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Travel

Passage to India

From laughing with locals to tussling with traffic, Clive Nicholls immerses himself in the scents and sights of non-tourist India – but the people are the real stars

I arrive in Hyderabad at the peak of the evening rush hour. All my senses are in overload. The sights, the noise, the colour and even the spicy smell… all seem larger than life.

An open truck edges alongside our tour bus. A man is asleep in the back, lying on top of the cargo; up front the driver is battling for road space with a thousand tuk-tuks, showing a determination that would make Lewis Hamilton look a bit of a softie. Everything is so vibrant, so exciting, so different. It’s like swapping a black and white telly for a super high-definition, 3D-saturated, colour cinema screen. This is India, it’s amazing and really rather wonderful.

I’m travelling with the tour company Explore! to discover the real India as we head west and then south before ending up on the coast. Hyderabad is an eye-opener, so full of life and home to seven million people.

As I walk out in the evening, it seems as if most of them are with me out on the streets. The market stalls and street food carts are doing brisk business and, as I climb the steps of the Charminar monument, I get a great view of the streets below.

Built in 1591 to commemorate the end of the plague, it’s a great example of Islamic architecture and dominates the city centre with its four minarets towering almost 200ft high.

Back at ground level, it’s a bit push and shove but in a good way. The dividing line between pavements and roads is blurred; pedestrians, tuk-tuks and motorbikes seem to share the same bit of tarmac. Horns blare constantly – it sounds aggressive but it’s not, it’s normal.

The tuk-tuks brush past with inches to spare but I soon get used to tighter margins and a slight edginess when I cross the road. Welcome to India – I love it.

Eight miles out of the city, Golconda Fort dates back more than 800 years. In 1686 it survived a nine-month siege before a traitor fixed the gate so that the forces of Prince Aurangzeb could gain entry, so it’s seen a bit of action.

According to one guide, the Kohinooor diamond was once sold by a trader in the grounds of the fort. I’m not sure how true the story is but it’s a good yarn. Imagine a trader selling the diamond for a fistful of rupees – today it would help define the word ‘priceless’.

Just a mile or so from the fort are the Qutub Shahi Tombs of the Gokonda royal families. No wickerwork coffin and ‘green’ burials for these kings or queens. The tombs are magnificent architectural masterpieces and you can only wonder at the resources, both in terms of money and manpower, that these rulers had at their disposal.

Leaving Hyderabad, we head east to Bidar, a little over 100 miles away. The journey is amazing; in villages animals share the road with the traffic, the locals live out their lives at the roadside. This isn’t tourist India, it is very real.

I take some pictures from the bus window. If anyone spots the camera, it’s always met with a smile or a wave; India is very welcoming. On the road to Bidar we cross a state border and are pulled over by the police at the checkpoint. It’s a fair bet that our bus is the most roadworthy vehicle in India but no matter, they claim to have found an error in the paperwork (there isn’t) but until rupees change hands we can’t move on.

Not only that, they must have called their mates, a mile down the road at the other side of the checkpoint, because the police stop us again with their hands out for their cut. As I said, this is the real India and our brilliant Explore! driver seems unfazed by the experience and apologises for the delay. No apology necessary; we are seeing life as it really is.

In Bidar small motorbikes carry whole families, tuk-tuks carry even more and as I cross the road to a restaurant, the traffic weaves all around me, but this is day two and already it seems normal to be mixing it with the tuk-tuks and motorbikes.

The Madrasa at Bidar, built in 1472 – magnificent, if a little rough around the edges – stands at the roadside as life goes on in the surrounding streets. It should be a major attraction but we have the place to ourselves – it’s remarkable. Just down the road, Bidar Fort still stands proud after almost 600 years as a landmark, palace and defensive fort.

The mosque (Solah Khambh) within the fort’s walls, is one of the largest in India. It was here in 1656 that Aurangzeb, who had just conquered Bidar, had prayers said in his father’s name to proclaim sovereignty over the newly acquired territory. Bidar is good but we have a 180-mile drive to Bijapur (Vijayapura) so need to move on. The bus ride is no time for snoozing; there’s so much to see and I don’t want to miss a minute.

Indira, our guide, is full of surprises. We pull up in the middle of nowhere. There’s an eight-day cattle market spread out over several fields, and we join in the fun. My camera is a bit bigger than the normal ‘point and shoot’; spotting this, the herdsmen home in on me – they all want me to take a picture of their cow! Next they want me to take their picture, then they want their picture taken with me. It’s good fun and a privilege to be welcomed into their annual event.

Fifty miles along the road it’s brakes on again. Indira has spotted a chilli farmer bagging up his harvest. He’s filling sacks while his daughter compresses them by jumping in the sack that’s suspended from a tree. Work doesn’t stop, but we are made very welcome – these people, as with the herdsmen, are really so pleasant.

Bijapur has a real buzz about it: 300,000 residents, most of them out on the street for the night market, bring it alive. Cows are parked with motorbikes as everyone buys or sells, eats and drinks. The street food stalls are doing a roaring trade but I’m not sure if the five-a-day mantra has caught on here – one man selling apples and oranges (all polished within an inch of their life) seems strangely quiet. I take his picture and buy a couple of oranges, and he cheers up a bit.

If the magical nightlife isn’t enough, Bijapur’s main visitor attraction is Gol Gumbaz, the vast mausoleum of its 17th century ruler, Mohammed Adil Shah. If you want to leave your mark on the planet, this is the way to do it. It’s believed to be the world’s largest unsupported dome, and it’s worth climbing the steps to the top.

The acoustics are amazing; you can hear a pin drop on the other side of the dome. Once again, our timing is perfect; we have the place to ourselves and can marvel at the architecture but at the same time wonder at the vast gulf between rich and poor in days gone by. It’s probably little different today. The wonderful people I’ve met at the roadside have very little but give everything; meanwhile, India’s space programme is throwing satellites into orbit faster than a dirt farmer can scatter his corn.

As we head south for 100 miles, the magical Cave Temples of Badami are the next stop. They were hewn out of solid rock 1500 years ago, and you can only admire the inspiration and dedication that these people had to construct such wonderful temples and intricate carvings. Monkeys patrol the car park, targeting anyone who has left their luggage on a roof rack. I now know where the saying ‘little monkey’ comes from, as one of these mischievous, yet charming, creatures legs it with someone’s t-shirt, chased by the driver – it’s good entertainment.

The other visitors here are all Indian. We are staying off the international tourist trail. Everyone has a smile for us. They want their picture taking; they want to take mine. The parents of one little girl, Manal, edge her in front of my camera; with eyes like dark saucers, she is utterly enchanting. It’s a brilliant visit. Down below, local girls are doing the family washing on the shores of Agasthya Lake and the whole scene has an atmosphere of warmth and serenity.

At Pattadakal, 15 miles form Badami, the seventh century Hindu temples on the banks of the Malaprabha River are magnificent but the real life outside the gates is equally captivating. Grapes and bananas are being sold to local women carrying huge loads balanced on their heads, small children in tow for both buyers and sellers. Schoolchildren in immaculate uniforms pass by – I feel privileged that these people let me share their life for a few minutes.

On the road one of the group needs a toilet stop. Indira, bless her, gets the driver to stop at a local school – no problem, facilities are available but “please come in and visit the school” is the response from the teachers.

These are wonderful people, always welcoming, always friendly; it’s quite a site on my trip is Hampi (Vijanagara) with its magnificent temples. It’s a World Heritage Site, with buildings stunning beyond belief, yet there are just a few Indian visitors to share it with me. It’s still a religious centre today, and a pampered elephant inhabits one of the temples and takes part in festivals. If you want to go into the temples (and you are made very welcome) you need to take your shoes off

Being a more tourist area, there are a couple of peddlers selling souvenirs. One starts his good-natured sales patter for a little carved wooden trinket box, opening price the equivalent of £20. He’s good fun and we both enjoy the negotiation. We settle on about £2. Passers-by hearing the price also want to buy. He sells out and we both win. We part with a handshake and a smile.

From Hampi I take a tuk-tuk to a local restaurant. You’ve got to try it. Health and safety rules go out of the window as we mix it with cow and cart traffic on the roads – it’s just so much fun as we weave through the back streets to the Tamarind Tree restaurant for a fabulous meal costing less than £4. The banana flower curry is exceptional.

The food in India has been amazing. Indian food is probably my favourite, but when cooked, served and eaten in India, it’s ten times better. Don’t go on a diet, that can wait until you get home. People warn of ‘gippy tummy’ – not a bit of it. On my trip I ate fabulous food at bargain prices; it was wonderful. Commonsense will help you steer clear of anything a bit dodgy.

The first stage of my adventure is almost over. In the morning I’m catching an early train from Hospet to Panjim in Goa on India’s west coast, but that’s another fabulous story that I’ll tell you about in a later issue of Choice

My time in India has been extraordinary. I feel that I’ve experienced real life here and not just visited the tourist sights. I’ve laughed and joked with the locals, battled with the traffic in bustling streets and been uplifted by the spirit of a farmer whose prized possession is a cow worth £120. Indira, my Explore! Guide, has been wonderful. Even when a stray dog, whose intentions were unclear, made threatening noises, she picked up a stick of sugar cane and advanced. The dog backed down and slunk off. We were in safe hands.

I’ve taken away memories that will last a lifetime: the smiles of the people, the craziness of the big cities, the peace in the countryside but most of all the welcome from everyone I’ve met. Magical…

Catch up on Clive’s adventure in Goa in a future issue of Choice.

Explore! offers a 14-day Treasures of Central India trip that costs from £1659 per person. The cost includes return flights, 12 nights in a hotel and one overnight train, accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, transport and the services of an Explore! Leader, driver and local guides. Contact Explore!, tel: 01252 884 723, website: (www.explore.co.uk).

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