The first thing that hits you when you arrive in India is its incredible bureaucracy. Pakistan processed our exit in 45 minutes, entering India took us 3.5 hours, we filled in endless forms with the same information over and over again and finally were allowed to proceed to Amritsar, city of the golden temple and our first stop in India. Our small convoy stayed in the beautiful and quiet garden of Mrs. Bhandari's Guesthouse, not far from Amritsar’s city center. Staying there allowed us to recover from the strains of crossing Pakistan, recover from my infection, fix minor things at our vehicles and of course visit Amritsar and get more things done. Things like getting Indian SIM cards for our phones - the next major encounter with India’s bureaucracy. Not only does it require copies of passport and visa, a confirmation of the hotel we are staying in that we are really there, pictures and again endless forms, no all of that also needs to be confirmed by calling someone or by providing copies of more documents. After having spent 5 hours in phone shops we finally went out with 2 working SIM cards, at least for the moment. Looking at the impressive golden temple and some of the other sights in Amritsar more than compensated for the hassle. Visiting the bazar gave a first taste of India that especially Berna struggled with a little bit. Dirt and rubbish everywhere, countless pigs and cows in the streets, people crapping next to the street without any shame and market people trying to cheat you at every occasion. All things we will get used to and will find totally normal in the course of the next few weeks but it was definitely a rough start. In Amritsar we also met Steffi and Jojo, a couple travelling with a VW T4 on a similar trajectory and a couple we are going to meet again at multiple occasions. Our next goal was Delhi - 460km from Amritsar. Visiting the capital and organising the visa for Myanmar was on the list. Driving in India is again different than driving in Iran or Pakistan and it is fair to say that it took me a few days to get used to it. Passing trucks is a special challenge with a left hand driven vehicle as you only see what’s coming when you are already on the right lane. Berna as passenger had the task to scream when another truck or bus was coming our way and after a while we had perfected that teamwork. “You can pass, just motorbikes coming” is one of the typical commands which means that we force the motorbikes on the shoulder (or even further right). Interestingly nobody really gets angry if you drive that way. Once arrived in Delhi we luckily met Steffi & Jojo again and we set up camp in the relatively quiet embassy quarter in southern Delhi. Delhi is a mega city, more than 16 million people, horrible air quality, dirt and noise. But Delhi also offers impressive sights, the Red Fort, the old bazar, the national museum, Majnu-ka-Tila (the home to Tibetan refugees in northern Delhi) to name a few. We also took the time to visit climbing shops and Delhi Rock, the new climbing gym, to get more info on our next possible destinations. As we had to wait for our Myanmar visa over the weekend we stayed longer in Delhi than planned and I was really happy to leave this city a few minutes after collecting our visa even though it meant driving in the dark out of the city and towards Agra - with its famous Taj Mahal and a must see in India. In Agra we met Stefan again and we decided to take a small deviation to visit Ranthambhore national park - famous for its tigers of which we were very lucky to see 2 mating.
Reaching Ranthambhore was a different story and our choice to take a shorter road came with the price of really bad roads (one day we did less than 100km for 8 hours driving) but beautiful landscapes and breathtaking village life and scenes with friendly and very curious people. In the morning of our first Indian night “in the fields” we were welcomed by a group of kids and elderly people from the nearby village standing around a fire in front of Rouletout - a scene that repeated itself many times.
What’s your country, what’s your name, school-pen, chocolate are the few English words every kid can and will say and repeat. Standing alone between rice or sugar cane fields is very rare, normally it just takes minutes for the first people to arrive and they will not leave before dark. As one villager put it: “don’t misunderstand, you are entertainment for us”. And the truth is, you get used to it. Used to the fact that everyone wants to visit Roueltout, used to the fact that they watch your computer or phone screen for minutes while you work on it, used to the fact that in the morning everyone goes to the fields (or bushes) to relief himself with a small colourful plastic jug full of water to clean his as and hand, used to the fact that they burp loudly next to you, or that they clear their throat and spit at any occasion and location and used to the permanent horning (yes, most cars and all trucks and buses actually have “Please Horn” written on their back, that way they don’t have to look into the mirrors - if they have some).
It was on this road to Ranthambhore that for the first time I started to like India, its colours, its tractors with meter high speakers emitting Indian music, its crazy truck drivers that aim at you until you (or they) blink, the women that carry all sorts of objects on their heads for kilometres, the food stands, the exotic fruits and the incredible coexistence of men and all sorts of animals - in the villages but also in the cities. Sometimes it feels like living in a zoo and sometimes you really have to fight for your food if you sit outside. Monkeys stealing coconuts from our kitchen, cows eating whatever they find on the table (including newspapers) or pigs cleaning up the rest. Still our plan was to head south as fast as possible, leaving the smog and cold of the north behind us. We headed towards Indore mostly on roads full of potholes followed by perfect highways to Dhule, visited the world famous Ellora cave temples, Solapur, Bijapur with its impressive Golgumbaz and finally arrived just before Christmas in Badami. Badami, the small, dusty and noisy town that became our home for a little more than a month (ok, in between we went for a week to the coast near Gokarna to celebrate the arrival of the new year with our friends Steffi & Jojo, Stefan, Behrang and Sebastian on beautiful beaches). Perfect rock climbing, good friends, nice temples and Indian food were our daily routine - but more of that in a separate blog entry.