All the world’s a stage – street life in the cities of Lucknow and Allahabad

Cycle rickshaws, Allahabad

Wandering the streets of Indian cities you’ll encounter some of the most astonishing street theatre anywhere in the world. It seems that life is lived on the streets, business is conducted and, for many, it’s simply the place to sit back or lie down and watch the world go by over a cup of chai. It’s noisy and chaotic, enervating and exhilarating, but one thing is certain – it’s never boring. There may be historical monuments and museums to visit, but it’s invariably the streets that hold the most fascination. 

Baker’s, Lucknow

Surprisingly, shops and businesses don’t open till around 10am, so exploring before then guarantees you’ll beat the crowds and heat. By midday, however, you’ll be plunged into the madness and mayhem, as every conceivable type of transport battles for a place on the busy streets along with cows, goats and stray dogs.

Fruit vendor, Allahabad

The market areas, bazaars and chowks, are particularly intense. Street vendors selling fruit and vegetables push their carts through the throngs. Beggars beg, the poor perform their ablutions under outdoor taps and many relieve themselves in public. Barbers cut hair in the open air. Men type affidavits on old-fashioned typewriters in front of the law courts.

Marigolds, Lucknow

On my first day in Lucknow I visited the Residence, where in 1857 many British were under siege for five months during an uprising against the Raj. It’s left pretty much as it was and you can still see the bullet and canon holes in the walls. 

The Residence, Lucknow

The next day I woke not only to the horrors of a Trump victory in the USA, but to the news that all bank notes of 500 rupees and over have been made worthless. The government is trying to clamp down on the black economy and forged currency, but the banks are struggling to exchange everyone’s money and the ATMs have enormous queues.

Bank queue, Allahabad

Lucknow has a rich Mughal history and the tourist office runs a great City Heritage walk through the narrow streets of the Muslim area. There are also some imposing Mughal buildings in the area. Meat is common here, unlike many cities in India. I even found buffalo kebabs. They were slightly disappointing, though. I was looking forward to something really chewy and meaty, but they were more like patties. They were created by royal chefs so that the toothless nawabs could still eat meat without having to chew!

Kebabs fried outside the restaurant

After a few days I moved on to Allahabad, a big city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, but relatively off the tourist trail. It’s a big Hindu destination, however, as it lies on the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges, two of the holiest cities in India. I have already been to the sources of these two great rivers in the high Himalayas, so I was intrigued to join a boatload of shaven-headed pilgrims rowing out to to Sangam.

Preparing offerings at Sangam

My bargaining skills have recently been honed after being ripped off too many times and I managed to get the boatman down from 250 to 50 rupees. Learning a few numbers in Hindi also seems to help. The locals were there to float offerings of marigolds and candles and to take a dip. Given the pollution of the waters, I was happy just to watch.

All saints cathedral, Allahabad

Allahabad also has some attractive monuments. There are British built buildings, including  All Saints Cathedral, which almost transports you back to England, until an auto rickshaw whizzes past. There is an atmospheric park containing Mughal tombs, one of which belongs to Khasru, who rebelled against his father, Jehangir. If he hadn’t been defeated, he might have become emperor instead of his brother, Shah Jahan, who went on to build the Taj Mahal.

Khasru Bagh, Allahabad

Negotiating the streets is not for the faint-hearted. There are times when I find it almost unbearable, but it’s an incredible experience. You are immersed in the pulsating vibrancy of life and it’s full of extremes. It’s often said that you either love India or hate it, but I think it’s more complicated than that. The poverty, traffic, noise, hassle and rubbish can be overwhelming, but it’s intoxicating and hugely rewarding. There’s nowhere quite like it.

Cows and a woman sift through piles of rotting rubbish in Lucknow

A day at the doctor’s in Delhi and relaxing in Ladakh

Leh

Taking an auto rickshaw through the wild congested streets of Delhi is not for the faint-hearted. You need nerves of steel and clenched buttocks. The white lines painted on the tarmac seem for decoration only. Four lanes invariably expand to six, with rickshaw drivers being particularly adept at squeezing into frighteningly narrow spaces between lorries and buses. Cows, dogs and pedestrians have to take their chances as best they can. It’s even more bewildering when you’ve just got off a long flight and you’re also suffering intense back and stomach pain. Being ill on my first day in Delhi was not what I’d expected.

I went to a local hospital and, sidestepping the baboon on the grass outside, ventured inside to be confronted with a pretty grim picture. I didn’t stay long, but eventually found online the name of a doctor operating in the Main Bazaar in Paharganj where I was staying. He operated out of a dingy, hole-in-the-wall shop in a congested street, but was extremely helpful and friendly. He sent me off for some X-rays and a CT scan and so I was once more weaving my way in a rickshaw through what was now rush hour traffic. And, by the way, it’s monsoon season here, so the heat and humidity are quite oppressive. 

By the end of the day and £200 pounds poorer, I had a diagnosis – a kidney stone. In years of travelling I’ve been really lucky in avoiding any major problems except the odd sprained ankle, so this was a bit of a shock for me. As I was flying to Leh the next day with plans to go trekking in some remote Himalayan regions, I was quite concerned, but the doctor said that nothing could be done right now and that I shouldn’t cancel or change my plans.

Prayer flags near Tsemo Fort

Leh, the capital of Ladakh, is a great place to spend a few days recuperating. After noisy Delhi it’s a haven of peace. Situated way up north near the borders with Tibet, China and Pakistan, it has a strong Buddhist influence and feels very different from other parts of India. It stands at 3520m above sea level and in more prosperous times was a centre of trade coming down off the Silk Route. Tibetans, Hindus, Moslems and now tourists from all over the world mingle freely. 

Woman selling fruit in the Main Bazaar

The Main Bazaar is spacious and wide, clearly designed for traders to pass along with pack animals and horses. Women still sit at the sides selling fruit, vegetables and spices. Prayer wheels and stupas are dotted around the town, while an impressive Sunni mosque presides over the old town. Lanes radiate out from the centre, many of them lined with guesthouses and restaurants. Many of them have their own gardens and the wonderful smell of fresh mint hangs in the air.

There are several gompas, Buddhist temples, dotted around and I walked up to the Sankar Gompa to find it empty and serene. A young monk opened the door of the main shrine for me and inside I marvelled at the statues and brightly coloured wall paintings.
Ladakhi man

Above the town sits the old Royal Palace and, even further up on the ridge, is the old Tsemo Fort. After exploring the crumbling old rooms of the palace, I sat in a cafe overlooking the town eating a bowl of thukpa, a delicious Tibetan soup. Down below at the Jama Masjid, the muezzin started a haunting call to midday prayers and, for a moment, I forgot my medical worries and just lived in the moment, which, after all, is what travel is all about.

Why it’s fine not to like every place you visit

Wei Sheng Chang House 1, Pingyao
Wei Sheng Chang House, Pingyao, China

Two years ago I went on a wonderful six-month trip around Asia. But I didn’t like China. It was a huge disappointment for me. I think it’s okay not to like a place, though. In fact, maybe it’s good not to like some things. We live in an online world where we “like” things at just a click of a button and without much thought and where we crave “likes” in return. We document our lives for public approval and we want to give the impression that we are all leading fabulously exciting lives. This is certainly true of travel writing and blogs. After all, we’ve sometimes paid a lot of money for that airfare and visa, so we’re going to make sure we like it. Even if we don’t.

Tian Yi hostel, Pingyao
Street in Pingyao, China

I have visited over 60 countries and spent months on the road at a time and I haven’t enjoyed every place and I have certainly had some bad days along the way. But surely that’s normal? If we simply like everything and everywhere, then doesn’t it just devalue the “like”. It’s good to have a bad day – chances are the next day will feel so much better. It’s normal to dislike a place for whatever reason – we are all different and have different tastes.

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Kuta beach, Bali – not the exotic beach you might expect!

I have lost count of the number of times I have arrived in a place, lured by hyperbolic descriptions in the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, only to discover after half a day that it’s really not that great and there’s not a lot to do. Of course, that’s only my opinion. Conversely, I have often gone to a place I didn’t intend to visit with little in the way of write-ups and discovered a gem. And that’s what makes travelling such fun. The thrill of the unexpected.

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Sacred Monkey Forest, Ubud, Bali

The very name Bali conjures up images of an exotic paradise, but for me the reality was dirty beaches, being blatantly ripped off and hassled. However, the next door island of Lombok was relaxing and beautiful. I arrived on Gili Air planning to stay a few days and stayed a week.

Mt Rinjani, Gili Air path
Sand track on Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia

Twelve years ago when I was taking a boat down the Amazon from Manaus to Santarem I had no plans to visit Alter do Chão, a small town on the Rio Tapajós, as it was barely mentioned in my guidebook. Two fellow passengers told me they were going so I joined them and discovered a thrilling off-the-beaten-track destination, very laid back with seductive beaches.

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Sunset on Gili Air

Nowadays, it’s one of Lonely Planet’s Top 20 Things to Do in Brazil. It’s probably very different. Time changes places and it also changes us. We can have different reactions to places depending on when we go.

Great Wall 5, Beijing
The Great Wall, Beijing
Great Wall 6, Beijing
The Great Wall, Beijing

I also find that, as I get older, I am not drawn so much to the buzz of cities, but want to spend more time in the countryside. And that may be one of the mistakes I made with China. I had a month there and spent too much time in the cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an. Maybe if I’d gone further south or west I would have seen a different China, but the one I experienced was not pleasant. The pollution was as bad you have probably seen on the television. In four weeks I barely saw the sun as it remained hidden behind a sickly grey haze. I felt like I was travelling in a gigantic building site. As you travel by train, you look out not onto the idyllic landscapes the guidebooks show, but cooling towers belching smoke into the air. In the cities you can smell the new concrete dust as the government rushes not to restore historic buildings and sites but demolish them and rebuild them in the ‘original style’.

Terracotta Warriors 4, Xi'an
Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an, China

China is also not cheap and you can spend much more than you planned. The ancient city of Pingyao, for example, charges £15 to visit the old houses and temples. In other cities you may pay £5 or more per site. In Beijing I simply couldn’t afford to visit all the attractions and so was left disappointed. The crowds you encounter at just about every tourist attraction can be unbearable. And then there’s the food. One of the things I love about travelling is experiencing the cuisine, but I found the food in China horrendous, so much so that I frequently ended up at fast food joints which I never go to anywhere else. But they were the only places I could find anything remotely edible. If you get hungry at tourist sites or on trains, you need to develop a taste for hotdogs and pot-noodles. Of course, if I had been able to read the menu in Mandarin or had had more money, then maybe I would have had a different experience.

Street 5, Xi'an
Street food in Xi’an – no thanks!

China wasn’t all bad, though. I found it fascinating as well as challenging. The people on an individual level were always friendly and sometimes went out of their way to guide me as I struggled to find my hostel. The Terracotta Warriors are amazing, even though I had to strain to see them through crowds 5 people deep and was frequently pushed out of the way. At Luoyang I decided to visit the Longmen Caves at dusk. The crowds were smaller and it proved to be a very different experience. On my way to the Great Wall I met a local guy who was also going to hike there and he invited me to join him on a part officially closed to tourists. It had not been restored and was free to access. This proved to be one of the highlights of China for me.

Longmen Caves 4, Huoyang
Longmen Caves at Luoyang
Longmen Caves 5, Huoyang
Longmen Caves at Luoyang

So I don’t regret going to China, but I have to admit I won’t be rushing back soon. Travelling is a very subjective experience and we can’t all like everything all the time. But it’s always fun making up your own mind. Let’s just not pretend we “like” everything.

West Lake 4, Hangzhou
West Lake, Hangzhou – one of the highlights

 

Carnival in Brazil

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São Paulo Sambódromo

It’s Carnival time again and in Brazil it’s the biggest event in the calendar. Samba schools have been painstakingly building their floats and dancers and musicians have been practising for months. Carnival is the highlight of the year for many people and it starts this weekend and lasts until Ash Wednesday. I live in Bixiga, São Paulo, near the Vai Vai samba school and pretty much every Sunday during the year you can hear them rehearsing. I have got used to falling asleep to the distant sound of beating drums.

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Rio Sambódromo
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Rio Sambódromo

Both Rio and São Paulo have huge parade grounds, called sambódromos, where the schools compete and a winner is crowned. The scale of the floats is astonishing and the competition intense. Big names are contracted to design the floats and costumes according to sometimes surreal and grandiose themes. Tickets to the sambódromos are not cheap, but it’s worth going once just to savour the atmosphere.

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Rio Sambódromo

The sambódromo parades happen over just two days in each city, but the rest of the time you can join a bloco (or street parade) for free and dance or follow the crowd. These are often local community groups and have a great atmosphere.

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Local bloco in São Paulo
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Carnival in Pelourinho, Salvador

Salvador has probably the biggest and wildest Carnival of all. Here the parades make their way right through the city streets on two established circuits, one near Campo Grande and the other in the beachside neighbourhood of Barra. Giant trucks with amplified sound called trios elétricos move slowly through the streets pumping out the local music called axé which is very different from the samba of Rio.

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Trio elétrico in Salvador

You have several choices of how to participate in Carnival in Salvador. The most expensive but safest way is to buy a seat in a camarote (or private box) and watch from above the street. Another way is to buy an abadá (or a kit comprising of a t-shirt or vest) which allows you inside the roped-off section which follows each trio. Another way (free and therefore my favourite) is to follow the trios and dance pipoca style (which means popcorn). You’ll be jumping up and down with all the locals and things can get very crushed.

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Filhos de Gandhi, Salvador

Wherever you go during Carnival, leave all your valuables at home. Pickpocketing is quite blatant, particularly in Salvador, so do as the locals do and stuff a few notes in your shoe or down your bra – just enough to buy some beers and a caipirinha. It’s not cheap visiting Brazil during Carnival as most hotels will demand a five night package with rates that work out 3 or 4 times the usual amount. However, it is one of the best parties on the planet and not to be missed.

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Rio Sambódromo

 

Rio de Janeiro – a new view

Praia de Ipanema 2
Ipanema Beach with the Morro Dois Irmãos in the distance on the left

What makes a city one of the great cities of the world? For me, it’s a place that, no matter how many times you have been, no matter how well you think you know it, each visit provides a surprise, a new insight or a different perspective. Standing on top of the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers’ Hill) 533 metres above Rio de Janeiro on Christmas Eve, I was struck yet again by the beauty of this incredible city.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 6
View from the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

Rio de Janeiro has a spectacular natural setting and even the manmade structures seem to blend and harmonise with the surroundings from this height. Higher than Sugar Loaf, the Morro Dois Irmãos  offers a view that’s hard to beat; Ipanema and Leblon Beaches, Guanabara Bay, the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are all visible on a cloudless sunny day.

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Me on the top of Morro Dois Irmãos

The hill is situated at the end of Leblon Beach and is also home to Vidigal favela. You need to go with a guide and so I booked with http://trilhadoisirmaos.com.br/site/, a well-established company set up by Ana Lima who was born in Vidigal. For only R$59 (£10) I joined a group of interntional and Brazilian trekkers and we were led by Ana Lima herself and an English-speaking guide.

Trilha Dois Irmãos 1
View of Praia de São Conrado and the Pedra da Gávea

We drove up through Vidigal to the start of the trail. The trek is short (about 1.5 km), but it’s uphill all the way and on a hot day can be tiring. The arrival at the top makes it all worthwhile though and the exhilarating sight in front of you causes you to forget instantly any aching limbs and parched throat.

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Graffiti in Vidigal

The return journey is also interesting, since at the foot of the trail you are guided back down on foot through the favela itself, which gives you a fascinating insight into the lives of the locals. The views are spectacular, but the signs advising people where to gather in case of flash floods makes you realise that life is not easy here. But the residents we passed were friendly and welcoming and it’s now perfectly safe to walk through if accompanied by a guide.

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The view from Vidigal

It may seem hard to drag yourself away from the beach on a lovely sunny day, but make an effort and climb this hill. Sugar Loaf and Christ the Redeemer are mobbed with tourists, but the Morro Dois Irmãos offers a much less touristy and, in my opinion, better experience.

Vidigal 4
Vidigal stairs