After bathing in the waters where Gandi's ashes were scattered, we rode camels into the desert where the moon rose over the mountains that cloak the hazy lake. This is no ordinary moon. Appearing just once every six years, this is the Blue Moon that Lorenz Hart swooned over and now light a path of pilgrims. And this is no ordinary lake. Formed when a lotus blossom fell from the sky it's a place Hindu's should visit at least once in their lifetimes to bathe in one of the 55 ghats that hum along the water's edge.
I'm in Pushkar, where the priests outnumber the cows and booze is strictly on the hush, hush. You can get beer but it's served discretely in a tea pot. You sip waiting for Elliot Ness to show up. On the other hand, a plate full of "magic" cookies will cost you less than a Mars Bar. Not that you need drugs to intensify the noise, the smells, the flavours and the colours. There's a real spiritual energy here but it's just a warm up for the equally revered burning ghat in Varnasi.
Hindis from all over India come here to be cremated and access to tourists is, quite rightly, very limited. We were lucky. It was night time. There was a power cut and the only thing lighting our way was the orange glow of fifteen tightly packed funeral pyres. We stood inches away, heat searing into our faces, and watched new pyres lit with a flame that’s said to have been burning for 3000 years. A young boy threw an earthen pot (a matka) on his father's body to signify his break with this world as we looked on in silent, respectful observance.
Not all bodies are cremated like this. Holy men, pregnant women, victims of leprosy or a snake bite are just some of those simply laid to rest in the Ganges. Despite the thousands of turtles released in to the river ever year to help consume the remains, decomposing bodies are a familiar sight. Still, along with locals we did take a dip, that is until a young boy emptied three rat traps in the water right next to us. That was enough spiritual cleansing for one day.
Priests in handsome orange robes pepper the streets. Some pray for tourists, others prey on them. If you look like you might have money to spare, someone will be happy to relieve you of it, even if it is under the guise of a puja in the holy waters.
I did meet at least one sincere holy man who told me that though his body is weak is mind is strong. He wakes at 3 am everyday to "open himself to God" with two hours of meditation. The rest of the day is spent talking to people, listening to the BBC World Service and reading. "Without books," he told me, "there is no life”.
India is as vast as it is diverse. In just four weeks I've meditated on the spot where Buddha gave his first sermon, watched the sun rise over the snow capped Himalayas, picked tea in Darjeeling and sipped cocktails in the shadow of the Taj Mahal. The sights and vistas are only half the story - it's the people who make travel truly worthwhile. There aren't many places in the world where a farmer would invite two strangers into his home simply for friendship and conversation.
Meeting the locals is one thing but there are times you'd rather not come face to face with another traveler (tourists with a backpack and tie-dye pants like to call themselves 'travelers'). That's when you realise you're not so intrepid after all. 1000s have come before you and more will follow into the arms of smiling shopkeepers and hungry opportunists.
If you do want some easy company over a few beers, just head to wherever the Lonely Planet tells every other backpacker. Once you get past the usual icebreakers (How long have you been here? Where have you been? Where are you going next?), it's surprising who you can meet. In my case, a French photographer who is riding his way across India on an old Triumph, an American sculptress who built her home here, and a Bollywood actress showing her Chilean boyfriend what makes India special. We spent a fun morning with a group of five Bangladeshi lads watching the sunrise over Kangchenjunga the world's third highest mountain. They were all in rag trade and told me a shirt that costs them £6 to make sells in a well known High Street store for £35. All the more reason to wait for the sales.
Almost everyone is selling something. Boat rides, hash, train tickets, tea, toilet paper. Catch their eye and you’re in trouble. If I was in a buying mood they'd smile and call me "muscle man" otherwise it was "old man". Still, if you like a bargain forget New York and Dubai, Delhi is the world's real shopping capital. It was there I realised that for the price of a medium Chai Tea latte in Starbucks I could get one hundred and fifty small cups of Masala Chai. One hundred and fifty. And it tastes much better when you can see them throwing handfuls of cardamon, cinnamon and cloves in to a huge pan of boiling milk.
It's amazing how far our pounds and dollars can stretch. A car with driver for a day sight-sighting - £10.50, decent double room in a tourist hotspot - £3.50, a ten hour bus ride with private lay-flat sleeping compartment - £4.10, a Colgate toothbrush - 12p. So the question is, how did I get roped in to spending £100 on a duvet cover and four cushions? For that money I could have had board and lodge for a month or five thousand cups of chai. The answer? After three hours looking at soft furnishings in Jaipur's Women's Cooperative Shop you'll do anything to see the light of day.
We saw no sights on our first day in Jaipur - only bars, restaurants and shops. One our second day we asked a local take us to a traditional Rajastani puppet show. He actually took us to his friend's puppet shop. Five hours we spent in that tiny room. We drank, smoked, played the drums and finally, somehow ended up buying everyone dinner.
We let someone else take us to an Indian palmist. "The real thing" we were promised. “Hold this crystal,” he said, then told me I am bad at making decisions (I am not) and I have occasional lower back pain (who doesn't?). The solution was a special stone pendent (starting price £50) to "balance my chakras". As luck would have it he happened to make such stone pendants on the premises. Sensing my doubts he warned that bad things may happen if I did't buy his stone, and “By the way, we do accept all major credit cards.” I said, “Maybe another time,” leaving my chakras more skewed than ever.
When it comes to hotels in India, I have learned is that better usually means worse. Money can buy a marble fountain centre piece and room service but it can't buy good energy and a staff that really cares about what they do. You can keep your worldwide loyalty schemes, I'd rather pay less and share a beer with the guy who owns the place. Doctor Alone, for example, whose ambition is to become world famous by getting arrested smoking a huge joint on top of the Eiffel Tower. I asked him how much he wanted for a room. "It depends. You want to see me wear silver or gold? It's up to you."
One friendly hotel we found did promise three resident rabbits for guests to play with. I found no rabbits only gangs of vicious monkeys prowling the roof terrace. I asked the owner, jokingly, if the monkeys ate the rabbits. "No," he said, "it was the cat."
We did splash out on afternoon tea at an old colonial hotel in the hill station town of Darjeeling. A depressing affair. The home-made cake, served in a room resembling an aged aunt's front parlour, tasted of toilets and the service was a shoddy as the chintzy old three piece. The tea was alright.
I often I saw glimpses of old England in the most unlikely places. Water pumps on the streets of Delhi, shepherds herding their flocks along a dirt roads, and the slate tiled roofs of old wooden houses where families sleep with cattle and the hayloft cossets food for winter. Constable would have been priming his brushes. I think Dickens too would have felt quite at home walking through the clogged, chaotic streets overwhelmed with noise, cattle and shit. Though the elephants might have surprised him.
Two hundred years before to Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was adding the finishing touches to the Taj Mahal. A mausoleum, built in memory of his third wife, it's considered the jewel of Muslim art. It didn't disappoint. It's equally breathtaking at sunrise and sunset. Beautifully proportioned glittering white marble. One of the few world famous sites that actually looks better the closer you get.
Not everyone I met thought so. A few days before, a Croatian girl told me how she'd just visited the Taj and "it wasn't all that". What was she expecting? Tap dancing elephants? A camel trapeze? And don't let anyone put you off Agra. There's plenty to see. The fort and Itmad-Ud-Daulah's Tomb (the Baby Taj) are just two of the highlights.
Here’s a tip for anyone who's white and likes smiling. Find a busy place to sit at any major Indian tourist attraction, smile at anyone staring at you and wait. Within a few minutes someone will ask to have their photo taken with you. Soon a small crowd will gather waiting for a turn. You can sit there for hours posing for pictures like this. I did. I assumed Location Location Location was a hit in India and they all thought I was Phil Spence (that happens), but no. Just as we find exotic ladies in glittering saris irresistibly photogenic, it seems they find a white bloke in a Marks and Spencer's T-shirt equally full of mystical allure.
Between the street food, fresh water mountain pools and snake charmers India never fails to astonish. Someone home seems a little too calm, too orderly, or maybe it's just me. Maybe my chakras are trying to tell me something after all.