(Yeah, I can’t quite believe I just wrote that either)
Gorakhpur was just as horrific as I was expecting it to be, the first 5 hotels I went into were either full or had rooms available with private toilets but no showers. Who stays in a hotel and doesn’t wash? Don’t answer that. I ended up staying in a hotel with filthy sheets (when I asked for clean ones the only difference in the ones they brought me was that the stains were in a slightly different position) and a leaking bathroom. The first room I checked into had the switches stuck together so when I turned the light off, the fan went off too. When I asked to be moved to a different room I got one where the windows didn’t shut. I then spent a wonderful night shoving my earplugs so far into my head that I now have brain patterns moulded onto them – the TV in the lobby was blasting on full volume all night. When I eventually couldn’t take it any longer I went to reception to find the only staff member sleeping through it. Couldn’t find the remote so I ripped the plug out of the wall. And electrocuted myself.
Next morning was not much better – there was no reserved seating left when I bought my train ticket so I had to go for cattle class and spent all morning squished onto a 3 person seat with 5 people. The train was late, of course, and just before pulling into the station I had the pleasant experience of having to wait with my window right next to a pile of burning rubbish, one of my very favourites of the interesting and varied scents of India. Needless to say I was not in the best of moods when I eventually arrived in Lucknow. I’d picked out a guesthouse I wanted to stay in in my guidebook (I was going on hope here since I couldn’t call them to make a reservation, I don’t have an Indian sim card and besides, my phone fell foul of the leaky bathroom the night before and I woke up to find it in a puddle), and as it didn’t look too far on the map I decided to try and walk. Well…Lonely Planet maps are not exactly wonderful. There’s also a delightful little piece of Indian culture whereby if someone doesn’t know the answer to a question they will guess to try and be ‘helpful’ rather than admit they don’t know. I spent about 40 minutes walking up and down completely the wrong deserted road before I was prepared to beg the nearest taxi driver to drive me there for whatever ridiculous price he could name. And then I heard ‘excuse me, I’ve seen you pass me twice, are you lost?’ A guy on a motorbike had spotted my plight, helped me figure out where I was on the stupid map (hint: I’d long gone off the edge), flagged down a rickshaw and negotiated a price for me. He didn’t want money, he didn’t want my number, he just wanted to help someone who was lost. Finally, I have reached civilisation.
I eventually arrived at the Lucknow Homestay to find that not only did they have a room available, for the first time since leaving the group I have arrived after a long sweaty travel day to find that I am dirtier than the beds and not the other way around. At last! I don’t have my own bathroom, but the shared one is all of 10 steps away and I haven’t had to wait for it the whole time I’ve been here, so I’m fine with that. And there’s free breakfast too! (I had free laundry as well, but I’m not sure if that was intentional or if the owner forgot to add it to my bill). I am*, as far as I can tell, the only tourist staying here – the other guests I have met are long term tenants from America doing a semester abroad studying varied impressive things like Hindi, Indian colonial literature and how to play the sitar. Being impoverished students they weren’t really up for sightseeing so I was still on my own for that, but I joined them for dinner and wine on the hotel roof with some more students from the same college and a local guy who was friends with them through the exchange program (Ali, who gave me a lift the next night for the extortionate cost of one milkshake), so we had a great time chattering away all night about India, and how awesome their college course sounds, and how incredibly brave I am travelling on my own (yep, I’ve started to get that again, though it doesn’t scare me as much now that I’m actually doing it!)
Historically, one of the things Lucknow is known for is the 1857 Siege of Lucknow, where the British were attacked in the Residency buildings for 147 days during the First War of Independance, during which over 2000 people were killed. The Residency is now preserved as a museum, still showing all the cannon and bullet holes all over the buildings. Weirdly, this also seems to be the number one place to bring a date in Lucknow. I swear every 5 steps I took I was interrupting another young Indian couple canoodling. Clearly bloody siege warfare brings out the romance in some people.
On my second day here I took the Lucknow Heritage Walking tour, which I really recommend – it has gone up a fair amount since the Lonely Planet reviewed it, pretty sure 10 rupees was just an introductory price as its now 150, but it’s still massively worth it. As I visited in the off season I was the only person on the tour so I got my own personal walking tour around the Chowk (the old part of town where all the artisans are still working) and a motorbike tour of some of Lucknow’s many many palaces and important monuments (yes mother, I have ridden pillion on a motorbike in Asia. Without a helmet. I…can’t say I was overly confident, but I am still alive – yay!)
Breakfast stop on the tour for jalebi and curd. I’ve had jalebi (deep fried sugary…squiggles coated in syrup) before but serving them with curd is a Lucknow thing. It works very well!
Posing by one of the old doorways in Chowk – if you look closely at the top you can see birds perched above my head. They aren’t real birds, they’re carved out of the wall. This doorway is also dedicated to Shiva, which you can tell by the 3 candle niches representing his 3 eyes.
My guide Shashank enjoying a hot cup of chai – he struggled to understand that I don’t drink caffeine so I had to have some to make him happy. I regretted that later.
Heating sheets of silver to hammer it thin enough to use as edible silver foil for local sweets
Creating sari fabric
Traditional chikan embroidery (on a scarf I think? Though they do it on every available piece of fabric) – a speciality of Lucknow.
Creepy melty face statue from the local art school. Apparently this school is built on a site where people used to be hanged, so maybe all the students are a little deranged by that thought.
One of Lucknow’s stupidly large number of palaces. I asked how many there were, expecting maybe 10-15. There are NINETY FOUR. Mind you, I think I may have a different definition of palaces to my guide. I expect them to have been lived in by royalty at some point, but this one was solely used for army parades. Given that parades tend to be an outside thing I’m pretty sure this building is just a big changing room
The other thing Lucknow is known for (and lets face it, since I was picking a destination on my way south almost at random, this was the deciding factor for me) is its food, in particular the kebabs. Kakori (grilled) and Gulawati (shallow fried) kebabs are tenderised with papaya, to the extent that it’s basically like eating a blob of spicy meat paste. They were, according to legend, invented for an old toothless king who was presumably tired of getting his servants to pre-chew his food for him. They taste pretty good actually, but I never quite got over the fact that the bread took more chewing than the meat, that just seems wrong to me
I’d happily have spent more time in Lucknow, but now that I’m reassured that going back into India wasn’t an insane idea I have a lot more ahead of me! Next up pornographic statues! But World Heritage porn, so it’s ok.
*It has occured to me that I keep changing tenses. I would apologise for that, but I’m writing this at one in the morning, so I really don’t care. Besides, my English teacher always told me I was a failure.