Getting up early, we teamed up with the other three guys in our dormitory and shared a taxi to the border. It was only 6Rupees each and was much quicker and less hassle than the overcrowded bus. We traveled out of the city on the Grand Trunk Road and, an hour later, had almost reached the border post when the taxi was stopped by the military police and we were informed that, due to 850 Pakistani POWs arriving back from India, we would have to stay where we were for another two hours. One of the Swiss guys had a word with a nearby officer and, with a motorcycle escort, we were allowed to carry on as far as the Pakistan Customs. Here, even though we couldn’t cross into India until the POWs had come through, we did at least manage to get all the paperwork completed while we waited. We sat under the trees and watched as a tall, bearded German skinned a large monitor lizard on the neatly cut grass. I got the impression that he was putting on some kind of weird macho show for all those present. It was bloody and horrible and I couldn’t see any good reason why anyone would want to do such a thing.
The POWs eventually arrived and were transported through on the backs of army trucks to cheers, flags, coloured bunting and frantic waving from the few people who’d turned out to welcome them back. There were a lot of injured men, bandaged casualties who had been interned in camps in India following the two week war over Bangladesh in 1971.
We walked the half-mile to the Indian side of the border at Wagha, me with a secreted lump of Pakistani hash and Janette with the 200Indian Rupees we had illegally bought in Kabul, in her knickers. If our contraband was discovered now we would, at the very least, be refused entry and at worst… who knows? There were restrictions on the importation of Indian currency and no-one in their right mind would carry hashish across an international border. A smartly uniformed Sikh sitting at a folding table in the sunshine checked our passports and waved us along to the customs office with a smile. At customs I tried to disguise my nervousness with a weary smile because they were being very thorough with their searches, but we got away with our small-time smuggling and, glad to have left Pakistan behind, we officially entered India.
It had taken us thirty eight days to get here from the Isle of Wight and the first thing we did was to sit outside a ramshackle chai shop, roughly constructed of bamboo and straw, and celebrate our arrival with sweet chai, pan-boiled on a clay tandoor. The journey is, without doubt, as important as the destination but there was a palpable sense of achievement in reaching India. I felt that we had passed some kind of test and had become real travelers. We had learned to take each day as it came and we’d discovered that we could be self-reliant and bounce back even when all kinds of shit was hitting the proverbial fan.
One of the guys working in the chai shop told us that there would be a bus to Amritsar within half an hour. Of course there wasn’t. We waited in the sun for three and a half-hours, but that was OK. By now we had got used to things not running to any particular timetable and had presumed that India wouldn’t be any different. By the time the bus rolled up there were about thirty-five people waiting to take the 1Rupee ride to Amritsar. A little less than an hour later we arrived and the bus was besieged by people fighting to get on while the passengers fought to get off. Then there was a second wave of bodies to negotiate, this time consisting of taxi and rickshaw drivers. We jumped into the nearest bicycle rickshaw and set off for the railway station to check out the times of the trains to Delhi. At the station entrance a little man in an immaculate white uniform asked if he could be of assistance. When I told him that we were going to Delhi he beckoned for us to follow him. I presumed that he was being helpful and taking us to the ticket office, but no, he led us into the station’s vegetarian restaurant and requested that we be seated while he brought the menu. There didn’t seem much point in arguing, as we were already there, and hungry. We sat down under the creaking ceiling fan and ate a delicious vegetarian curry followed by pink blancmange, (the same pink blancmange that we’d been served in Rawalpindi railway station), in a spacious but empty dining room.
After our meal we discovered at the Enquiries Office that there was a night train, the Frontier Mail, leaving at 8.45pm and arriving in Delhi at 7.00am. That was perfect. Overnight travel was a good way to save on the cost of a hotel. We were sent to see the ticket collector on Platform 1 who directed us to a gentleman called P.C. Sharma who was to be found behind the First Class Booking Office. Unfortunately Mr Sharma wasn’t there so we were sent back to the ticket collectors office. The ticket collector then informed us that we should go and buy our tickets at the Third Class Booking Office and then make our reservations. At the Third Class Booking Office we were sent to an unnamed office around the corner where we were redirected to a separate building across the station forecourt. Twenty minutes of queuing later we emerged with our two third class tickets and took them back to the ticket collectors office. He told us that now we would have to return to P.C. Sharma to make the reservations, which we did. P.C. Sharma told us to come back in half an hour and there didn’t seem any point in asking why. We took a stroll in the street, bought some apples and returned to the office where Mr Sharma issued us with reservations for the 8.45pm train and advised us that we should be ready to board the train at 7.30 and find our designated seats. The list of names of those who had reserved seats would be posted on the appropriate carriage. This was our first taste of Indian bureaucracy and was a kind of organised insanity. All employees had a strictly defined job, they only did that job and no other. Purchasing a train ticket was easy enough, that was one job. But purchasing a ticket and making a reservation was more complicated, that was two jobs, one dependent upon the other. Somewhere in the middle of all this were other workers in intermediate jobs, who appeared to be employed solely in keeping the process in motion. Communication between employees was minimal but miraculously the system worked, it just took time. Lots of time.
Drinking chai in the restaurant we struck up conversation with a couple of Americans who were also travelling to Delhi. It turned out, when we had found our seats on the train, that they were in the same compartment as us, along with a whole bunch of cheerful and gregarious Indians. The old British steam engine belched smoke, hissed, sounded its whistle and pulled slowly out of the station with that wonderful chug-chug-chug, accompanied by the rhythmic rattle of steel wheels on steel rails. Our fellow travelers were good company and we all relaxed into the journey. I was surprised, when the Sikhs unwound their turbans, to see that they had long hair tied tightly into balls on top of their heads. I guess that shows how naive and innocent we were. When we unrolled our sleeping bags there was great excitement among the Sikhs and an offer of 50Rupees each for them if we cared to sell. The Indian equivalent was a bedroll about six times the size and consisting of a thin mattress with a pillow, sheet and blankets that must have been a bugger to carry around. Janette and I both stretched out on the floor between the seats, careful to keep our money and passports safely about our persons, and managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep.
The train arrived at Old Delhi Railway Station punctually at 7.30am and we stumbled out bleary-eyed into the surprisingly cold morning air looking for somewhere to have breakfast. Before we’d even had time to look about us a hotel tout rushed up and handed me a card that read; ‘Eagle Hotel, Delhi 6. Rooms are attached with Bath & Latrine. Rooms are Nice and Well Furnished. Modern Sanitary System. Room Service Facility Available. Homely Atmosphere. Situated in the Heart of the Capital. Nearest place to New Delhi and Old Delhi Railway Station. Near to Jamma Masjid and Red Fort. 10Rupees double room.’
We decided to have a look at the place and jumped into a cycle rickshaw that took us on a crazy tour of the already buzzing streets of Old Delhi, a labyrinth of tiny lanes lined with three hundred year old crumbling mansions now covered with rusting signs and electricity cables. On the card the Eagle Hotel sounded almost too good to be true, and it was. We climbed the steps to the reception on the first floor and asked to see the rooms. We were shown two; both were very small and dirty containing only two charpoys and no other furniture. There was a shared cold shower and two Indian squat toilets on the landing. We made a decision to stay one night, simply because it was less hassle than walking the streets looking for somewhere better, and chose a room with a barred, unglazed window that looked out on to the street.
Locking our cell door behind us we descended to ground level and ordered chai and poached eggs on toast in the hotel’s ‘Esspresso Coffee Bar’. It was a dim, windowless, fly-blown place attempting, rather half-heartedly, to be a western-style café. The waiter, who was filthy and wandered around aimlessly, appeared to be suffering from some kind of narcosis, the tea was foul and the food took forever to arrive. This wasn’t the best introduction to India’s capital city.