Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Capital City (Lucknow)

As bad luck would have it, in the form of prolonged frustration at Allahabad Junction (train station) - I found myself bound for the city of Lucknow. For some foolish reason, I decided to tackle the train system alone and without the help of a travel agent. I arrived at the station early, primed and in attack mode. I waited in several different lines, for varying lengths of time, only to be told to wait in a different area at the end of each queue. The local soundtrack was grotesque, a never ending battle between hacks and splutters. Spitting is a serious sport here, with pools of red phlegm (betel induced) dotting the ground, forcing me to watch where I walk and remain balanced at all times.

The weather is hot, the room is crowded, the sounds are repulsive and my patience is waning. Fed up, and not wanting to fly off the handle, I opt to share my dismay with some of the staff members before finding the bus station. The bus system in India is far simpler, as you just ask the driver standing outside the bus where he's heading. That's it. If you like the sounds of it, jump on, if not - look elsewhere. I decide that as Lucknow is between Allahabad and Agra, I don't have to backtrack or detour on my way to see the Taj Mahal. Knowing only the geographical location of Lucknow, I set off and hope for the best.

Lucknow is the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with over 190 million people, it is on par with Brazil in terms of population but closer to the UK in terms of size. As you might expect, things get a little hectic. Like the majority of the state, the capital city is invariably clogged with not just vehicular traffic, but rickshaws, free-roaming livestock and people. Patience is more than just a virtue here, it's something you need wherever you go.

Lucknow sees few western faces, so expect the usual 'point and stare' that is common throughout India to increase ten-fold. It is not a particularly attractive city, and is rather spread out without a city centre to speak of. Impressive architecture can be found though without too much effort, as the city is dotted with impressive remnants of the Mughal empire. Their cuisine has stuck around too, with an abundance of kebab shops found in every corner of town.

The Residency, is famous in Indian history and home to the infamous 'Lucknow Siege.'  The siege took place for over six months, from May 1857 - November 1857 with 2,500 fatalities. What remains of the complex today is overgrown with lush greenery, and a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle that waits impatiently beyond the gates. It is famous for being a hideout in history, and little has changed 153 years later. It is particularly popular with young lovers hoping to escape prying eyes, as well as youngsters playing sport. Stick around long enough, and chances are you'll be asked to join in.

Also worth seeing while in town are the elaborate mausoleums of the Muslim holy men from the 18th century. Bara Imambara is home to the world's largest un-vaulted chamber at 50m long and 15m high. Immaculate gardens and reflection pools make up the foreground, while vendors can provide you with a printed guide at the gates. Hussainabad Imambara is an underdog of sorts, but houses a replica of the Taj Mahal. The graves of both mother and wife of the nawab, Hussainabad, are in the main mausoleum while the mini-taj contains the grave of his daughter.

Nightlife is limited to some truly seedy bars, the kind where cockroaches congregate, mosquitoes muster and grunge gathers - thickly. Glasses contain caked-in dirt, determined to stick around no matter how long the dirty rag perseveres. This might all sound bad, but the staff are beyond friendly and almost always dressed formally - the bow-tie seems almost mandatory!

It is unlike any capital city I've ever seen. Nothing looks planned and venturing down almost any street or alleyway guarantees a surprise. A little Hindi will work wonders, particularly in terms of transport, as few locals speak English. Don't be persuaded to visit any tailor's shop or cotton vendor against your will. Attempting to gain a commission, my rickshaw wallah tried to up-sell the shop by telling me 'there is no cover charge.' Where else but a nightclub can charge you before even buying their products? I wonder if that line ever worked on anyone else.

Things got ugly with this particular hustler. His disappointment was clear when I told him I wouldn't check out his 'Uncle's tailor shop,' so he decided to take me there anyway. Frustrated, I refused to leave the rickshaw and reminded him of my hotel's firm 12pm checkout time. He nodded his head in agreement, but as I remembered that head wobbling means yes, what would nodding mean? I found out, as he took me to yet another cotton vendor and by that point in time, I'd had enough. I called him a vulture in Hindi (Gid) and told him to 'piss off' in both languages.

Mini Taj Mahal
I'd had enough of this bullshit or 'white face parade,' that is alarmingly common on the subcontinent. Crossing a street can be difficult, as there is always someone who'll appear out of nowhere and try to take you on a detour. I nearly traded fists with this parasite, as I was boarding another cycle-rickshaw and he was grabbing at my bags and ankles. I kicked him firmly in the hand, and raised my fist to his face as a warning only. The locals who had surrounded me by this point were cheering me on, and offering to call the police on my behalf. I reason that this guy was only trying to make a living, and probably not worth spending time in an Indian jail cell over. He also reminded me that in India, as in everywhere, there is balance. While this guy may have been a scumbag thinking only green, I shouldn't forget the good and gracious people I meet along the way. Like the cycle-rickshaw wallah in Allahabad, with a severed foot and only one arm. He laughed off both disabilities, and charged me the local price - it just wasn't in his nature to rip people off.

I also feel that an assault charge will change a person, and not always for the best =P

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