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Cheng Chin Yuen

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

It is the end, my only friend the end - The Doors

Chandigarh (2nd – 3rd June)

It was another long day of bussing from Sangla to Chandigarh. Enroute, we passed through Shimla which is a horribly thick metropolitian gravy carelessly but generously ladled over verdant pine forests. Darjeeling would be a much better place to visit.

The first person we met in Chandigarh was a tout. Welcome to the jungle once again. He first insisted that the Transit Lodge we were looking for was ‘closed’ and then ‘full’. We told him to buzz off and leave us alone. Transit Lodge wasn’t full of course but their dormitory accommodation like all in India was only for men. So we had to take a big double which was a little off the budget. We also had to photostat our passport for registration. After some persuasion, the guy at the counter was willing to do the photostating for us the next day for 4 Rs. Karen was exhausted and went to sleep. I went downstairs for some decent tandoori chicken.

Chandigrah claims the title of the cleanest and greenest city in India. Is there really such a thing in India? The entire city is laid out on a flat grid of 81 sectors with each sector having an area of about 1 square kilometre. It is kind of science-fi to say, ‘Hey Scottie, take me to Sector 67’. Scottie doesn’t beam you up. He starts peddling on his tricycle. The streets are unbelievable clean, wide and tree-lined. This alone is cause for amazement after 4 months in India! Most buildings are low-rise and property here is said to command staggering prices. The main criticism of this city (designed by a Frenchman) is that it lacks character. This is true. What can be so defining about a largely uniform 81 square kilometre flat city? It is clean and the air is fresh but you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference if you were in Sector 45 or 54.

The bizarre Rock Garden at the northern tip of the city is the product of a warped mind. Here the maze of textured concrete will take you through a fantasy land of sculptured gardens and waterfalls with its large enclaves of cows, monkeys, birds, strange men and women all made from recycled plastic, ceramic and bangles. The designer here liked short people since all archways are really low. A sign warns people of a 100 Rs fine for littering. The considerable litter floating in the ponds and moats says the fine isn’t heavy enough. Somewhere in the middle is a large playground for children and an amphitheatre. I wouldn’t describe this place as nice but it’s certainly one of the stranger places on Earth.

Just to give you an idea of how heavy human traffic is, a bus leaves for Delhi from Chandigarh every 12 minutes! This is discounting the VIP buses!

Delhi (3rd – 6th June)

The attractions in Delhi seem to be a let down after seeing the rest in Northern India. The Red Fort will be outclassed by any in Rajasthan and the Taj will make Hayuman’s Tomb look more like a tombstone. Jameck Masjid, the largest mosque in India is well…just the largest mosque in India. I guess you have to be there during Friday prayers to feel the full effect of 10,000 murmuring Muslim men.

Three sights are worth visiting. The first is a government handicraft wholesale centre aimed at improving the lives of the village craftsmen by getting rid of the middlemen. Here you can by a really superb Ganesha stone carving for an equally superb price of S$100,000. The five storey centre is filled with good quality, varied and authentic handicrafts from all over India.

The second is the Jain Bird Hospital opposite the Red Fort. Here thousands of injured birds are nursed back to health before they are freed. In the hundreds of cages in the nursing ward, you can examine a variety of bird injuries from bandaged wings to pus infected eyes. When they have recovered enough, they are moved to the general ward on the top floor which houses about 3000 birds. Paintings of the various ways a bird could get injured are on the walls.

Finally, Old Delhi is tops. It is dirty, crowded and poor, more like Kolkata than the shopping swank of New Delhi. I went there early the last morning in time to catch people sleeping on their carts and in between cars, milking and slaughtering their buffalos, cooking their simple fare by the roadside on gas stoves, and selling bales of marigolds. There were also queues for free jaundice medicine. Men stood in line on one side and women and children on the other. Where the two orderly lines converged sat the ‘saint’ who gave out the free medicine twice a week.

Delhi will spoil you for choice with its restaurants, darbas and fast food chains. We finally found a mutton briyani which surpassed the one we had in Gwalior many moons ago. The 42 degree heat was a good ice cream excuse. I dropped a cone on the pavement, wiped off the affected areas and continued eating. No, I didn’t have any problems that night. For a little less than 40 bucks, we celebrated our finale dinner at a really posh restaurant and reviewed the entire trip by asking each other questions. Questions like ‘Who was your favourite foreigner on this trip?’ and ‘Which was the grossest toilet?’

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