The endless search for the elusive 'jeep in a case' takes me and the memsahib to all corners of the globe. In 1999 we got fed up with normality and decided to take a month out for a wander around the subcontinent looking for spiritual enlightenment and obsolete machinery. The first thing you learn about India is that nothing you've read, heard or watched on the TV can possibly prepare you for the real thing...The second thing is always - no, really always - agree the taxi fare before you get in...
If the real essence of India can be found in any single place it is Varanasi. A walk along the ghats or steps down to the sacred river Ganges is an experience never to be forgotten.
India - A country and a state of mind and like malaria, it gets into your blood, you keep going back. It's way too hot, you can't drink the water, and you can be driven to near insanity just buying a rail ticket but it's also spiritual, humbling and life changeing...I love it.
The ghats lead up from the river to a maze of narrow streets where sacred cows jostle for space in the alleyways with pilgrims, tourists, backpackers, holy men, hippies, travellers, monkeys, handcarts, taxis, bicycles and funeral processions.
Stepping down from the Kashi Express into the predawn of India at 5.25 am - from Varanasi cantonment station, a short taxi ride takes you to the ghats. Sunrise over the Ganges - sit and watch the sun creep over the horizon as the city comes to life behind you.
As the sun gets higher, the first pilgrims take the plunge into the holy waters
We spent a week or so in Varanasi then I met an Israeli guy in a rooftop bar overlooking the river who tapped me for a cold Kingfisher and told me that Darjeeling was just the ticket for seeing good quality jeeps. They turned out to be series one landrovers but at least we got a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway out of it!
As the plains were hitting 40 degrees centigrade at this time, it seemed like a good idea to head for the hills and see if he was right. We flagged a passing Ambassador taxi and left sunny Benares for Mughal Serai, a railway junction about an hour away on the other side of the Ganges.
The thought of missing the one daily train to NJP/ Siliguri, the end of the line several hundred miles away had encouraged us to start early for the station so we had an hour or so to kill before the train was due.
There was a little stall near the station that sold bananas. You gave your money to the shopkeeper then his monkey*, who sat on a stool next to him, would hand you the bananas. We took them into the station and sat in the shade on our bags eating and reading untill the train came.
5622 North East Express as I recall, Non air conditioned is OK for short runs but we opted to go 2 a/c to NJP - change for Darjeeling and a mere eight hours later we were contemplating the Himalayas.