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.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
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

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine