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April - May 2008


Travel

Pilgrimage Trail after 50 Years

by Aline Dobbie


Graham and I this year were able to spend a week in Delhi at India International Centre of which I am a member; we hugely enjoy staying there with its comfortable ambience and excellent food. Nothing gives us greater pleasure than some ‘bed tea’ followed by a walk in the adjoining Lodi Gardens. It is a wonderful way to see a great city come awake and watch people and creatures early in the morning as the sun rises. I love watching the busy parakeets chattering and swooping and twittering together, then there are the chipmunks who receive a breakfast of corn and seem oblivious of my very near presence; the crows have a morning bath in the pool left by a hose and the domestic dogs being walked on a winter morning have on cute winter coats which amuses Graham who is a vet! Amongst the humans there are those distinguished old men who walk or gossip in groups – Oh yes, men gossip too you know. Shy mothers push children in prams or sturdy walkers plunge past us in their ‘power walking’. You will see a wise old man just quietly doing yoga and sometimes a young couple stealing some moments alone away from the prying eyes of their respective families. Inevitably these days there is also the raucous noise of a busy body talking on his cell phone – I believe in this year alone 83 million more cell users will come on air in India. I am glad for them; rich and poor alike have their aspirations and the cell phone’s cheapness has made it possible for the average person to come closer to achieving his ambitions.

We embarked on a long car journey to see areas of India that my husband Graham had never experienced and that I had not returned to within the last 50 years – i.e. since I was a child. Even within the last few years the road system has greatly improved and made road travel a lot faster. A decade ago this was still quite a painful way to travel round India though essential for a writer to experience. Now however the various big roads have facilitated long journeys and the road east out of Delhi towards Moradabad is quite pleasurable. We were heading to Fort Unchagaon which is 116 km from Delhi. The Unchagaon family is headed by a man who was Foreign Minister long years ago - Surindra Pal Singh. He now is the age of my beloved Mother in his nineties. His young grandsons run Fort Unchagaon. Rupendra Pal Singh and Rajindra Pal Singh and his lovely wife Anushree are creating a rural retreat for foreign and Indian visitors in a serene heritage setting not far from the beautiful Ganga. We arrived in time for lunch on what must be described as the coldest day we had ever experienced in India. I know northern India can be cold in winter but this was the severest cold weather for over 40 years and quite challenging even for us hardy Scots!

We looked at all the silver framed family photographs of distinguished members of the family and visiting prime ministers and heads of state which vied with the heads of stuffed tigers on the drawing room walls. I commented that perhaps to appease the feelings of people like me who do all we can to try and help conserve India’s tigers they should explain that these sad trophies are relics of a bygone and wayward era of India’s imperial past when Indian and Foreigner alike seemed to want to derive their pleasures from killing anything that walked and breathed. I read in late February that the Indian Prime Minister has also tasked the respective chief ministers of the various states within which tigers still exist that they too must take steps to stop the evil poaching and harassment of the few animals that still are alive. That should have happened years ago.

We went for a walk through the village which was interesting; I like to interact with the locals and this is where my rusty Hindi does come in very useful. The potter at his wheel, the toddlers playing in the dust, young schoolchildren returning from lessons, the dhobi ironing outside under a fig tree and a wayward cow which had decided to walk home pulling the cart soon followed by the exasperated owner who had to run to catch up with the beast! There are signs of greater prosperity all around which is heartening but nevertheless there is sadly always evidence of poverty too. I enjoyed walking through the family’s mango orchards with Tamta one of the domestic servants. He is a sweet chap and so eager to please and with him my rusty Hindi made for conversation and companionship. The following morning we drove down to the banks of the Ganga to watch the sun rise. It was lovely and I suspect the young ‘Unchagaons’ will wisely promote this activity with careful amenities. To be standing on the banks of the Ganga in complete stillness in weak sunshine in the company of kingfishers, peacocks, seven sisters, crow pheasants, hornbills and lapwings was a huge pleasure. Had it been possible then I would have loved to breakfast there and further enjoy the experience. For me to put my hands in the Ganga after 50 years was quite moving – in this place there was only a boat being poled across in the distance and no-one except our little party of Ajay our driver, Tamta and ourselves. It was so cold that the fields were still covered in the overnight white frost and the stray dogs were curled up near the temple and refusing to stretch and welcome us. Fort Unchagaon has lovely equine stables and visitors would be able to ride from the property to the river, which in my youth I would have loved to do. Sadly after a very good breakfast we had to take our leave but we would have liked to stay for at least two nights to really relax.

The drive north to Corbett Wildlife Park is a long one and something we have experienced five years ago – mercifully the road is much improved since then and whereas in the past there were lorries and cars now the plethora of smart cars, motor bikes and four by fours is very obvious; these have to take their chances as ever with bullock carts, buffaloes and horse drawn vehicles. Well it would not be India otherwise! Graham was by this time so cold that we stopped in Ramnagar and he bought a very good anorak. We arrived at Corbett Hideaway in mid afternoon and were grateful for a welcoming home made tomato soup and a good lunch. The whole resort was bathed in warm afternoon sunshine and we so enjoyed being back after a five year interval. Good improvements have been made to this property and our lovely suite was warmed by a blow-air heater and thus very relaxing. Walking along the Kosi River was a delight but I am personally dismayed by the amount of development there is. I understand that more and more people within India travel and enjoy these wild places but one has the feeling that the Uttaranchal Government has allowed too much development which in its turn will impact on the wildlife. - This is the conundrum: have more people understand and appreciate India’s wildlife and the need for conservation or – restrict the masses through exclusivity. Nothing stays the same anywhere and in the long run probably the more that can appreciate their wildlife heritage and the vital necessity for conservation the better for the whole animal kingdom.

One of the highlights of our walk along the banks of the Kosi River was seeing the shoals of Mahseer fish in some deep clear pools – it was something I had not experienced previously and because the local village alongside the famous Gargiamata Temple reveres all life they are protected and a delight to the walker.

Corbett Hideaway was on that occasion filled with Chinese visitors in a large bus party. They are interesting because they go round the world doing what the Japanese used to do and still do…..jump out of a coach, ask each other to photograph themselves in front of some world famous site and then jump back into the coach – been there, done that bought the T shirt! The world’s tourism industry is beginning to depend on these huge numbers but the hospitality and tourism trade of every other country must realise that the Chinese criteria for ‘travelling enjoyment’ is still in its infancy.

The next morning we set off at 06.30 hours for the jeep journey to within Corbett Park where we would stay for two nights at Corbett Hideaway River Lodge. My late Father Frank Rose and my Mother Barbara were good friends of the late great Jim Corbett. In my second book India: The Tiger’s Roar I explore the whole Jim Corbett story. I am so heartened to see his books still in print in India as I grew up on his wonderful stories, the only difference being that I was reading my Father’s first editions with his various annotations and pasted in correspondence with Jim Corbett.

When we reached the famous Ramganga River there was the elephant Gulabo crossing the icy water to come and fetch us. Both humans and luggage were transported on the elephant; Gulabo was beautiful but clearly not at all amused at the idea of all this plodding through icy water and she would stop and refuse to budge and the mahout would urge her forward and sometimes she would ‘harrumph’ and I thought if she became really ‘vexed’ she could have scooped up enough icy water and dowsed her passengers quite effectively! Well bless her we reached the other side safely and made the final journey of a few yards in a jeep.

We had a full glorious two days at the River Lodge and I will always treasure them. The tent has an ensuite bathroom with good facilities. This experience though very enjoyable and comfortable was about as close as I have come to the camping my parents experienced in the 1940s. In various parts of India tented accommodation is used with all the luxuries of air conditioning and electricity – this is not possible in this out of the way part of Corbett’s outer reaches. The lamps are solar source battery powered and electrical equipment is totally useless. A torch is required in the evening and braziers with log fires are the only real source of heat. In March or April or again in November and December the temperature would be very relaxing.

The staff at River Lodge are eager and helpful. Again, this is where my Hindi helps and we were immediately treated as ‘insiders’. The food was simple and just what we wanted and the ambience lovely. Gulabo, who was one of two elephants, transported us on evening and morning walks through the undergrowth and we spotted the pug marks of a tiger the next morning but never actually saw the animal. I have no doubt however that the tiger was watching us. We saw sambar, cheetal, barking deer, monkeys and a wonderful array of birdlife including wood peckers, bush chats, scarlet minivet, kingfishers, hoopoes, fish eagles and river lapwings.

The jungle was beautiful and we stopped the jeep one morning where the river conjoined with another. The clear waters, river boulders and maidenhair ferns growing on the banks of roads were memorable. We saw three yellow throated martins, some khalij pheasants and a flycatcher. On our last night we were joined by three charming travellers, a Bulgarian with his son who is now American and another fellow American. They were experiencing India for the first time and were enchanted notwithstanding the fact that they had been drugged and robbed on the train to Jaisalmer but fortunately not lost their passports. On this occasion whilst crossing the river on Gulabo the mahout had an epileptic fit and fell stone cold into the icy water which left them ‘driverless’ on an elephant on their very first time! Kishore a jeep driver leapt in and rescued the poor mahout and guided the elephant out of the water. These three men were understandably quite shaken but delighting in India with all its diversity nonetheless.

I kept hearing a sort of munching in the night in our tent and was ‘not happy’. The next morning we discovered that a jungle mouse had crept on to the dressing table and was nibbling the shortbread biscuits. The following night I left the biscuits on the terrace to deter him – but guess what - he came in all the same, fell over the knife on the plate which alerted me and then proceeded to eat Graham’s watchstrap! He had to buy a new one in Hardwar.

Hardwar was a four and a half hour journey from Corbett Hideaway; the drive through rural Uttar Pradesh and Uttarkhand which is apparently the most heavily populated area in the whole world is depressing. One passes through shabby dirty towns and villages but on the plus side there are good flourishing farms and mango orchards and quite a difference in terrain as one leaves the Kumaon and enters the Gharwal region. I am heartened by the abundance on the fruit and vegetable stalls of grapes, apples, papayas, bananas, cape gooseberries and pomegranates. Arriving at Hardwar was interesting for me after 50 years – the population pressure is severe. Fifty years ago India’s population was about 400 million and now the same land mass has three times as many people, the impact of which is seen in certain places like Hardwar.

Graham was fascinated as was I with this place that is so often mentioned in relation to the Kumbh Mela. I was so relieved to see the Ganga looking as I remembered it – beautiful clear and blue/green which frankly amazed Graham. We were staying at the Haveli Hari Ganga which proved very charming, but again quite cold because most Indian hotels have no concept of efficient heating for when the weather surprises them. It is a thoughtfully renovated old haveli with the most beautiful marble floors situated right on the Ganga and we were delighted. There is a little temple within the inner courtyard and in the evening the musician sings bhajans. After a welcome lunch we went exploring in the lane behind the river which is a complete kaleidoscope of colour and diversity with small shops selling everything imaginable. Very many stallholders were avidly playing Ludo which was so amusing. There is an element of Venice with the havelis being like old palazzos, but sadly that is where the comparison stops. Hardwar is mostly dirty and badly kept and obviously the authorities just rely on its religious importance and care nothing for civic pride or cleanliness. Prakash, the hotel’s guide, took us on an evening walk to experience the Arti that would take place on both banks near the main temple. It was a moving interesting experience to see the confusion of colour and peoples and fervour of their feeling. One couple ‘phoned their son in Italy so he too could experience their joy over the cell phone.

The following night I had a most endearing experience. I heard the Pujari come to his devotion at the little inner courtyard temple and I popped out to pay my respects – he turned, beckoned in Hindi and made me go with him to the hotel’s own marble steps into the Ganga. He said in Hindi you speak my language and now you will do Arti with me and I did and found his fervour and sweetness profoundly moving.

We left for Rishikesh the next morning; it too is horribly over populated but Laxman Jhula proved an enjoyable experience and happily the poor sad leper colony that used to sit on the banks of the Ganga were relocated to better conditions I am told about 10 years ago. Graham was impressed by the green Ganga coming out of the gorges.

We drove down to Dehra Dun where we were guests of the Indian Army. It was lovely to be in one of two cantonment areas of Dehra Dun as they are still beautifully maintained and appear to house all the prestige military academies and the Doon School and various centres of excellence and Raj Bhavan. The city however is another sad story and contrasted sharply with my memories and is almost unrecognisable. This is the capital of Uttaranchal but the provincial government is merely capitalising on the presence of the various national bodies and not doing anything to enhance their city which is shameful.

We were hosted by the Mechanical Engineering School and the colonel tasked a dashing young captain to guide and accompany us on a tour. We also visited the other cantonment and visited 18 Battalion Jat Regiment which was a great pleasure. We took tea in the Officers’ Mess and ate Jat churma which I am told is absolutely essential to the welfare of all Jat officers and men – I had always had the firm impression from my beloved Father that jalebis filled that requirement! They certainly did for him.

It was a huge pleasure to see the families at an IT tutorial, mothers and children together – that is what is needed to give people a sense of aspiration and encouragement. We also visited the Tibetan community and their great temple and statue of Lord Buddha. The dashing captain took his leave of us and we were waited on by the Army’s guest house staff who cooked us a nice but simple little meal. The generals’ guest quarters are quite sumptuous but in that extreme cold I was so glad when the domestic staff switched the air-conditioning to warm air heating! In the UK there are elements of society who are undervaluing HM Forces; how dare they? In these so called ‘good times’ they take for granted the peace and prosperity that our Armed Forces help to secure for the whole nation in times of strife. If the current Government decides to embark upon wars, whether wisely or expediently that is not the fault of courageous young men and women who have pledged their loyalty to HM The Queen and serve you and me the people of this nation come what may.

We drove down to Saharanpur and were again guests of The Indian Remount Veterinary Corps and Equine Breeding Station. This was a supremely happy experience for me. I last lived in Saharanpur 50 years ago and to visit and see places that have remained as I recalled them is something I treasure. We were most warmly welcomed by The Commandant and his fellow officers. The Remount has 2,400 acres and over 1,000 equines – stallions, brood mares, horses, and donkeys and mules. We saw foals born within the last hours and beautiful beasts that took me back to my time as a youngster riding at the Remount. The lovely estate is full of peacocks, nilgai, lovely bird life, and beautifully maintained equine breeding buildings and lawns and training grounds. We had such a happy 24 hours and were superbly entertained at a Mess Night with the officers and their wives and friends. The next morning we rose early and watched the sun rise and the officers riding as indeed I would have done all those years ago. We even managed to locate our old house in the ITC enclave where we had lived and it still is very well maintained with lovely gardens set out by my parents and the mango trees they planted are now mature and fruiting. Happy, happy memories. And I feel so fortunate to go down a memory lane that produced such a memorably good experience – revisiting the past does not always ensure that will happen.

Aline Dobbie

www.thepeacockscall.co.uk

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