Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Incredible India: Postscript: Abu Dhabi

world-map abu dhabi

As 2014 draws  to a close, so too does Incredible India. I hope that you have enjoyed it and had a fruitful, travel-filled year. All the best for 2015, may it exceed your expectations!
Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Prologue: Al-Ain and Dubai

Part 1: Delhi – Paharganj and Chandni Chowk

Intermission: Sikhism

Part 2: Amritsar – The Golden Temple

Part 3: Amritsar – Jallianwala Bagh and the Border with Pakistan

Part 4: Amritsar – Silver, Golden and Psychedelic Temples

Part 5: Amritsar to Agra

Part 6: Agra – Akbar's Tomb, the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort

Part 7: Fatepur Sikhri

Part 8: Jaipur – Jaigarh Fort, Tiger Fort and Amber Fort

Part 9: Jaipur – The Pink City and the Albert Hall

Part 10: Ajmer

Part 11: Pushkar I

Intermission: Hinduism

Part 12: Pushkar II

Part 13: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

Part 14: Delhi – The Lotus and ISKON Temples

Part 15: Delhi – Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens and the Red Fort

Part 16: Delhi – The National Railway Museum and Indira Gandhi’s Villa

Part 17: Delhi – Purana Qila, Humayun’s Tomb and the Jama Masjid

Postscript: Abu Dhabi


Abu Dhabi City Center

Postscript: Abu Dhabi



I'd fallen fast asleep almost the moment I'd sat down in my seat on the flight out from Delhi but even so, three hours is nowhere near enough sleep in a night and I was fighting exhaustion from the moment that I got off again at Abu Dhabi. Nonetheless, this was a new city to explore and I did not intend to waste the opportunity, tired or otherwise. From the very real grinding poverty of India to the surreal and unreal wonderland of the UAE where money literally does gush forth from the ground and those who control it are limited only by their imaginations.

But what I saw first on my grand tour of the country's capital was not another bombastic and wasteful use of that wealth but instead a very positive example of what can be achieved if money and imagination are put together in the service of good, not ego.

I'd read all about Masdar on the internet whilst in India. It bills itself as the “City of the Future” and whilst that boast is a little laughable at present – it only has a few hundred inhabitants at the moment so it's more village than city – its aims are laudable. Masdar is a model for eco-living in amidst a sea of gas-guzzling, a carbon-neutral community that actually generates more power than it uses. Terms like “eco-living” and “carbon-neutral” conjure up images of a commune of ageing hippies strumming out Bob Dylan numbers whilst dressed in linen and smoking spliffs, but Masdar is no back-to-nature groove-fest, it is high-tech and cutting edge. It's had money thrown at it and it shows, but if the aim is a noble one then such expenditure is no crime, indeed, it is an investment.

Entering through the main doors, I was met by a security guard from Uganda who directed me to a model of the project and then proceeded to explain it all. It transpired that what I was about to view was only a tiny part of what would soon become a much greater whole; a city of a hundred thousand entirely self-sufficient in energy even to the point that it would sells its excess electricity back to the national grid. What had been built so far of this carbon-neutral utopia was based on the university – the Masdar Institute – post-graduate only and mostly ex-pats. It was all powered by banks of solar panels of the roofs and then below those roofs, the buildings themselves, clustered around squares, everything pedestrianised and with all amenities including a mosque. And then, below all that, another realm, an underworld where driverless cars ferried the citizens around.

And after having it all explained to me, I then boarded one of those vehicles and was whisked noiselessly under the new city to the stop for the central square. It was fast, efficient and environmentally-friendly and the only drawback to it all was that the two academics who shared my cab with me were extremely unsociable.

I alighted and rose up to the surface where I wandered around aimlessly. It was true that Masdar is still in its infancy but the vision was clear and it was not one that I disapproved of. True, the buildings were hideous but modernist architects seem to think that ugliness is what people yearn for,[1] but their layout was conducive to communality and the lack of cars a blessing. However, there was one aspect to it all that I have to say deeply troubled me and that was the “Service Level” below, that realm where the driverless cars whizzed to and fro. Maybe I've watched one too many sci-fi dystopias, but to me it seemed wrong. Apart from the obvious class hierarchy implications, surely that vast, empty, dark realm was an open invitation to crime, a ready-made underworld just waiting to be populated with addicts, homeless, alcoholics, criminals, youth gangs, the mentally-ill and all others who have fallen through the cracks of the society above. I thought that the moment that I set eyes on it and now, after several months of working with the addicts, alcoholics and homeless of my own city, I feel it all the more.

After Masdar I took the bus into Abu Dhabi itself. An Emirati would never dream of taking public transport; that is reserved for guestworkers, but in a land where 90% of the population are temporary immigrants, this meant that the (ridiculously cheap) bus services are well-patronised.

On the long journey in – in countries where land is cheap and plentiful, cities spread out far more – through innumerable housing complexes and past other, more interesting buildings including a circular skyscraper like a radio telescope full of offices, but I took little in and very soon I was drifting off to sleep.
In the centre I pounded the streets and saw the paltry sights. The main one, the Fort, was shut, getting prepared for a festival. That annoyed me since the Fort was the one place that I'd wanted to see. In his classic desert travelogue 'Arabian Sands' Wilfred Thesiger had described Abu Dhabi thus: “A large castle dominated the small dilapidated town which stretched along the shore”[2] and in amidst the concrete and glass spires of commerce, the fort was only tangible link between his time and mine. Which does not sound so extreme until you consider that when Thesiger was writing, my grandfather was already a grown man. The most startling thing about the UAE has been the speed of the progress, (if progress it is).

The other “must-see” sight in the centre, (if that is remotely an appropriate description), was a set of gigantic sculptures of a cannon, a teapot and other traditional Emirati items which I duly photographed without much enthusiasm before hailing a taxi to take me to the Heritage Village.

Giant teapot in the street

The Heritage Village is a most inappropriately named place indeed, just like its counterpart in Qatar, since there is nothing remotely “heritage” about it at all. After all, how could there be when it is built on on a spit of land reaching into the sea was constructed from scratch only a decade or two before? Nonetheless, I wanted to see it. Culture is not all bricks and mortar, (or mud and palm fronds); it is also traditions and customs and besides, in a land of limited attractions, where else was I to go?

And fake or not, I rather enjoyed it. I ambled around the reconstructed mud-brick dwellings, read about the pearl divers who once sustained the region's economy, ogled some traditional costumes and perused the faux handicrafts on sale. Real or not, this was as close as I was going to get to Thesiger's desert world in modern-day Abu Dhabi. Besides, from the shady palm grove beside the “village” there were spectacular views across the bay to the Corniche from whence I came, a stunning procession of glittering high rises twinkling and shimmering in the desert sun.

I ate in the restaurant and fell into conversation with some of my fellow diners, members of a party from a cruise ship stopping off at different ports around the Gulf. They'd been to Muscat and Dubai and had Doha and Bahrain to come. They admitted that it was an unusual choice, a far cry from the Norwegian fjords or myriad sun-kissed isles of the Caribbean that are the usual staple of cruises, but they were finding it fascinating. What fascinated me though was the fact that they were all from Montreal and spoke French as their first language and several of those at my table obviously struggled to express themselves in my native tongue. I knew that French was the lingua franca in Quebec but had always assumed that all Quebecois, like the native Welsh speakers in the Cambrian Mountains, were fully bilingual.

The view over the bay from the Heritage Village

After the Heritage Village I took a taxi to the Emirates Palace Hotel which is mentioned in respectful tones by every taxi driver and tourist worker in the city as it is Abu Dhabi's very own seven-star hotel, the city's statement to its upstart neighbour that anything you can do, we can...erm... match it.

Architecturally though, Dubai's Burj al-Arab is far more striking, although I could not dislike the classical lines and symmetry of the Emirates Palace. Inside though, it just did not do it for me; gold, gold everywhere, so that the whole place basked in a putrid yellow glow. It was nouveau riche on heat – they even had a gold vending machine: ingots of the yellow stuff at the touch of a button – and more than anywhere else that I've visited, it reminded me of Ceauşescu's House of the People in Bucharest, another oversized neoclassical pile built by an autocrat with no one to put the brakes of taste on his vision. Still, there is one point in the Emir of Abu Dhabi's favour: he had at least the funds to pay for it all. Anyway, it was all a little too much for a yokel like me; I felt like it needed bringing down a peg or two, and so I did just that, heading into the marble toilet suite and taking a very satisfying dump there.

The Emirates Palace Hotel: nouveau riche

Fort, giant teapot, fake ancient village and tacky palace all ticked off and I was fast running out of things to do in Abu Dhabi, so in that toilet fit for a king (or emir...) I delved into my guidebook and picked out my next destination. I learnt that someone had had the bright idea of constructing a replica of Noah's Ark[3] which sounded like a rather quirky thing to do. So, liking a spot of the quirky now and again, I asked the taxi driver about it but he didn't seem to know where it was so I showed him the map and he looked at it as a man who had never had such a strange diagram presented before him before, before then agreeing and off we drove.

And drove.

And drove.

And drove. And still no Noah's Ark. And all the while the meter ticked over and over.

In the end I realised that we'd gone straight past the place so I told him so, he looked at me as if it was all my fault and we went back to where the Ark now lives.

And there it was, the huge painted rainbow on a wall indicating the connection to that ancient holy man and his boat. But underneath that rainbow... wait a minute, where was that most famous of all boats? Luxury yachts a plenty, but no flood-floating Ark. My driver asked a wealthy-looking Emirati who was climbing out of an obscenely-large 4x4 and he confirmed my worst fears: Yes, the Ark had been here once. No, it was here no longer.

I was dropped off back in the centre from whence I'd started, angry at the hefty taxi fare for nothing and half-asleep, the effects of only grabbing those few hours on the plane now really catching up with me. I went into a souvenir shop and bought all manner of tat for those folk back home, (and me...); I'm talking snow globes, flashing glass models of the Burj al-Khalifa and mosque alarm clocks. Then, I decided to walk the short distance to the bus station.

Short distance on the map that is. Four blocks to be precise. Half a mile at a guess. But in the city of the car where the foot-bound man sure ain't king, those blocks are much larger than elsewhere; I estimated half a kilometre minimum for each one. Shattered as I was and coming down with a cold, they seemed to go on forever. I stopped in a shopping centre for a large Coke to pep me up and then continued on my way.
By the time that I reached the bus station I was the walking dead yet there were still many hours to kill before my plane left and one big attraction to check out. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque was constructed between 1996 and 2007 under the orders of HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Emir of Abu Dhabi. He wanted a structure that would unite “the cultural diversity of Islamic world, the historical and modern values of architecture and art.”[4] Inspired by Mughal, Persian, Arab and Moorish architecture and using material from all around the globe, it covers the area of five football pitches and can house four thousand worshippers making it the eighth-largest mosque in the world.

And in a city where the next biggest attraction is a giant teapot, then that made this an attraction not to miss.

I was deposited by my bus at the back of a supermarket, the nearest stop for the mosque which is generally reached – in true Emirati style – by car. Still, it was not far away, sitting dramatically on a hilltop at the end of the road.

But when I reached it I discovered to my dismay that I could not access the building that way. “You have to walk round,” the security guard told me, but that is easier said than done when things are built in Emirati scale, the complex easily a mile square and the entrance on the very far side. I started to walk round but in my state I was not up to a three-mile trek so I hailed a taxi and got dropped off at the entrance.

Exactly what I had expected I can't say, but what I found exceeded those expectations. This was new and expensive, but unlike the gold-splattered Emirati Palace Hotel, it was not nouveau riche. It was beautiful, the most beautiful mosque that I'd visited, far superior to Casablanca's King Hassan II Mosque. It was a symphony in glass, marble, light and stone. I wandered around in awe, (and was congratulated by countless people on my Indian kurta), and then sat in a corner and thought. This was it, the end of my trip to the Sub-Continent; my first trip there but, hopefully, not my last. On my journeyings I had seen countless wonders, more perhaps than on any other adventure that I'd been on, certainly far more than I could take in.

And for all that I was thankful, for no other emotion would have been apt.

Inside the Sheikh Zayed Mosque


Llandeilo-Shrewsbury train
16th February, 2014

[1] I was reminded of the new county council headquarters in Stafford. Equally eco-friendly and equally offensive to the eye.
[2] Arabian Sands, p.262
[3] The story is in the Quran too and Noah is decreed to be a Prophet in Islam, the Prophet Nur.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Incredible India: Part 17: Purana Qila, Humayun’s Tomb & the Jama Masjid

world-map delhi

And here we are at the very end of my Indian expedition. I’d hoped to time this all nicely and have it finished by the end of 2014 with something new for 2015, but alas, I’m one week out as we still have the postscript in UAE to come. Oh well, no one’s perfect! But, for now, have a happy new year and I hope your 2014 was a good one and your 2015 will be even better.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:


map_india_northwest 8

My final day in India began with some South Indian dosa and then a shopping spree in the underground market beneath Connaught Place in the heart of New Delhi which was where everyone that I had asked assured me was the best place for purchasing cheap Bollywood DVDs and a kurta (Indian pyjamas) set. I wandered the market, haggling, pausing, considering and eventually purchasing all I needed and several other items as well before emerging back into the open and continuing with my Delhi explorations.

I now went to the place that, all things considered, I should really have visited before heading anywhere else: Purana Qila. The name translates as “old fort” which is what it is; a hefty fort built by the Afghan Sher Shah who ruled between 1538 and 1545, making it older than its more illustrious neighbour upstream. That fort however, is only the latest construction at Purana Qila, for the site was inhabited long before that, way back in the mists of time in fact, for Purana Qila is where Delhi began.
Once upon a time it was called Indraprastha.

Indraprastha is not a name that will mean a lot to you if you're Western and unversed in Indian history and culture, but to any Hindu on earth, the name is familiar indeed for Indraprastha was the capital city of the Kingdom of the Pandavas in the Mahabhrata, one of Hinduism's two great epics, (the other is the Ramayana).

The Mahabhrata, of which the celebrated Bhagavad Gita is but a part, tells the story of a war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. In the epic, Indraprastha is described as a city surrounding a palace of matchless beauty:

“… that foremost of cities looked resplendent like Bhogavati the capital of the nether kingdom decked with the Nagas. And it stood adorned with palatial mansions and numerous gates, each furnished with a couple of panels resembling the out-stretched wings of Garuda. And it was protected with gateways looking like the clouds and high as the Mandara mountains... And decked with innumerable mansions, the city became like unto Amaravati and came to be called Indraprastha like unto Indra's city. In a delightful and auspicious part of the city rose the palace of the Pandavas filled with every kind of wealth and like unto the mansion of the celestial treasurer Kuvera himself. And it looked like a mass of clouds charged with lightning... And around the city were laid out many delightful gardens adorned with numerous trees bearing both fruits and flowers... And there were various pleasure-houses, bright as mirrors, and numerous bowers of creepers, and charming and artificial hillocks, and many lakes full to the brim of crystal water, and delightful tanks fragrant with lotuses and lilies and adorned with swans and ducks and chakravakas brahminy ducks.

And there were many delicious pools overgrown with fine aquatic plants. And there were also diverse ponds of great beauty and large dimension. And, O king, the joy of the Pandavas increased from day to day, in consequence of their residence in that large kingdom that was peopled with pious men. Thus in consequence of the virtuous behaviour of Bhishma and king Dhritarashtra towards them, the Pandavas took up their abode in Khandavaprastha. Adorned with those five mighty warriors, each equal unto Indra himself, that foremost of cities looked like Bhogavati the capital of the nether kingdom adorned with the Nagas.”[1]

Indraprastha as envisaged in the Mahabhrata

The crowds, mothers and fathers with excited children brandishing balloons and ice creams, were thick on the road as I approached the place where Delhi began, but unlike me they all turned right prior to the fort's entrance, choosing the delights of the city zoo over ancient history. Still, that made for a quieter place for me to explore which I duly did, wandering around the ruined mosque and walls and the building in which the great Mughal Emperor Humayun tripped and fell down the stairs to his death.

But as for ancient Indraprastha, there was, alas, little to see beyond a large hole left by the archaeologists. Still, I should not have been surprised, for in 'City of Djinns' Dalrymple talks of his visit to the site with Professor B. B. Lal, the archaeologist who undertook the dig and it doesn't raise expectations. In it he asks Lal about the fable gates and towers:

“'You won't find many palaces in the PGW[2] layers,' said Professor Lal.

'What do you mean? In the Mahabhrata...'

'Poetic licence,' said the professor. 'The archaeological evidence shows that the Painted Grey Ware culture was really fairly primitive – basically it was a rural, pastoral economy. At Hastinapura they had iron and copper implements, a few tools made of bone. Some glass ornaments, good wheel-turned pottery...'

'But the buildings?' I asked. 'What would the great hall of Indraprastha have been like?'

'If it ever existed it would have been wattle and daub.'

'Wattle and daub?'

'You get some mud-brick walls, earthen ramparts, the odd structure of kiln-fired bricks, but generally speaking PGW structures are almost always wattle and daub.'

'Any use of marble?'

The professor shook his head: 'Stone is very rare in this area and they didn't have the resources to move it very far. To date no PGW layer has come up with any stone buildings.'

'What about paintings? The trompe l'oeil which fooled Duryodhana?'

'No – nothing like that. Just monochrome geometric and floral decoration on pottery. No human figures. The material culture described in the text is that of the fourth century AD, not the ninth century BC.'

The professor turned and began walking back to the Rest House. 'The Indraprastha of the Mahabhrata,' he said, 'was basically created by the pen of a poet.'”[3]

Still, like all legends and myths, it was amazing to think that there was some truth in it all and that I was stood where it had actually happened. It was much nicer though to lie down on the grass under the shade of a tree and doze away half an hour or so of Indian afternoon.

Since Emperor Humayun had died at Purana Qila, it was perhaps only fitting that my next stop should be his tomb in the south-east of the city, an area which prior to the 20th century had been open countryside. Humayun was the Second Mughal Emperor and the father of Akbar whom we've met already and by now the Mughal jigsaw was beginning to fall into place for me. He was referred to as Insan-i-Kamil (The Perfect Man) by his people due to his peaceful personality and non-provocative methods, and it now made more sense as to where Akbar got his noble character from. More than that, the father also gives us a hint as to his son's religious inclinations, for his tomb was built in that place so as to be near to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin. Like Akbar, Humayun greatly revered the Chisti Order and he thought that by being buried near to one of their greatest saints, some of the blessings would rub off onto him.

Humayun's Tomb

Humayun's Tomb is magnificent, a red sandstone mini Taj Mahal that I enjoyed wandering around despite still being blasé about such structures having seen quite a few of them over the previous week or so. I changed into the kurta that I'd bought in the market and found it much cooler and more comfortable and then in the gardens I made a video of my Delhi impressions. That done, I then made my way next-door to fulfil a promise to myself that I'd made passing through en route to Agra. I would return to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin to savour it fully as it deserved.

I walked to the dargah, across the busy Mathura Road which separates it from the park surrounding the tomb and then down the narrow alleyways that I'd negotiated before. At the end of them it was there, far more humble and hemmed in than the grave that I'd just come from yet possessing an atmosphere and an energy that its illustrious neighbour – and the far more sumptuous Taj in Agra – simply failed to muster. This place would win few architectural awards yet it was the most moving that I'd visited in all Delhi and the right place to close off my Indian experience. After paying homage at the tomb, I sat on one of the steps and drank it all in: the holiness, the Qawali singers chanting in the courtyard, the birds circling overhead, the sights, sounds and smells of Incredible India.

Qawali singers in the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin

Yes indeed, for cheesy as the slogan undoubtedly is, I had found India incredible and I was glad that I'd come. True, I'd struggled for the first day or two, but after that I'd adjusted and I'd enjoyed it for India is like nowhere else on earth that I have been to. The Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Agra Fort, the palaces of Jaipur and the ruins of Fatepur Sikhri, all had been magnificent, world-class monuments, and yet they were not what I would remember; they were not what was making me plan a second trip even before my first had ended. No, what was so incredible for me (apart from the food!) were the places like the one where I was now sat, the holy places. The India that I keep recalling sat here in my Stoke-on-Trent home is the India of the Sufi dargahs, the ghats of Pushkar and the other-worldly ambience of the Golden Temple. If I visit again, those are the places that I shall be seeking out. But that is for next time; as for this trip, I had but one more stop to make...

The streets around Chandni Chowk were the same chaotic hell that they had been on that disorientating first night in the country and I was worried that I would be late. But my cyclo wallah managed to drop me off at the foot of the great staircase leading up to the Jama Masjid just as the azan was sounding for Maghrib prayer.

Stood at the top of those steps, as the azan drifted across the courtyard and the sun was setting was a truly incredible experience. India's largest mosque, a Mughal masterpiece commissioned by Shah Jahan and one of the most sublime Islamic buildings on earth, it truly was a fitting place to end an incredible trip. My only regret was that it hadn't been longer but then, as the Muslims would say, I'll be back... Insha'Allah.

[1] Mahabhrata: Adi Parva: Section 208. Available online at:
[2] PGW = Painted Grey Ware Culture; an Iron Age culture of the Gangetic Plain lasting from c. 1,200 BC to c. 600 BC.
[3] City of Djinns, p.331

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

world-map osawano


Here’s a little seasonal snippet written way back in 2000,

A Merry Christmas from Uncle Travelling Matt!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

It's Christmas time again, and what better time than this is there to talk about a Japanese Christmas? Now of course the Japanese are not Christian (as a general rule), nor are they even Islamic so they don't even regard the Holy JC as a prophet. Considering this and the fact that Christmas is basically a celebration of all that is JC, then I assumed that it would be a bit of a non-event here in the Land of the Rising Sun. But how wrong was I. For I forgot three important factors in my equation:

1. Christmas is Western, and Western is cool.

2. Christmas is fun, why should they miss out?

3. Christmas is blatant commercialism these days, and blatant commercialism is something that the Japanese excel at.

Therefore, I'd like to wish you all a Meri Kurisumasu!!


However, whilst the Japanese do celebrate Christmas, and indeed use it as an excuse to become as Westernised as possibly, it does differ considerably from the "Season to be Jolly" at home. For a start, there's none of that 'let's remember the real meaning of Christmas' here. Hardly bloody likely, since the real meaning of Christmas is distinctly un-Buddhist. Instead, the religion is taken out and cheesiness inserted in its place. Everywhere you look, there's Singing Santas, Dancing Snowman, more neon than is necessary and piped tinkly music.

However, the most unusual aspect of it all is the Christmas Dinner. Now back in Blighty one would associate that with the whole family getting together, stuffing themselves with Turkey, then watching the TV or drinking. But not here. What do the Japanese do for Christmas dinner, (if they are lucky enough to get in).

Family get together? No.

Hearty meal at a hotel? No.

Expensive restaurant? No.

They all go to KFC.

I am not joking, Christmas is Kentucky Fried Chicken Day. Those heart-warming people from the Mid-West put on a special Christmas menu of Chicken (no Turkey note), and Christmas Pudding, and the masses flock to their tables. It's especially popular with young couples in love I believe.


Christmas this year also revealed something special to me. That is, that the kids at my High School must surely be amongst the stupidest in the world, (and Class 16 in particular). Now I always knew that Osawano Chugakko did not represent Japan's Intellectual Elite, but this lot really take the biscuit. For my 'Christmas Lesson' I set them a quiz which was not only incredibly easy, but I wrote all the answers on the board for them beforehand, repeated them all several times and got the Japanese teacher to translate everything. But to no avail. The results were as follows....

Question 1.

Which country did the Christmas Story take place?

a). Israel

b). Egypt

c). America

Most got this one right though there were a few who were convinced that the wise men must have visited Minneapolis.

Question 2.

What was the name of the baby?

a). Frank

b). Jesus

c). Dave

A unanimous Dave on that one.

Question 3.

Where do Christmas Trees come from?

a). Holland

b). Germany

c). Guam

Thankfully, only one guessed Guam.

Question 4.

Rearrange the letters to spell out a Christmas Song


Most got this one since the choice that I'd given them consisted of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" and "Jingle Bells", so the number of letters alone should have given it. Two did plump for "We Wish You A Merry Xmas" mind.

Question 5.

Write the Christmas date in European System.

A = 25-12-2000

We did that two lessons previously. But that was two lessons ago, most drew a blank on it.

Question 6.

Which country does Santa Claus live in, (Hint: It's the same one as the Moomins)?

Now I was told that we must teach that Santa lives in Finland, which may be where Lapland is, I'm not sure. However, my kids were unanimously convinced that he resides in the state of "Moomin Valley".

Question 7.

What do people eat at Christmas?

a). Hamburger

b). Steak

c). Turkey

They all got that one!! But I did carefully miss out Chicken or KFC to avoid confusion.

Question 8.

Who appear on BBC television every Christmas Day?

a). Queen Elizabeth II

b). James Bond 007

c). Akebono

They end on a high note, all right! Though I must admit I would have allowed James Bond since he is on TV every Christmas anyway. Akebono by the way is a Sumo wrestler. I would not have allowed him.

So with that over and done with it's time to look forward to a cheesy, Santary, KFC Kurisumasu. Not bloody likely!! I'm off Down Under instead.


Written 19th December, 2000, Oswano-machi, Japan

Next Musing: It’s Cold Outside!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Incredible India: Part 16: Delhi–The National Railway Museum & Indira Gandhi’s Villa

world-map delhi

This post deals with one of my very favourite topics: railways. More than any other country perhaps, India is united by its railways and the national railway company is the largest employer in the land. A lot better that way than the army say, which is the case in North Korea where I’m due to visit soon.
But on the theme of rail adventures, I must admit that I’m rather excited as in two months’ time I’ve got one coming up as I shall be travelling with my son and ex-wife by Eurostar to Paris, our first-ever trip both on that famous train and to the French capital. After years of visiting obscure and far-flung capital cities, I’m finally going to a famous one that’s nearby.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

map_india_northwest 8


From old to new, my next destination was in the heart of Lutyens' New Delhi. I emerged from the bowels of the earth at racecourse Station and then took a tuk-tuk along the broad avenues of the model city to the National Railway Museum. My trip took me past the embassies of a dozen or more countries, something which I found fascinating since one can tell a lot about a country's political history from the foreign embassies in its capital city.[1]

The major countries all had huge complexes in prime locations. I never saw the British Embassy, but its American counterpart was enormous as American embassies always are. Strangely though, one of the largest belonged to Serbia. At first I wondered why an impoverished and pretty insignificant Balkan nation of but several million souls should be so respected in India, but then I realised: Serbia had obviously inherited the old Yugoslavian Embassy and Yugoslavia, along with India, had been a prime mover in the Non-Aligned Movement which dominated Indian foreign policy during the sixties and seventies.

Next up was Pakistan's which was very ostentatious and very Muslim, a declaration of difference and defiance in stone and stucco to its old enemy. My favourites though belonged to Bhutan, (which was built in the style of a Himalayan Buddhist temple), and Indonesia, (which sported a rather fine Balinese gateway).

I am British and I have long held a fascination for trains. Therefore, the fact that a visit to the National Railway Museum was on my agenda should come as no surprise. Arguably more than any other country on earth, the railways – Britain's finest gift to its greatest colony – have held India together, a vast, multi-lingual, multi-cultural mammoth of a state. To celebrate them is both relevant and worthwhile.

And the museum did just that. The collection of locomotives on display was impressive including a working Punjabi engine ('Lion of the Punjab') and a strange monorail engine unlike anything that I have ever seen before or since, with a miniature train to ferry you around.[2] And there were some cool exhibits too: the skull of an elephant that had lost in a collision with a train and some models of locomotives and carriages from days gone by. I left feeling glad, picking up a tuk-tuk to take me the short distance to my next culture stop.

The Lion of the Punjab

The strange monorail loco

The name of Indira Gandhi is bandied around a lot by the Sikhs and normally in the same tone that I reserve for Margaret Thatcher. That is understandable for she was the PM who ordered the tanks into the Golden Temple complex during Operation Blue Star. By desecrating their holiest shrine, she has earned their eternal enmity.

But in the peaceful Lutyens villa that I was walking around, quite a different picture of India's first female Prime Minister was being presented, more Joan of Arc than Margaret of Grantham. In the house where she once lived, she was portrayed as a diplomat, a great leader beloved by her people yet humble in her lifestyle, a family woman, intelligent yet sensitive and above all, a martyr. I wandered past her study, the lounge where she entertained world leaders,[3] past her bedroom and the place where she made her daily puja and through the garden where she oft took tea with her family.

It was a picture of domestic and political bliss until we came to the spot in-between her home and the house next door where she was violently gunned down by her own bodyguard. A strange glass sculpture marks the spot and the exhibition dwelt on the immense grief of a nation at her passing. What it did not explain however, was why she was murdered. Having strolled round the Golden Temple and talked to many Sikhs, I knew full well why her Khalsa Sikh bodyguard turned his gun on the lady that he was paid to protect, but the museum itself gave no indication and nor too did it talk of the thousands of Sikhs who were murdered afterwards in retaliation for her death or why her son Rajiv Gandhi was also gunned down in 1991. For me those unanswered questions was one of my lasting impressions of the villa along with images of some of the presents given to Mrs. Gandhi by foreign leaders, (including two incredibly naff glass bowls from Poland and Yugoslavia which I wouldn't look twice at in a car boot), and the sense of a great Indian revolutionary and political dynasty that was slowly corrupting just like the lineage of Jadis, the mythical Empress of Charn in C. S. Lewis' 'Chronicles of Narnia'.[4]

The day being a Sunday, I headed out that evening to the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral. Being in the most British of all the cities in the greatest of our former colonies, I'd hoped to be able to attend an Anglican Communion service at either the cathedral or St. James' Church, the two high temples of the Raj. But once again, my church showed its weakness by refusing to provide anything other than Evening Prayer on a Sunday evening and so, for the second time on the trip, I went Roman.
I cannot say that the Mass was particularly inspiring. It wasn't bad, but after the spiritual superbowls of Amritsar and Pushkar, the oh-so-familiar liturgy seemed mundane and everyday. Keeping one's faith as a Christian might be difficult in India I suspect, and I admire those who succeed.

On the way back to the Metro station, I called in at the adjacent Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, one of the holiest Sikh sites in the capital, built on the spot where the Eighth Guru, the child Guru Har Krishan spent some months in 1664 as a virtual prisoner of the Mughals but who gained a saintly reputation in that place for his work amongst the poor and for his healing powers. In that gurdwara, pristine white and spotlessly clean like the others that I had visited, I found a spiritual beauty and energy that had been lacking in the cathedral and as I circumambulated the sacred pool, I felt at peace.

[1] For more on this subject, see my 2007 travelogue of a trip to Berlin where I discuss the embassies in the German capital.
[2] On the trip that I took I was sat behind a fifteen-month old toddler on her very first train journey: one of life's seminal moments.
[3] Ho Chi Minh, one note informed me, once described her as a “sister”.
[4] It should be noted here that the Mahatma Gandhi was not a member of this family; the surname is a coincidence. They are descended from Nehru instead.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Incredible India: Part 15: Delhi–Safdarjung’s Tomb, the Lodi Gardens & the Red Fort

world-map delhiGreetings!

It’s been a pleasant week this week on UTM with the current ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Oswano in Japan, contacting me after reading my articles about my time there. It’s nice to be reminded of good times in good places and good to hear that he is enjoying his time as much as I did.

And there’ll be more coming up on Osawano after Incredible India has all been posted which, I estimate to be around Christmas time. But until then, let’s head back to the Indian capital to peel back another layer of the intriguing Delhi onion…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

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Safdarjung's Tomb represents another layer in the Delhi onion; that of the Nawabs, the more decadent descendants of the Mughals whom the British gradually dominated and then replaced. Although far more dilapidated and modest than its more famous cousins in Agra, the Mughal lineage was plain to see: the design was that of a mini-Taj although far less measured and hinting at the corruption and decline of the age in which it was built:

“Safdarjung interested me because his life seemed to encapsulate perfectly the intriguing but cataclysmic half-century that linked the Mughal high noon at the close of the seventeenth century with the decay and disintegration of the Twilight fifty years later. When Safdarjung arrived from Persia, Aurangzeb was still Emperor and Delhi was still the richest, most magnificent and most populous city between Istanbul and Edo (Tokyo); with its two million inhabitants it was far larger than either London or Paris. Its army was invincible; its palaces unparalleled; the domes of its many mosques quite literally glittered with gold. By the time of Safdarjung's death, the Persian Nadir Shah had been and gone, carrying with him the accumulated riches of eight generations of Empire. Three Emperors had been murdered (one was, in addition, first blinded with a hot needle); the mother of one ruler was strangled and the father of another forced off a precipice on his elephant. Delhi, the great capital, was left a city of gutted ruins... The tomb stands today as a telling memorial to the period. Most obviously, it demonstrates the strained circumstances of the age. Compared to the purity of the Taj Mahal – the spotless white marble, the unfussy shapes, the perfectly balanced design – Safdarjung's tomb with its bulbous dome and stained sandstone walls seems somehow flawed and degenerate. Every schoolchild the world over knows the profile of the Taj, and in so far as Safdarjung's tomb is different, it at first sight looks wrong: its lines look somehow faulty, naggingly incorrect.”[1]

Safdarjung's Tomb

I wandered leisurely around the tomb and then ambled across the road to another place that I very much wanted to see and which tells of yet another Delhian era: the Lodi Gardens.

Imagine this: a medium-sized city park full of trees and flowers, a small river and pool, young lovers holding hands or kissing in the shade and birds singing overhead. It's a pleasant image but not unlike thousands of other city parks across the globe, (although I've never come across one before with quite so many doe-eyed couples), except that this one is different; the Lodi Gardens are also chock-full of UNESCO-standard ancient ruins. Like with so many other sites that I'd visited in India, anywhere else in the world and this would be the city's main attraction; here it is all but ignored.

A ruin in the Lodi Gardens

I, however, did not ignore it. Instead, as the sun was setting, I ambled happily around the tombs of the Lodi and Sayyid rulers who controlled these parts before the Mughals marched into town, wandering freely through the atmospheric mosques and mausoleums. It was marvellous, simple marvellous and the perfect way to complete my day's sightseeing. In the tuk-tuk on the way back though, I was brought back down to a cruder, less romantic side of the Indian psyche:

Tuk-tuk driver: “Excuse me sir, do you like cricket?”

Matt: “Yes I do, particularly test.”

Tuk-tuk driver: “Yes, I also. I like test and other test...”

Matt: “Other test?”

Tuk-tuk driver: “The Pussy Test! Pussy Test is best test man!”

There is one sight on every tourist's Delhi itinerary and that is the Red Fort at the end of Chandni Chowk. I took the Metro there but then got lost and so had to finish off my journey by cyclo. I queued up with the other tourists and then went inside, eager to check out another of the settings of 'Jodhaa Akbar'. Ultimately though, this one disappointed. Still suffering from the fort fatigue that I'd contracted in Agra and exacerbated at Jaipur was one factor but even without it I don't think that the Red Fort matches up to the others.

At the entrance to the Red Fort

Once upon a time though, it would have done. From its scale and layout, I was sure that centuries ago it would have eclipsed even Agra Fort, but today, sadly not. And the reason behind that was a bitter pill for me to swallow: the British.

By the 19th century the prestige of the fort was a shadow of its former self but the complex was still completely in tact and the puppet emperor held his court there. However, when the population rose in 1857 in what I have always called the Indian Mutiny but what the Indian government these days refers to as the First War of Independence, then he had to choose sides and the Red Fort became the rebel stronghold.

But he could not hold out for long against the mightiest military machine on earth and after bombarding it and destroying many of the fine Mughal buildings, the British moved in and replaced what they had blown up with some of their own edifices or, as Dalrymple puts it, “In the place of the marble fantasies they tore down, the British erected some of the most crushingly ugly buildings ever thrown up by the British Empire – a set of barracks that look as if they have been modelled on Wormwood Scrubs.”[2] Strangely – yet fittingly – it rather reminded me of the Old Fort in Corfu Town, a 16th century Venetian citadel that the British also defaced in the 19th century with barracks.

Morosely, the most interesting part of the entire tour for me was in one of those barracks, the exhibition on the Mutiny which tells the story from a perspective that I was unused to, although the overall highlight for me was taking photos with some Afghani kids by one of the Mughal pavilions.

Afghani kids in the Red Fort

Next part: Delhi – The National Railway Museum & Indira Gandhi's Villa

[1] City of Djinns, p.156-7
[2] City of Djinns, p.222