On the home stretch, Narlai, Udaipur and Delhi

When I left you last, we were en route to Narlai and full of trepidation as to what kind of caravanserai we’d find there.

 

Narlai is deep in the Rajasthan semi-desert, but we needn’t have worried. The tiny town – 7,000 inhabitants make it more than a village I think – has twenty Jain temples, a Hindu temple or two and at least one mosque. It also has a spectacular boutique hotel, once the 17th century hunting lodge of the maharajah of the time.

 

At every turn, the buildings, passageways, corridors, staircases and tiled floors speak of a long lost time; India when hunting boar was the pastime and an occasional tiger never went amiss. In this magnificent group of buildings is a collection of time appropriate furniture and a somewhat later style of electrical equipment, including giant rheostats to control the ceiling fans and brass switches for the lights.

 

The Raj experience - The Rawala Narlai Hotel, Narlai

The Raj experience – The Rawala Narlai Hotel, Narlai

 

Locals, Narlai

Locals, Narlai

 

Unitiled, Narlai

Unitiled, Narlai

 

Unitiled, Narlai

Unitiled, Narlai

 

Jain temple under restoration, Narlai

Jain temple under restoration, Narlai

 

The whole effect is like stepping back at least a hundred years in time, the dominance of the Maharajah and of course, the omniscient Brits with their military rule and shiploads of wares from the best factories the Industrial Revolution could then produce.

 

Throw in a bar and an excellent dining room and you have a recipe for a very special hotel – definitely one of my favourites.

 

Unitiled, Narlai

Unitiled, Narlai

 

The drive from Jodhpur was as interesting as any interaction with India’s roads. Narrow, twisting English-Like country roads, with full tolling and toll plazas – manually operated, but tolls nonetheless.

 

The Rawala Narlai Hotel, Narlai

The Rawala Narlai Hotel, Narlai

 

Dawn, Narlai

Dawn, Narlai

 

Untitled, Narlai

Untitled, Narlai

 

Narlai itself offers the tourist little, except for the aforementioned multitude of temples and a huge rock eruption, topped by a white marble elephant. For the travelling street photographer (me), there were endless opportunities, especially at dusk and dawn, as India’s sun rose and set through the dusty air.

 

Two and a half days of blissful not much to do.

 

Untitled, Narlai

Untitled, Narlai

 

Street vendor, Narlai

Street vendor, Narlai

 

Unitiled, Narlai

Unitiled, Narlai

 

Udaipur is a different matter. Built around a man-made lake, the city is in full-on festival mode, with music, drums, chanting and revelry at every turn. We braved the crowds to see the huge City Palace, after which we took in the sunset at Monsoon Palace and followed that with a half day off, before en-planing for Delhi.

 

Sunrise on the streets - Udaipur

Sunrise on the streets – Udaipur

 

Untitled - Udaipur

Untitled – Udaipur

 

Udaipur by night

Udaipur by night

 

After many days of travel, intense heat and getting up early, I’d abandoned my daily dawn walk, but resurrected my meander here in Udaipur, to find the many aspects and lake views enchanting. Or at least they would be if it were possible to ignore the rubbish that every one of India’s 1.05 billion inhabitants think it’s OK to strew everywhere.
For twenty odd days, I’d managed to ignore the mess and animal excrement, but this morning, it finally got through to me and I wandered back to the hotel feeling that while I should mind my own business; most Indians seem to have no problem living in an endless mess.

 

Sunrise on the streets - Udaipur

Sunrise on the streets – Udaipur

 

But, there’s more to it than that. It seems clear that we’re encountering the attitude to litter and mess we also encountered in Egypt; go from place to place, enter the pristine building, office, hotel or restaurant, close the door and the indescribable mountain of shit simply ceases to exist. Until you go outside once more to move on to the next refuge.

 

That said, Udaipur is just as enchanting as the cities we’d already seen and a waterfront dinner in the gentle evening warmth, with lights twinkling and pleasure boats smoothly passing, was an absolute treat.

 

Squabble outside the temple - the disabled man on the gharri (trolley) has taken the other man's begging spot - Udaipur

Squabble outside the temple – the disabled man on the gharri (trolley) has taken the other man’s begging spot – Udaipur

 

Toecaps - Udaipur

Toecaps – Udaipur

 

Untitled - Udaipur

Untitled – Udaipur

 

Our flight to Delhi was delayed, delivering us into this city of 18 million souls long after dark. The hotel – one of the typical glass and chrome creations – turned out to be awful. Grubby, poorly run and with a bizarre Internet access system that required a trip to reception for a new ID and password every four hours. Half the lights didn’t work, along with the fridge and kettle in our room. No-one was remotely interested in fixing either.

 

Street shave, Chandni Chowk - Delhi

Street shave, Chandni Chowk – Delhi

 

I’m tempted to continue, but I’d end up with more rant than post. If you’re planning to visit Delhi, let me know and I’ll give you the name of this place of awfulness, so that you can avoid it.

 

Untitled - Delhi

Untitled – Delhi

 

Chandni Chowk - Delhi

Chandni Chowk – Delhi

 

Chandni Chowk - Delhi

Chandni Chowk – Delhi

 

That said, the city flops between magnificent, wide, French-style tree lined boulevards and the usual hovels and street living we’d encountered elsewhere. Our guide ensured we saw the huge Jama Masjid mosque and enjoyed a cycle rickshaw ride through the old city’s Chandni Chowk bazaar en route to the Mughal-era Red Fort. From there, it was a brief stop at the India Gate, Humayun’s Tomb and as if to underscore the undeniable role English architect Edwin Lutyens played in the shaping of Delhi, lunch in a restaurant themed around his work.

 

The following day – our last – was spent re-visiting Chandni Chowk by tuk tuk and on foot, followed by a surprisingly good French meal at an almost impossible to find restaurant in an area called Moolchand.

 

We’d have done more, but a midnight hotel transfer awaited us, followed by an 04:00 flight to Dubai and two hours later, a connection to Cape Town.

 

Untitled - Delhi

Untitled – Delhi

 

Untitled - Delhi

Untitled – Delhi

 

Untitled - Delhi

Untitled – Delhi

 

Surprisingly, we were all sad to be leaving. India is truly as incredible the ad blurb suggests. Probably more so. In a month, we spoke only English, had no difficult street experiences, enjoyed the best of hospitality, experienced only helpfulness and at no time felt threatened by crime or bad people. We watched where we walked (vital for all the reasons you can think of), ate in what looked like the most hygienic of places and didn’t drink anything that didn’t come from a sealed container. I also managed to watch some of the Rugby World Cup and South Africa’s cricketers spoiling India’s cricketing day(s) on several occasions.

 

So, in short, it was bloody fab. There were lots of places we didn’t see and a return visit is clearly on the cards – you’ll doubtless be hearing about that from me, too.

 

What about the photography and the cameras? Simple; the Fuji X100T performed flawlessly. It was joined by my new Fuji X-Pro1 and 35mm f1.4 in Agra, which likewise delivered superb images from a bewildering variety of scenes, situations and sights. The files were manipulated – at least until the idiots at Adobe released the so-called Lightroom upgrade, which stopped pretty much everything on my MacBook Pro working while it was loaded – in the aforementioned PoS. I then used one of VSCO’s plug-ins to add various film simulations and effects. For a reason I have yet to work out, India and its population’s brilliant colours lent themselves especially well to this kind of post processing.

 

Untitled - Delhi

Untitled – Delhi

 

Chandni Chowk - Delhi

Chandni Chowk – Delhi

 

The X100T’s 23mm (35mm equivalent) lens is razor sharp at f2 and as good as anything that comes from Leica by f4. For street work, there isn’t much that will beat it. The interchangeable lens X-Pro1 gave me a little more reach with its 35mm (50mm equivalent) lens again setting standards for acuity. In the main, the light was good enough to shoot at a maximum ISO 400. Markets, alleys and after dark meant both cameras were used at up to ISO 1600, still at least a stop below their theoretical maximum.

 

I shot almost 4000 images with no misfires, blank frames or read errors. Now, all I need to do is sort them out and finish the editing process.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

View from the tuk tuk - Delhi

View from the tuk tuk – Delhi

 

Humayun’s Tomb - Delhi

Humayun’s Tomb – Delhi

 

Untitled - Delhi

Untitled – Delhi

 

All the Js

Queue for the Amber Palace, Jaipur

Queue for the Amber Palace, Jaipur

 

These have been busy days; travelling from Gwalior to the Js. First to Jaipur, several days on the streets and then on to Jodhpur. Two cities in central India that are home to much of the country’s history and able to speak volumes of their entanglement with their former colonial rulers.

 

Jaipur, unremittingly India, colourful, noisy and a must on anyone’s travel agenda. It is also home to the sprawling, hilltop Amber Palace and with the right guide, a place of constant surprise and delight.

 

We’d arrived after a lengthy drive from Gwalior. Nine hours on a variety of roads from primitive, yet effective (and tolled) dual carriageways, to rutted, potholed country tarmac. Piloted by the ever-capable Manoj our driver, we finally tumbled off the bus late in the afternoon and set about doing b-all.

 

Untitled, Jaipur

Untitled, Jaipur

 

The following morning, our itinerary was essentially a tour of the Amber Palace. The bus set us down in Ghandi Chowk, the village at the base of the hill over which the Palace looms. On the suggestion of our guide, we wandered the lanes, alleyways and various temples on our walk up to the Palace itself. Before you ask, yes it was blerry hot – before 10:00 and the temperature was already reaching for the mid-30s Celsius.

 

Untitled, Jaipur

Untitled, Jaipur

 

Every town and city we’ve visited has a slightly different feel; Jaipur being no different. It’s closer to its agrarian roots, retains more structured village-like housing and is palpably tidier.

 

Depending on your photographic preference, the Amber Palace offers just about everything; horizon-to-horizon views, magnificent (if down-at-heel) buildings, quiet corners and people everywhere. October is late season in this part of India and the crowds were manageable – it’s hard to imagine what high season 40C temperatures and thousands more people could do to the current semi-tranquility.

 

From the Palace, we descended into the city and it’s market under a banyan tree. It’s very obvious if you’re driving past, but few guides seem to bother, preferring to usher their charges through the more obvious tourist landmarks.

 

The market under the banyan tree, Jaipur

The market under the banyan tree, Jaipur

 

We got to see locksmiths cutting and matching keys by hand, the hairdresser turning out first class high-lather, straight razor shaves and a transport hub, all in an area not much bigger than a large blanket.

 

From there the street market was just a few steps, the colour and bustle of India on display at every turn.

 

High art and cables, Jaipur

High art and cables, Jaipur

 

Day two saw us lolling – the guide books call it a “day at leisure”, we call it a “down day”, which we use to rest and sleep a bit, attend to our personal needs and wander the immediate area. Years of touring have impressed on us the necessity of time off – if you don’t make time in your schedule, you’ll quickly wish you had – especially with day time temperatures peaking close to 40C.

 

Day three. The early morning vegetable market, cold coffee in one of the city’s famous patisseries and on to the Monkey Temple. Nestled in the hills to the east of the city, it’s usually ignored by tour guides and visitors alike – a pity as the photo opportunities are wonderful.

 

Monkey temple, Jaipur

Monkey temple, Jaipur

 

A late lunch in one of the city’s swankier coffee shops and back to the hotel to prepare for the drive to Jodhpur tomorrow.

 

Hard though it was for us to believe, Jodhpur is almost clean and free of litter. Our guide explained the Rajah’s ongoing involvement with the city and away from the (supposedly idle and corrupt) ministrations of the government, things like refuse collection and maintenance work and are well funded and get done timeously.

 

Commuter, Jodhpur

Commuter, Jodhpur

 

Untitled, Jodhpur

Untitled, Jodhpur

 

Untitled, Jodhpur

Untitled, Jodhpur

 

Rickshaw, Jodhpur

Rickshaw, Jodhpur

 

Rickshaw, Jodhpur

Rickshaw, Jodhpur

 

Obliging photographer, Jodhpur

Obliging photographer, Jodhpur

 

Untitled, Jodhpur

Untitled, Jodhpur

 

Chillin' (no.1 daughter's toes) Jodhpur

Chillin’ (no.1 daughter’s toes) Jodhpur

 

The Mehrangarh Fort hovers spectacularly over the so-called Blue City city; perched on a commanding hilltop. Our guide was highly enthusiastic about the Fort and we found it’s tour well organised and pleasantly free of litter and land mines left by the itinerant cattle.

 

The Blue City, Jodhpur

The Blue City, Jodhpur

 

Locked, Jodhpur

Locked, Jodhpur

 

Suti handprints, Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Suti handprints, Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

 

Inside the Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

Inside the Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

 

Apparently, the municipality herd these bovine interlopers together and take them to a central pound, where owners can pay a fine and re-claim them. Likewise, badly parked cars – the first city in India where we’ve heard anyone even mention a functioning police force.

 

The guide created some expectation regarding Jodhpur’s street market. The city is very much a desert city and it’s market reflects the different style that brings. Gone are the narrow lanes and claustrophobic press of people, in it’s place, open air displays and vendors selling the produce so typical of the region. There is even a thriving area in the market for used clothing, especially freshly washed and pressed saris. And, for the first time since arriving Mrs P buys spices and a (new!) magnificent cashmere scarf for our upcoming and doubtless chilly UK visit.

 

All too soon, the clean and thoroughly enjoyable Jodhpur falls behind us as we move on to the last leg of this hugely enjoyable and entertaining journey. We’re headed for Narlai, a tiny village barely on the map, ignored by the guide books and home to a hotel our recent experience tells us from which we should not expect too much.

See Agra and then quickly head for Gwalior

The Taj. A magnificent monument to love. Fuji X-Pro1, 25mm Zeiss Biogon

The Taj. A magnificent monument to love. Fuji X-Pro1, 25mm Zeiss Biogon

 

Gwalior. Not on the itinerary of many India visitors and it really should be.

 

I’d added it to ours on a whim – the evening before the details of our tour were set in stone, I’d been idly remembering a series of British steam locomotives that had been named in the ’30s after various Commonwealth countries, provinces and cities. Amongst them, Gwalior.

 

Not very PC in this insane world of being frightened of offending people, but there was an easy two day slot in our schedule. So, why not?

 

I’m glad we did.

 

Family pilgrimage, The Taj. Fuji X-Pro1, 25mm Zeiss Biogon

Family pilgrimage, The Taj. Fuji X-Pro1, 25mm Zeiss Biogon

 

Architectural detail, the Taj. Fuji X-Pro1, 25mm Zeiss Biogon

Architectural detail, the Taj. Fuji X-Pro1, 25mm Zeiss Biogon

 

The observant amongst you will quickly realise that I’ve skipped Agra and the Taj Mahal. Not. That’s about to happen. In truth, Gwalior probably ought to rank equally with the TM and if you’ve been there before, do replace it on your list of places to see.

 

Taj visitors. Fuji X-Pro1, Leica Summilux 50mm f1.4

Taj visitors. Fuji X-Pro1, Leica Summilux 50mm f1.4

 

Untitled. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

Untitled. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

 

We’d left Lucknow by train – did you expect anything different? It was a horrible journey, almost as bad as the TANZAR between Lusaka and Dar es Salaam, which is probably unfair as Zambia Railways actually got us into Dar on time after three and a half days. The bloody Lucknow-Agra Express was dirty, more cramped than a flight on Mango Airlines in South Africa, full of broken seats and seat back tables and the air conditioning was on a par with an asthmatic old man.

 

I decided not to risk the WC.

 

Anyway, this bloody old contraption eventually lurched into Agra at 01:00, three hours late after stopping at every station and signal along the way. Fortunately, our guide was still patiently waiting for us and sped us off to our hotel and a couple of hours of wide awake in bed, waiting for sleep to come. We’d abandoned our 05:00 alarm call to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.

 

Instead, we visited at dusk and it’s magnificent – pretty much as you’d expect. This is low season, but there were still thousands of visitors milling around and getting any kind of collectible photograph is hopeless. We did the sunrise shoot the following morning, immediately prior to getting back on our small bus for the drive to Gwalior.

 

That was also special. Less visitors, fewer locals jostling and some nice photo opportunities and a brilliant sunrise.

 

Taj close-up. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

Taj close-up. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

 

Agra? Great, but as WikiTravel says; one day and flee. I’ve been there and now understand why.

 

Poolside loll. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

Poolside loll. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

 

Sandstone everywhere. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

Sandstone everywhere. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

 

Sunrise near the Taj. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

Sunrise near the Taj. Fuji X-Pro1, Fuji 35mm f1.4

 

So, Gwalior.

 

This morning’s guide arrived full of beans and was clearly a local history maven. He took us to the fort – actually a mogul’s palace and temple. In a word; spectacular.

 

The fort is perched on a hilltop overlooking the city and our tour explored pretty much every nook, cranny and tiny staircase in and between the walls. Our guide didn’t guide, he taught us about Shiva, Vishnu, the succession of moguls, wives, the architecture, habits, practices and just about everything else. In short, he brought the whole two thousand year history of the fort and its surrounds to life. Taj Mahal? Seen it and won’t go back. Gwalior? Read on.

 

According it the blurb, we’re staying in a non-hotel hotel. A self-catering boutique hotel, created from the tumbledown structure of some former mogul’s guest house, the hotel has a central buffet-style dining room if you want to use it and not much else. It’s old, renovated, comfortable, surrounds a large lawn area and is entirely enchanting.

 

To our (all of us) delight, there are several tiny temples and other ancient buildings also on the property and accessible to guests. Having arrived late yesterday afternoon after a lengthy road journey from Agra, my sundown shoot on the property was hurried and yielded little. This morning’s sunrise wander amongst the temples was everything I’d hoped for yesterday and a great deal more.

 

Gwalior is welcoming – as are all of the places we’ve visited so far – and as hectic as we are coming to expect. It also has the special something Agra lacks. I’d recommend it to any traveller.

 

The rest of the family arrived in Agra, along with my new Fuji X-Pro and Fuji 35mm f1.4 lens. Between visits, walks, food and beer I’m working through the manual and trying the new lens and well as my various M mount lenses on its adaptor. So far, the 50mm Summilux, 25mm Biogon and Voigtlander’s 15mm all seem to work fine. The latter is a complete surprise as my Sony NEX-7 simply refused to deliver anything usable with it.

 

While I’m learning the X-Pro, I’ve been relying on my X100T and growing to respect it more and more. It’s simple to set up, incredibly forgiving of my regular poor decision making, reliable and can shoot against a 2-3 stop overexposed background and still deliver a magically balanced, usable image.

 

More? It’s small, unobtrusive, unthreatening and totally silent. It’s visual qualities have been amply demonstrated by many other photographers around the world. I’m late to the party, but will happily sing its praises and endorse those that have gone before.

 

Every image below was shot with the X100T at f2 or f2.8 – see what I mean?

 

Rickshaw, Gwalior. Fuji X100T

 

Daughter-in-law temple, Gwalior. Fuji X100T

Daughter-in-law temple, Gwalior. Fuji X100T

 

Intricate detail. Mother-in-law temple. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

Intricate detail. Mother-in-law temple. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

 

Intricate detail. Mother-in-law temple. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

Intricate detail. Mother-in-law temple. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

 

Full colour, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

Full colour, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

 

Untitled, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

Untitled, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

 

Sikh pilgrims, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

Sikh pilgrims, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

 

Museum visitors, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

Museum visitors, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

 

Untitled, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

Untitled, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

 

Untitled, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2

Untitled, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2

 

Tea room, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

Tea room, Gwalior. Fuji X100T @ f2.8

…and then you’ll be able to rememberise Varanasi

He walks in his own light, Varanasi

He walks in his own light, Varanasi

 

Sunrise ceremonies, Varanasi

Sunrise ceremonies, Varanasi

 

Cows everywhere, Varanasi

Cows everywhere, Varanasi

 

Saturday – we were advised last evening that today’s early afternoon flight west to Varanasi had been cancelled, the airline offering us an alternative at 04:30 to Delhi, several hours wait, then a flight all the way back to our intended destination. Or an airline switch that would cost 3000 Rupees (R600/£30) for the pair of us.

 

Rather than waste an entire day travelling and sitting around, we opted for the relatively small extra and landed in Varanasi mid-morning after an 05:00 wake-up call and a quick transfer to the airport.

 

International baggage allowances vary, depending on the airline. Most allow 23kg, Emirates 30kg. Both of our cases tipped at the scales at under 20kg when we flew here, but the internal airlines are on the same money-making gig you’ll encounter elsewhere and were very quick to charge us several hundred Rupees extra for our “excess baggage”. I do understand the profit motive; I’ve worked for myself for more than 30 years, but this feels much more like taking the piss because you can.

 

Rant over. For now – we’ve another flight coming up.

 

Untitled, Varanasi

Untitled, Varanasi

 

Flower market, Varanasi

Flower market, Varanasi

 

The school run, Varanasi

The school run, Varanasi

 

Untitled, Varanasi

Untitled, Varanasi

 

Kolkata had largely proved my photographic choices; small mirrorless cameras (Fuji X100T, Sony NEX-7) and 25/35/50mm lenses. I’d also packed my ancient Leica 135 f2.8 thinking I’d use it around the Taj Mahal for sunrises and sunsets. That has still to come, but given the very limited scope for long lenses so far, I’m beginning to think it would have been better to leave it at home.

 

In the main, the Fuji shines very brightly. When it hits a critical focus point, the results are as good as with the best of cameras. The autofocus isn’t that quick however and I have definitely lost some images in alleyways and poorly lit buildings that were grabbed en passant. Another second or two and some patience could have delivered a great shot.

 

The NEX-7 and it’s manual lenses remains a delight, but not for anything other than outright daylight, or situations where there is time to focus properly. Zone focus is a solution, but at ISO800 and f2.8 a daylight exposure value that delivers wonderful focus and sharpness deteriorates to f2.8 and a half second exposure in a heartbeat, as the environment changes from pavement to semi-dark alleyways and the deep gloom of open fronted shops/eating houses.

 

My new Fuji X-Pro1 and 35mm f1.4 arrives with the rest of the family in a couple of days and I’m hoping that will be a more workable solution.

 

While I’m being a bit technical, I’m using some different editing techniques on this trip. Fortunately, they’re non-destructive, so if what I’m doing doesn’t fly, I can head back to where I started.

 

The first change is the use of a 2.39:1 crop – the cinematic ratio, I’m told. I’ve tried several different ratios before, including the usual landscapers’ 2:1, but this one really works for me – especially with the scenes I’ve been shooting. Comments would be helpful…

 

Shoes off please

Shoes off please

 

Queue to enter the Golden Temple, Varanasi

Queue to enter the Golden Temple, Varanasi

 

A common sight on Varanasi's lanes

A common sight on Varanasi’s lanes

 

Sunrise ceremonies, Varanasi

Sunrise ceremonies, Varanasi

 

The Ganga at sunrise

The Ganga at sunrise

 

The Ganga at sunrise

The Ganga at sunrise

 

The second experiment is using VSCO’s plug-ins. I bought Pack 4 (essentially offering Velvia, Provia and some Kodak film emulations) and added it to the free Pack 0 which I use for Tri-X emulation. I’m really enjoying the bright and intense colours, but find it necessary to tone down some of the Velvia renditions, especially with Asian skin tones which quickly head for bright yellow. All-in-all, it’s an experiment worth trying.

 

Untitled, Varanasi

Untitled, Varanasi

 

Untitled, Varanasi

Untitled, Varanasi

 

So, Varanasi. It’s dry, dusty and much less humid than Kolkata. The traffic is as bad and the willingness to hoot at every piece of paper on the street, shadow, dog, cow, cyclist, pedestrian, or other vehicle within 50m is identical. The hotel, several notches up from Kolkata’s quaint Fairlawn has just served us a passable buffet lunch and we currently await our guide for the afternoon’s exploration.

 

Collecting us from the airport was Anil; chatterbox of note, he was keen, a mine of information and introduced us both to the concept of rememberisation; some kind of recall one has after visiting Varanasi and joining one of his tours. I hope we’ll remembers this one with great fondness.

 

Billed as the planet’s oldest city, Varanasi is known for its temples, religious activity and daily gatherings at the ghats along the Ganga (Ganges to us outlanders). Our first guided visit was to walk a bit of the city and end at the Dashaswamedh ghat – a stepped entry down into the Ganga – as darkness fell.

 

In classic Indian style, the evening ritual was celebrated with a huge crowd, seemingly made up equally of sightseers and worshippers. Bells clanged, hand organs played, tablas bonged and five orange and gold clad priests led the ceremony, chanting, singing and ringing hand bells. The crowd joined in and with the addition of clouds of incense, turned a sundown rite into a spectacular experience.

 

Sunday morning saw us with another early alarm call, this time to re-visit Dashaswamedh ghat, to climb on board a large rowing boat to see the morning bathing ritual and witness the sunrise over the Ganga. There are few words to describe the experience.

 

Off the boat, just beyond the cremation area (strictly no photographs), we walked along the various ghats, spectators at a daily ritual critical to India’s Hindu community. If last evening’s ceremony was a great experience, this was truly special – one of the great sights that make India the travel destination it is.

 

Untitled, Varanasi

Untitled, Varanasi

 

Waiting for the ceremony to begin, Varanasi

Waiting for the ceremony to begin, Varanasi

 

Untitled, Varanasi

Untitled, Varanasi

 

The Ganga at sunrise

The Ganga at sunrise

 

Sunrise witnessed and hundreds of pilgrims seen washing and purifying, we were ushered back to our hotel for a (very) late breakfast, followed by a walking tour of one of the city’s fabric factories, the Islamic market and a the lanes that differentiate this ancient city from so many others.

 

This morning (Tuesday), another early call heralded departure for Allahabad and Lucknow – in other words, a day in the car, with brief stops at Sangram, the holy confluence of three great rivers and then on to Nehru’s house in Allahabad. Photography in most of these places is forbidden and while the house is magnificently maintained, I managed only a couple of shots. The police are inches thick everywhere and I suspect falling foul of them is not advised.

 

If you’ve read Rohinton Mistry’s A fine balance, or Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, you’ll understand.

 

Before I turn my attentions to Lucknow, I need to say that Varanasi was truly special; the religious pilgrimages surrounded by the Ganga and a city full of ancient buildings, unique. That said, for all its history and appeal to the tourist/photographer, the city is unremittingly dirty. There are dogs and (predictably) cattle everywhere, often asleep in the middle of main roads and alleyways. Their droppings make navigating the litter- and rubble-strewn lanes and roadways almost impossible. Couple that with the unending press of humanity, motor bikes and scooters roaring past and the permanent stench of just about everything you don’t want to imagine and you’ll be well prepared if the you choose to visit.

 

Sunrise

Sunrise

 

Sanskrit University, Varanasi

Sanskrit University, Varanasi

 

The Ganga at sunrise

The Ganga at sunrise

 

Untitled, Varanasi

Untitled, Varanasi

 

Sanjiv, our day guide did a fine job of navigating us through the labyrinthine lanes and alleyways, and swatted (not literally) away the endless stream of beggars. If you’re planning to visit Varanasi and need someone to show you the real photographic sights – send me an e-mail and I’ll let you have his details.

 

Wednesday – Lucknow. Breakfast soon and then our first of two full days in the capital of Uttar Pradesh.

The Kolkata interlude

Lunch preparation, Kolkata Flower Market

Lunch preparation, Kolkata Flower Market

 

Note to self 1: when your weather app tells you it’s 35C outside, with a “feels like” temperature of 45C, it’s best not to go for a walk. Especially, if your testosterone ends up encouraging you to walk 7 kilometres through Kolkata’s endless throngs.

 

Note to self 2: if you’re going to be willing to empty your body of most of its essential fluids via your skin, do it on a day that isn’t a religious holiday and the bloody bars aren’t closed.

 

I think most of the city had a good stare (and giggle) at me as I stottered past, Fuji in hand, sopping wet and trailing what felt like a slick of perspiration, wishing the while for several tots of gin flowed seductively over an iceberg and complimented with a bucket of ice-cold tonic. As this was a religious holiday, that wasn’t to be, but fortunately, there was beer in our room’s fridge, which went magnificently with my post-cold-shower chill and half an hour in front of the air conditioner.

 

Chowringhee Road

Chowringhee Road

 

Six Indian men

Six Indian men

 

The beer’s long gone and now it’s hosing with rain. For those of you fortunate enough to have lived in Jozi (Johannesburg), this kind of rain is nothing new, just to be avoided. For those who haven’t, it’s been biblical, with lightning, thunder and rain coming down like steel re-enforcing rods.

 

End of the storm

End of the storm

 

The Kolkatans are unperturbed, their trade continues whatever the weather. For so many of them, hand-to-mouth is the only way – don’t sell, or beg enough and there will be nothing to eat this evening and possibly nowhere to sleep either.

 

Street life

Street life

 

It’s a tough existence and the evidence, like the people, is everywhere. I did quite a lot of research and reading prior to leaving home and while feeling reasonably well prepared, nothing could have made the assault on my senses easier.

 

Reader

Reader

 

Photographically, it’s heaven and hell. There’s more than enough to keep you and your camera occupied for as long as you choose to stay. The downside is just how much you are prepared to tolerate and just how prurient you feel about the extremes of poverty on display; do you really want to head home with thousands of images of people sleeping on the streets, washing in public, performing their bodily functions and eating their every morsel under your lens’ remorseless eye?

 

I’ll confess to some curiosity, but that very quickly ran out.

 

While here, I had hoped to collect the material for an InSight: Kolkata, but this is a city which won’t be ordered, has few highs and way too many lows. After humanity’s extremes and decaying century old buildings, there isn’t much else to photograph.

 

Traffic in Sutter Street

Traffic in Sutter Street

 

Haircut

Haircut

 

Untitled

Untitled

 

St John's Church

St John’s Church

 

Marble statue, St John's Church

Marble statue, St John’s Church

 

Street life

Street life

 

Dhobi walla

Dhobi walla

 

Untitled

Untitled

 

Untitled

Untitled