A little piece I wrote for the Mail on Sunday a few years ago about a trip to India…along with Corsica and Morocco, it ranks as my all time favourite travel destination.
Gleaming Morris Oxfords, Mogul palaces, the Taj Mahal by moonlight, painted elephants, desert forts, water skiing on the lakes of Kashmir, brilliant colour, unfamiliar noises and exotic smells — all for less than £5 a day.
That was 1982 when, as a student, I backpacked alone and impecunious around India and still had the time of my life.
Fifteen years on I revisited the tourist trail of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, expecting to find that my memories had been through rose-tinted spectacles.
And in some respects they had. There is now a poluted haze over Delhi. Even the city elephants have suffered, developing skin diseases as a result of the foul air. As for sightseeing, it’s all a bit of a blur.
Agra. close to the capital in Northern India, has come off worst of all. We sat for two very cold hours waiting to see the sun rise over the Taj, but were prevented by the ‘mist’ — a euphemism for smog.
This world famous mausoleum is literally being dissolved by airborne chemicals. The government has reacted by introducing electric buses within the Taj complex and recently gave 292 local, coalbased industries an ultimatum either to close down or to convert to more environment- friendly gas. But many say the damage is done.
Nor is life in India quite as relaxed as it used to be. Romanitcs can no longer watch the Taj by moonlight because it’s closed from dusk until dawn due to vandalism.
The army now has an openair baraacks not 20 yards away from the entrance to the Taj complex to deter terrorist attacks.
While it is still possible to visit the stunning scenery of Kashmir, it is impossible to ignore the signs of recent unrest in the terroritory still contested by India and Pakistan. For old divisions linger as India approaches the 50th anniversary on Friday of partition and its independence from Britain.
But much else has changed, even in the past 15 years. You are now as likely to hear American rock music in the street as you are Indian ballads. Traditionally chaste Hindi films have become decidely more raunchy.
Beefburgers are on the menu: even the sacred Indian cow has been compromised, although the beef does come from New Zealand.
Yet despite all these changes, a great deal of India’s charm is still intact. The roads are wonderfully chaotic; those Morris Oxfords, rickshaws, motorised threewheelers, sacred cows and overcrowded buses all jostle for position.
But journeys are a matter of sheer bravado, on the part of both the driver and the passengers. But as a piece of street theatre the scene is quite without equal.
So are the crowds. India will soon overtake China as the most populated place on earth. There are people everywhere, day and night: stall holders, wandering holy men, pavement barbers, musicians, beggars, cricus acts and, for every person doing something, a small group looking on.
India is still one of the best places in the world for a spot of retail therapy — silks, leather goods, silver, gold and gems, exquisite tailoring, wool and cashmenre, papier mache work, carved wood. Perhaps the biggest thrill is knowing you can afford it all even without haggling for a discount.
In a country where one rupee notes are still in commmon use (there are 60 rupees to the pound), you quickly realise that the equivalent of one and a half British pence still has spending power. Tuk-tuks (motorised rickshaws) cost about 20 rupees an hour — 30p or so.
India is also home to some of the world’s greatest monuments and scenery. Quite apart from the Taj Mahal, India’s complex history has left a rich legacy of architectire in