours sitting in Hui Park, while Louis went off to do some more sightseeing. I started to walk to the park and jokingly tried to hitch hike from some passing cyclists. Much to my surprise, one of them stopped for me and gave me a lift to the park on the back of his cycle. We didn't go straight to the park, but the cyclist rode all around the town pointing out all the places of interest. By the time Louis arrived at the park, I had seen just as much as him and spend a restful two hours reading my newspaper.
Indian newspapers are full of news about India, but nothing at all about the rest of the world. I found it quite boring and it wasn't long before I dozed off. Louis woke me up when he arrived back and then we both dozed off for another hour or so. It was late afternoon before we started to walk back to the station and on the way we came across a troupe of wild monkeys playing in the trees. I tried to photograph some of them but couldn't get close enough to get a good shot. In the end I gave up.
When we got to the station the train was already in even though it was another two hours before it was due to go. The first few carriages were packed to the roof and we were beginning to think that we would have to spend the night sitting on our luggage, when we came across a completely empty carriage. There was no explanation for it. Why should everybody else crowd into the other carriages and leave this one empty? Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth we got a couple of luggage racks, spread our sleeping bags out and settled down to sleep. We had pulled down the window blinds in the vain hope that people wouldn't see in, thus leaving us to get a peaceful nights sleep. We needn't have worried for we must have slept like logs, even though the carriage did eventually fill up to its normal "sardine can like" capacity.
When the train arrived in Muzafapur at 2315 one of the other passengers woke us up to tell us we had arrived. We had just 10 minutes to get packed and dash across the station to catch the connecting train to Sigorli that was scheduled to depart at 2325. We only just made it, jumping on as the train was starting to pull out. Because we were the last ones on the train we didn't have a seat for this three-hour journey. We did eventually manage to get seats near the end of the journey and at 0230 when the train arrived at Sigorli we managed to be one of the first to dash across to the connecting train to Raxaul. Even though it wasn't due to depart until 0630, we managed to get luggage racks and make ourselves comfortable. I found it strange trying to get to sleep on a stationery train and so I read. Before going to sleep I finished off the book I was reading (The Thurber Carnival). The train pulled out right on time and we managed to sleep soundly until the train arrived at Raxaul at 0730.
From the station it was a 10-minute walk to the border and a Nepalese
passengers we had met on the train showed us the way. Crossing the border
we had to go through both immigration and customs first of all on the
Indian side and again on the Nepalese side. Each of the four checkpoints
were some distance apart and so we paid a cycle rickshaw to ride us across
the border and stop at each of the customs and immigration desks.