Through bandit country on the magic bus
Sunday 20 April 1997
When I managed, after several attempts at getting an entry permit, to visit the north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, I was bowled over by the vast mountain landscape with scarcely a dent in its deep verdant forest cover. The road wandered up to the great monastery of Tawang which, overlooked by the mountains along the border with Tibet, peers down into the mysterious depths of the valleys of north-east Bhutan. I was travelling on the Midnight Special - a bus designed for smaller people - staring out of the window with my knees almost under my chin. The only thing special about it was the warmth of the people and I soon found myself in the inner circle, invited by the driver to share the hearth and a glass of chang - the local beer - at each stop. Despite my increasing nervousness we made it over the dreaded Sela Pass, which was covered with snow and glowing eerily in the light of the full moon.
Don't expect luxury along the river-front of Varanasi but simplicity and character. To find the Vishnu Guest House, insist, over and over again and until you are blue in the face, on being taken to the main Dashashwamedha Ghat, or landings. Walk down the steps and turn right below the simple white Shitala Devi temple, then walk along the waterfront until you see the sign for the guest house, which is reached by a long set of stairs. The terrace, the welcome and the ambience are well worth the effort.
"Namaste" must be one of the most popular forms of greeting in Hindi and is invariably accompanied by folded hands. It is a beautiful gesture and one known to all visitors to India who then apply it at random and without discretion to all and sundry - Hindus and Muslims alike - leaving the latter bemused. Mild abuse and imperatives like "bhaago" (take a run) are useful.
Giles, an enigmatic Swiss expat, welcomes everyone to his tree house overlooking the River Ken right in the centre of India, not far from the erotic temples of Khajuraho. That's where I met Gunnar and his magic bus, a converted German coach with a fridge stuffed with cold beer and a great sound system. Gunnar invited me to accompany him as navigator to Delhi. We set off one evening. As darkness fell Gunnar waxed lyrically about the area through which we were passing. I was struck with trepidation - this was the Chambal Valley, the land of the dacoits where the once- feared bandit queen, Phoolan Devi, lived. We survived the journey and camped that night at another of Gunnar's favourite spots and awoke to find ourselves amid the majestic ruins of Orcha. I met one of my co-authors, Harriet Sharkey, and her partner Dee a couple of days later in Agra. I had been travelling almost every day for the past two and a half months and was only six hours late.
It had been almost 18 years since I last visited Badrinath, one of the holiest Hindu temples, which is set below the impressive snow peak of Nilkantha. The devout once walked for days to get here. The tortuous military road built in the Sixties to counter the threat of a possible Chinese invasion has transformed Badrinath, bringing in busloads of pilgrims during its short open season. The town has grown relentlessly, spewing its refuse into the River Ganga and dispersing all the spirits that once inhabited this magical place.
I spent a wonderful few days among the Nagas before continuing by bus to Manipur. We stopped at a grubby town called Miao waiting for an armed escort. No one would tell me why. The journey was extremely tense but we soon descended into the vale of Imphal and relative safety. The 30- minute plane ride to Silchar in Assam was booked so I took the bus. It took 12 hours and I was stopped and thoroughly checked 14 times en route. A few months later reports of a war between the Nagas and the Kukis of Manipur filtered through the press, along with stories of massacres. I had come through a war zone without knowing it.
The greatest bargain of all must be the fares on Indian railways. Some may despair at the service but it is the largest network in the world, moving some 40 million people a day. An air-conditioned journey from Calcutta to Delhi - covering 1,000 miles - costs about pounds 15.
Devdan Sen is co-author of 'The Rough Guide to India' (pounds 14.99). Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times a year. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide will go to the first three subscribers each week.
t Flights to India cost from pounds 450 with the cheapest fares on Royal Jordanian, Aeroflot and Air India.
t Indrail passes offer a convenient way of exploring the country and are available through SD Enterprises (0181-903 3411).
t Varansi has good train connections to Delhi and Calcutta and flights to Delhi, Khajuraho and Kathmandu. Auto and cycle rickshaws are the most convenient modes of transport around the city.
t The best time to visit Agra and Rajasthan is at the time of the Pushkar Mela, a colourful camel fair held in October or November according to the full moon.
t Indian Airlines flies from Delhi and Agra to Khajuraho. Buses take about six hours from Jhansi, the most convenient railhead.
t Permits are required for Arunachal Pradesh and a few other areas. For further information call the Indian Tourist Office (0171-437 3677).
t Access to the high Himalayas is only possible between May and October. Landslides caused by heavy monsoon rains can cut vital roads.
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