Travel: All the repose of 1,000 miles in a city square

The passage across India is a journey everyone must make, writes Jeremy Atiyah

It was something that every sane and rational human being had to do once in their lifetime: cross the Indian subcontinent, from Lahore to Kathmandu. That was what a guru told me in 1983. He had long hair and spoke more slowly than weeds grow. But he lived in a coffee shop in Freak Street, and I was inclined to agree with him.

I was only 20 at the time and had completed the journey in question, which helped. I had also just had a meal of muesli, chocolate cake, spaghetti bolognese, lemon meringue pie, red wine, lamb chops and cappuccino. Mogul monuments were all very well but, when it came to home cooking, Kathmandu was tops.

My pilgrimage had begun two months earlier in the rain in Lahore, a city containing Aurangzeb's Bedshahi Mosque, as well as the tombs of Jehangir and Nur Jehan, but not the barest whiff of lemon meringue pie. Instead I ate biryanis in the railway station, plotting routes to Delhi.

Lahore and Amritsar were barely 60 miles apart, but the journey took hours. The border into India was marked by gangs of uniformed men on either side of a road, spitting at the thought of each other. My passport was stamped so viciously by one official that a table leg cracked. I arrived in Amritsar and walked all day amid mud and flies before arriving, bewildered, at a hotel guarded by a man with a scimitar.

At night I slept with frogs croaking under the bed. When the fan stopped turning, I stopped sleeping. For breakfast I drank tea so sweet that it made me retch; only by telling myself I was drinking a form of hot chocolate did I learn to swallow it. But then there were the cool marble and still waters of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs: the repose of a thousand miles confined to a city square.

If Amritsar was hot, what would Delhi be like? I spent a night queuing for a ticket on the daytime train and then fell unconscious with tiredness. On arrival I found Delhi railway station so full of rigid sleeping bodies, I could not avoid them. It didn't matter. The city was asleep. Outside, only the deranged and the all-night barbers stayed on two feet.

In the morning I took a tour of Delhi, which cost pounds 1, including lunch. I didn't know where they were taking me, because I didn't understand the commentary. The Red Fort. The Mahatma's Memorial. The Qutb Minaret. And all of India in between. The lunch was good though.

Back then, New Delhi was a quiet place. Connaught Place was empty and losing its paint. Old Delhi, with its teeming millions and rickshaw traffic jams, was the centre of life. But it was monsoon season. With black storms beating on the trees, I lay by an open window, reading train timetables and histories of the Moguls. I understood neither.

From Delhi I travelled east along the Ganges plain. The land was all aflood. Palm trees were knee-deep in the rice paddies. On the train I was drip-fed sweet tea in small clay cups passed through the window bars. The city of Patna, when I got there, resembled a leprosy camp. I spent a day roaming the bandit territory of northern Bihar, asking people for the bus to Kathmandu.

The border post to Nepal was lit by candles. The official conducted his business in Y-fronts; he asked if I would promise to send him a letter. I spent a night on the border, under a mosquito net that prevented the mosquitoes inside from getting out. Who cared? The next night, if all went well, I would feast on lemon meringue pie and buffalo steak.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star