Ladies and Gentlemen, if you have reached this point you’ve done pretty well in all honesty. This will likely be my last post from the road. I’ll almost certainly do a post-trip roundup either once I’m home, or while I’m flying back, but as for reporting from the ground in faraway lands, this is the end.
I almost certainly should have written more this week than I have done, but there are two reasons why I’ve been silent. First off, I’ve been doing literally nothing all day every day for the past week. I’m not sure if you’ve seen (it made some national news), but parts of India have hit 43, 44 and even 45 degrees Celsius. The country is in the grip of a pretty brutal heatwave that has killed over 100 people as of the publication of this post, and Delhi is one of the city to have been hit the hardest. Thus, it’s almost impossible to actually do anything – stepping outside in the day to that heat/smog combo is absolutely unbearable (and dangerous), and stepping out at night is a one way ticket to either lodging yourself in the grill of an erratically swerving tuk-tuk or getting your pockets knifed open by little Artful Dodger street urchins. So I’ve done literally nothing that’s worth reporting. This is also compounded by the fact that exploring Delhi is pretty comfortably at the absolute bottom of my wish list at the moment. And that ties into the other reason I haven’t written anything in a while; I hate it here.
Earlier in the week I had maybe one of the worst experiences of my entire life, and it frustrated and upset me so much that I simply didn’t feel like writing. If not simply for the fact that a blog post at that point would’ve manifested as a seething library of pure hatred, it also struck me that I would probably offend some people in the process. So I decided to wait out my anger and write this post when I had calmed down a little. However, that hasn’t happened, so strap yourselves in for some choice words about my experience in what is, without doubt, my least favourite of all the destinations I’ve ever been to. And yes, I do mean not just on this trip, but ever. This is a sparkling compendium of a list that is splattered with such worldly fecal matter as the awfully soulless Liechtenstein, the offensively jingoistic Nagasaki, the painfully boring Helsinki and the timewarp bomb site of Blackpool. India – or at least the fairly sizeable chunk of it that I’ve seen – has got them all beat. And here’s why:
It gives me absolutely nothing. It may sound entitled or arrogant to say, but literally every country, city, town or village I’ve been to, probably in my entire life, has something to offer me for the effort and money I put into it. I make it to a major capital city, I’ll be greeted by amazing sights, beautiful streets and a great atmosphere. Likewise if I head up into say, the Alps or the Andes – I get amazing vistas combined with stunning, cozy little villages where you can relax and feel at home. India has neither of these.
Let’s start with the cities. I’ve been to three. It’s not that many, admittedly, but I feel I have a right to comment on the state of Indian cities simply because if you’ve been to three major cities in any country, you can safely say you have at least a bit of experience of cities in that country. I dunno, maybe that’s a very small-country Eurocentric angle to take. However, another reason is that – while every single person who ever swooped through this godforsaken city will tell you that Delhi is little more than a stain on the surface of humanity – they’ll also tell you that Jaipur is infinitely more beautiful, and that Agra has an enormous list of amazing historical places to visit. But that’s the thing – it’s all just as crap as the last place. Doesn’t matter which city I’m in – when it comes to India I cannot bring myself to like it, or even acknowledge why others like it, to be honest.
Really, it seems to be an issue with me more than the country itself. Every dreadlock-clad, harem-panted moron from Chertsey I’ve met on this whirlwind adventure of shit has done little other than gush over how awesome this nation is. How its spirituality makes you question your beliefs. How its smiling natives make you question the point of your material wealth. And while we’re at it, listen, you might be doing yoga and know the names of a couple more Hindu gods than the average Brit. You might have changed your name from Peter to Lakshmana and have sworn off alcohol, but that does not mean that I should strive to do the same. You know why I have such faith in my material wealth? Because it affects literally every aspect of my existence. I find it extremely patronising that people think otherwise – sure the little kid in the sidestreets of Agra may grin and wave at the backpack-wearing Westerners walking past their house, but that smile doesn’t hide anything. It doesn’t mean they’re not living in a country with extremely limited access to clean water, or with massive illiteracy rates, or with a population of well over a billion yet also with a life expectancy of 66 – a full 16 years lower than the UK.
That’s one way in which India has influenced my way of thinking; it makes me realise how lucky I am that I had the opportunities I did by being born in the fully developed world. Yes there are obviously very rich people in India, but an insanely large percentage of people – for a nation this large – live well below the poverty line. It makes me realise how much I cherish that exact material wealth that many others choose to reject once they set foot at Indira Gandhi Airport. It’s that wealth that stops me from getting typhoid when I try to drink tap water. It allows me to communicate with other people all over the world at the touch of a button. It allows me access to healthcare services that don’t involve slipping in puddles of blood on the waiting room floor. It allows me to not have to walk past mountains and mountains of garbage at the side of every street. It allows me to have a quiet night in my house in London with a bottle of red wine and Match of the Day. It allows me to even be here – it allows me to come to India and to see what it’s like with my own eyes, and that is the reason I don’t have to unequivocally praise it. Maybe that’s the greatest facet of my material wealth – it offers me a generous and vast arena of travel, from which I can form my own opinions, not just regurgitate the desperate, pseudo-spiritual self-righteous nonsense you pedal in the belief that you’ve broken the glass ceiling of Western society, and ‘seen beyond’ whatever it is about it that you inexplicably chose to turn your back on.
I had so much hope coming to India. It’s one of the world’s largest and greatest societies. Thousands of years old, filled with amazing food, drink, culture and history. I was willing to give it a huge go, even though I knew it might be a bit of hassle. And it’s just disappointed me so so much. For instance, I just went outside to get some dinner, and what happened was just kind of… India in a microcosm, summed up perfectly. First off, it was 11pm and still absolutely agonisingly hot. I made it to the main street and a man on a motorbike came flying down the pavement and almost hit me. Then a tuk-tuk drove into the back of a bus and smashed its own windscreen all over the street, and just kept driving. I got to the corner I needed to turn round, and from somewhere came the most intense smell I’ve ever experienced. India’s full of nasty smells, but this was a whole new ball game – it was like a rotten egg that had been dipped in sulphur and then excavated from a rotting corpse’s digestive tract. It’s the first time a smell has literally made me gag in the street – it was unreal. I turned the corner and the street was covered in unpopped popcorn. I mean literally thousands and thousands of corn kernels. All over the street. And people were just walking and driving through it all.
Random stuff as unexpected and strange as that would be endearing anywhere else, but here’s it’s just another weird annoyance. I barely broke stride before getting accosted by a bunch of children tugging and my shirt and asking for money. Sorry, I don’t have any. They tug again and give it the big puppy-dog eyes. No, I’m sorry. Then again they pull at my clothing and stand in front of me, looking all sad. F*ck off kids, I’m not interested. How many times do I have to say no before you get the picture? Go collect money for your cartel from someone else. And lo! Once they realised I wasn’t giving them anything, they ran off to a nearby restaurant, sat at an outdoor table with a bunch of men they obviously knew and started eating with them. Oh yeah you really needed my money, didn’t you? What a load of bullshit.
I got to the square with the food stalls, approached one of the vendors and asked for a bottle of water. Usually they’re about 20 rupees (20p). He said 100. I just looked at him like ‘how much of a mug do you take me for?’. Without me saying any more, he said ‘OK 70’. So not only did he know I knew he was ripping me off, but he then attempted to ‘be fair’ by offering me a price still way higher than the going rate. I said ’20’. He said ’50’. I said ’20’. He said ’50’. I said ’20’. He said ’45’. I said ’20’. He said ’30’. I said ’20’. He said ‘OK 20’. He handed me the bottle and it was warm. I’m not talking room temperature – this bottle was actually giving off heat, like a hot water bottle. Which I guess, in a sense, is what it was. I handed it back to him and told him where to go. Trying to rip me off and then can’t even be bothered to give me a cold bottle. The stall across the way then gave me one for 20 straight off the bat, and it was freezing cold. That’s all I ask man, just because I don’t look like you doesn’t mean you have to try to steal my money.
That one ten-minute trip was just so filled with stress, filth and unnecessary arguing that it just makes me wonder what anyone gets out of this place. In fact, that’s the exact thought I had around a week ago, so I booked a trip up to the Himalayas, to get away from what the Himalayan people call the ‘Lowlands’ of India – basically all of India that isn’t mountains. However, my experience up there was something I thought I would never ever want to write or even talk about, so utterly terrifying was it. But hey, it makes for a good story I guess, as it affords me a platform to describe the effects of – and bring awareness to the dangers of – AMS: Acute Mountain Sickness.
On Wednesday, I took a brief 55 minute flight to Leh, in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, in the extreme north of India. This isn’t the India you see on TV – it’s mountaintop monasteries punctuating a vast, barren desert, surrounded by gigantic jagged mountains and populated by locals that are far closer to the people of Tibet in ethnic makeup and culture than the people of Lowland India. Leh is somewhere I’ve wanted to go for many years. It’d be silent, reflective and a gateway to some of the most spectacular scenery that the entire planet can offer. But it didn’t work out like that in the slightest.
As every guide book or travel website will tell you, Leh is pretty high. It’s not super crazy insane high, but for a major town it’s pretty high. It’s 3,500m (11,500ft) above sea level. That’s toward the top end of many ski resorts. Above 2,500m the body starts to behave a little differently due to there being less oxygen in the atmosphere. You’ll barely even feel it around that altitude, however. It’s once you push the 3,000m barrier that you’ll actually notice your body having a little bitchfit. Basically, when you go skiing, or when you go to Leh via the road that was closed when I went there, you acclimatise. You gradually deplete your body’s oxygen levels by slowly bringing yourself up to altitude, meaning your body adjusts like the fader on one of those fancy alarm clocks that’s supposed to make waking up super calm. I had to fly there. Delhi is at 100m above sea level, so as a result I jumped 3,400m in just over 50 minutes. Travel articles suggest that you don’t fly if you don’t have to, but if it’s your only option, you just chill in bed feeling a little sleepy and funny for 24-48 hours (depending on who you ask) and you’ll be alright. However, they also make it clear that even if you’re a healthy, fairly slender 24 year-old like me, that does not remove you from the blast zone of the bomb of randomness that is severe altitude sickness. While most people have the ‘feeling a little funny then feeling fine’ progression of symptoms when they quickly ascend, there are some people to whom that doesn’t quite happen. And they get hit by AMS. I’m one of those people.
I arrived at Leh airport at 8am on Wednesday morning. I stepped out into the absolutely freezing oxygen-depleted atmosphere and felt strangely refreshed. It had been so hot in Delhi that this was a welcome change. Being a worrier I spent my time at the baggage belt breathing deeply to try to adjust myself to the surroundings. I felt fine, but then as I turned and walked toward the exit, I suddenly got a little wave of cloudiness, like I’d had a shot of weak alcohol. I thought it was quite funny that I could actually feel the altitude, as I kind of assumed much of it would be bullshit. I hopped in a taxi with a strange man who kept bowing his head in a nervous tick every five seconds, including when going round blind corners and when navigating junctions. I held on for dear life as we drove through Leh to what can only really be described as my disappointment. Sure, the scenery was nice, but the town itself had the same old shitty, run down buildings everywhere, the same piles of rubbish and the same hoards of mangy stray dogs roaming the streets as the Lowlands. I sighed, realising I hadn’t quite ‘escaped’ some of the things I disliked so much about India, but thought I’d be happy if I pushed on, got through these difficult two days of acclimatisation, then got out into the Himalayas to see the local sights, such as the amazing Nubra Valley, Tso Moriri Lake, and the world’s highest paved road, the latter two of which are close to 5,000m in altitude.
I arrived at the only affordable hostel in Leh – the Leh Ecology Hostel – and holy shit what a surprise that was. A large glass-fronted yet extremely old building way outside the town centre, on the side of a hill, overlooking the city, was where I would be staying for the next twelve days. I arrived to total silence, but it was below zero outside and I desperately needed to start my resting, so I approached the house next to the hostel and knocked on the door. Out stepped a little Ladakhi man in his pyjamas, who proceeded to give me a tour of the hostel. There were no heaters. There was no tap water. There was no hot water. There were no toilets. There were no normal plug sockets. There was (almost) no wifi. What the hell had I done. As I completed the tour, my earlier grin having slowly morphed into an emotionally pained grimace, I was led to my room – a wooden box with two twin beds, a lightbulb and nothing else. As he was about to leave, I turned to him and said ‘… Am I the only guest?’, to which he heartily laughed, proclaimed ‘Yes!’, and left, leaving me in an empty building in the Himalayas, 10km from the nearest shops, with no way of charging my phone or contacting the outside world. I got into bed and fell asleep.
I remember having an exceptionally vivid dream where I was drowning, and struggling to breathe, when suddenly, boom. I woke up, jolted upright in bed and realised I wasn’t actually breathing in real life. Its fine, I know sleep apnea occurs at this elevation, I just wasn’t expecting it. I attempted to drift back off to sleep, and after a long struggle of my brain vs my lungs, I managed it. Being affected by 3,500m altitude is extremely normal – it affects 70-80% of people who ascend too quickly to that height. It’s usually a mild headache, a little bit of breathlessness and feeling sleepy. And I knew this. So when I woke up three hours later feeling like I had a bear trap around my chest and a giant air pocket in my brain, I immediately got up out of bed in panic, at which point I then stumbled, banged my head against the wall and had to stand there breathing heavily for five minutes. I went outside to ask the hostel guy for some water, and he took me into the kitchen, where he uncovered a bowl from under a towel filled with boiled tap water that had a layer of strange minerals on the surface. He gave me a glass of it and it was so fresh from this botched pasteurisation that it was still incredibly hot. So when the guide books say drink litres and litres of water, I felt I was falling a little short with a 250ml glass of boiling scumwater.
I headed back to the room, where my laptop and both phones decided to run out of battery. I sat and stared at the wall, when suddenly a strange little shape appeared in my vision. It was like when you stare at the sun or another bright object and it burns into your retina. A strange sort of deformed star appeared in the middle of my vision and wouldn’t go away. Turns out this is the precursor to a retinal hemorrhage, where the blood vessels at the back of your eye expand and put pressure on your optic nerve before rupturing and bleeding into the back of your eye. I just kind of rode it out and fell asleep again, this little imaginary star shape permeating my dreams. Then, problems.
I woke up in the middle of the night and felt like death. I could barely see anything, felt like I was going to vomit, and had a headache that would’ve killed a small cat. It was absolutely insane. By this point I had been there for 20 hours – there is no way my conditioning should’ve been getting worse by this point. I was on a mountain in the Himalayas, alone and freezing cold, genuinely worried that something terrible was going to happen. I had spent a day and a night in a spinning room, trying not to throw up, cut off from the outside world and not being able to see or do anything without either bumping into the wall or collapsing like a wheezing Type II diabetic. It was the worst 24 hours of my life, hands down. So I woke up the hostel guy and asked him to order me a taxi for 6am to head to the airport and buy a ticket for the first flight back out of there. I did not care if it was going to get better if I persevered – right now the £30 to get straight back down from this hellhole was comfortably worth it. Again, I tried to sleep, and somehow managed it in between strange fits of not breathing and feeling like there was a knife in my head.
I headed downstairs to wait for the taxi when the hostel guy appeared. He asked how I was, at which point I said ‘I’m actually feeling terrible. I feel much worse’. Now for my entire time here, this guy had been extremely cavalier about AMS. Everything I said, he’d just go ‘Ahh it’s OK/It’ll be fine/It’s nothing’, but at this point, even he couldn’t help but freak out. His eyes widened, he put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘This is not good. You should feel better by now, not worse. Are you going to the hospital?’. No dude, I’m going to the airport and getting the f*ck outta here. We parted ways and he went back to bed. I knew the taxi would pull up on the other side of the gate into the hostel, so I went to open it. It was locked. The wall surrounding the gate was one of those makeshift bullshit anti-trespasser row of pieces of jagged glass. I was stuck. Still very much unable to walk 10ft without getting out of breath, so what did I do?
I felt too bad about waking up the hostel guy again, so I found a small gap in the glass and – with my giant heavy suitcase in tow – scaled the wall. Feeling like Edmund Hillary scaling Everest, I perched on the top and dropped my bags over the other side just as the taxi arrived. Then I made the mistake of not lowering myself down, but instead just casually jumping down. Something had seemingly gone very wrong with my nervous system in my time here, so I hit the ground only for my knees to give way and I crumpled into a heap in the path of the oncoming taxi. My reaction times were so shit that I couldn’t actually stop my face from hitting the ground. This part of the world is an exceptionally dry desert, so as I impacted the ground, a giant plume of dust kicked up like an atomic mushroom cloud and floated off over the town. Through the headlight-lit dust, the taxi driver came running towards me and helped me up, and with two hands around my shoulders he walked me – looking like a terrorist attack survivor – toward his car, bits of rock and dust falling off my face and clothing as I continued to breathe like a fat person was sat on me. He piled my stuff into the taxi and sped off down to the airport. After the slowest security procedure and some of the most unfriendly staff I’ve ever experienced, I got on the plane and it pressurised. Holy shit I could actually feel the pressure in my head and lungs dissipate in a matter of seconds. Suddenly I could see and breathe normally. I grabbed a coffee, relaxed and headed back to Delhi.
I love mountains. I always have done. I love the Alps, the Andes and everything in between. So I had been buzzing about seeing the Himalayas, and throughout this whole ordeal there were gigantic mountains and some of the most dramatic scenery I’ve ever seen, and I just did not give a shit. That’s how bad the whole ordeal was.
So now I’m in Delhi, the shittest city on Earth. But lo! It’s still in the throes of a giant heatwave, so going outside is not really an option, and also I’m waiting for my round the world flight guy back in London to sort me out with a ticket out of here, so I can’t leave Delhi in case one comes through. If he doesn’t manage to find a free seat, I’m stuck here until the 28th. And in all honesty I’d rather shoot myself in the foot.